Language Games of Assam: The Mainstream vs the Margins

Recently, in a piece written in an Assam local daily, Dr. Hiren Gohain expressed his concerns on "Miyah poetry", a body of work produced by the Bengali Muslims of Assam, who are very often derogatorily referred to as "Miyahs" in their own distinctive dialects.

Thereafter, some of us enunciated our discomfort at his evidently majoritarian and culturally dogmatic narrative that refuses to give the Miyahs—who settled in the riverine islands of the Brahmaputra in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—their natural right to practice, perform and live their unique culture on their own terms. To us, the hegemonic preachings of Dr. Gohain seemed to belie his established credentials as a prominent left-liberal intellectual who in the past has always stood up against Assamese chauvinism.

Yet, if one looks back at his recent intellectual repertoire, not beyond this decade itself, the creeping cultural majoritarianism in his socio-political imagination becomes conspicuous. In this regard, a debate that unfolded six years ago between Dr. Gohain and noted Assamese litterateur, Dr. Kamal Kumar Tanti, on the use of adivasi dialects and the question of land rights, makes his recent criticism of Miyah poetry look less surprising.

The Adivasi language debate

On 13 May 2013, Dr. Tanti wrote an article titled “Asomor Adivasi Rajnitir Dik-nirnoy” (Determining the Trajectory of Adivasi Politics of Assam) in Asomiya Pratidin, a leading Assamese daily.  In the article, he emphasised on two key aspects of adivasi politics, which could turn it into a mass-movement.

First, he argued for the development of a land-rights movement for the tribal people in Assam under the leadership of tea-tribes, given that the latter is the most exploited class within the Assamese society. Dr. Tanti argued that parallel to all the democratic movements in Assam over land and resources, a united, democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movement, which focuses on the interests of the exploited masses, should be developed.

Second, he wrote that languages and dialects spoken by the tea-tribe communities of Assam are facing the threat of extinction because of a lack of recognition from the government as well as the larger Assamese society. A similar threat is faced by tribal languages across India. According to him, parallel to Assamese language, measures need to be taken for the preservation, practice and study of tribal and tea-tribe languages and dialects, including a move towards institutionalisation and official recognition of these languages.

Dr. Tanti proposed four measures in this regard. He suggested that “along with Assamese and other tribal languages, Sadri language (the lingua-franca of Assam's tea-tribe communities) should also be implemented as a medium of instruction in the schools in tea-garden areas and in areas with tribal concentration." He also suggested that “dialects should be promoted by including them in the syllabus and curricula of lower and higher educational institutions in Assam."

On 15 May, 2013, in response to this article, Dr. Hiren Gohain wrote an article titled "An Opinion on Tribal Politics". Here, it is to be noted that Dr. Tanti's article was published in two parts and the second part came out on the day Gohain's response was published. In a sharply-worded rejoinder published on 29 July 2013, Dr. Tanti then expressed his surprise over the fact that Dr. Gohain’s response was published even before his article was fully published, suggesting that he might not have read the entire piece before responding.

Responding to the issue of exploitation of tea-garden labourers in Assam that Dr. Tanti had flagged, Dr. Gohain wrote: "No one can claim that the tea-garden labourers were the most dear ones of Assamese Hindu society." His distinction between Assamese society and Assamese Hindu society is interesting, largely because Dr. Tanti did not make any such distinctions in his article.

Dr. Gohain further wrote: "However, it will be an obstruction of truth if it is said that the exploitation and insult received by tea-tribe communities is at the same level of structured discrimination and exploitation faced by the indigenous communities of Assam in the hands of castetist Assamese Hindu society." Here, Gohain makes a critical distinction between the indigenous and the tea-tribe communities.

By doing so, he only perpetuates the cultural, social and political marginalisation of the tea-tribe community that was forcibly plucked out of their ancient lands by the British colonial government and sent to Assam as cheap work force at least a century before this piece was published. Dr. Gohain also crafts a certain type of hierarchical victimisation where he flags the indigenous communities as the “most exploited” and makes the adivasi an “other” to the indigenous.

On the question of language, Gohain stated that Sadri is a language that emerged outside of Assam and attempts are being made to use it as a lingua-franca among tea-tribes. Regarding the use of Sadri language in schools, he said that "in many places of upper Assam where tea gardens are located, the tea garden labourers can understand and speak Assamese language beautifully. Therefore, their children would not face any difficulty if Assamese is used as a medium of instruction."

Besides the fact that such an “Assamese or nothing” position from the most revered intellectual of Assam reflects clear chauvinistic tendencies, Dr. Gohain’s point on the Sadri language also lacked historical authenticity. In his response, Dr. Tanti argues that the belief that Sadri language was imported from outside Assam is completely baseless, as shown in the findings of the doctoral research by Dr. Lucky Dey of Tezpur University. In her thesis, Dr. Dey had shown that Sadri is not a recent phenomenon; rather, it originally came with the labourers who were brought to Assam from the Chotanagpur Plateau of Central India by the British in the 19th century and thereafter, changed its form under the influence of Assamese and Bengali over the subsequent decades.

Adivasis and Miyahs on the same boat

Gohain’s belief that Sadri is an “imported” language is congruent to his recent argument that the Miyah dialects are “artificial”. What is also remarkably similar between Gohain’s critique of adivasi and Miyah linguistic assertions is the spontaneous reference to certain external entities with vested interests.

According to Gohain, linguistic assertions that are seemingly distinct from the mainstream Assamese socio-cultural fold—such as adivasi and Miyah—could empower these external forces and further their agenda of dividing the people of Assam. In case of Miyah poetry, Gohain gives the example of the BJP-RSS clique to make this argument, while in the adivasi case, he points fingers at the “central government” as the vested party aiming to divide Assam. Apparently, this should be reason enough for minority groups to shun their own language—an argument that is, at best, conspiratorial and at worst, shrewd.

It is also interesting how Gohain not-so-subtly distinguishes the adivasis and the Miyahs from the so-called Assamese mainstream in his writings. For instance, in his first response to Dr. Tanti’s piece, Gohain refers to the author as a “talented and prominent young member of Assam’s tea-tribe community”. Dr. Tanti, in his first rejoinder, flags this subtle demarcation as “tragic”, expressing remorse over the fact that Gohain could not accept him as an “Assamese” despite his educational and literary background in the Assamese language.

A similar tone suggestive of a "mainstream versus fringe" imagination is explicit in the manner in which Gohain talks about the Miyahs of Assam. Sample this excerpt from his recent piece, written in response to our article on his earlier criticism of Miyah poetry:

“Left undisturbed, they [the Miyahs] have lived in many places in peace and amity with the Assamese in the countryside. Some have gained recognition as poets, essayists and story writers.”

It is clear that Gohain firmly represents and stands for the Assamese-speaking social elite that constitutes the state’s power-holding middle class and sets the dominant political discourse (including on the NRC). This group, for him, represents the nucleus of Assamese society around which other smaller groups revolve and derive their legitimacy from, much like planets revolving around the sun, each frantically searching for glory in its bountiful brightness. Only if a planet maintains a sweet and safe distance from the glaring sun, can it thrive. Otherwise, it is doomed to perish.

Language as a life-world

Dr. Gohain’s refusal to accept this linguistic plurality and imposing Assamese is at the core of Assamese nationalism. His views mirror the sweet spots which light up the narrow and chauvinistic character of Assamese Nationalism and their promotion of Assamese language pushed through literary bodies such as Assam Sahitya Sabha and students’ unions such as the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). Their denial ignores the gift of language and its potentials.  

Native or ordinary languages are not invented, unlike the constructed language of mathematics and physics. One is born into a linguistic world, to a family and society. Professor Mrinal Miri writes that language “lights up our world” by making us aware of its diversities and complexities. Ordinary languages are of a variety and takes different forms. Gestures, myths, emotions and poetry are all different kinds of languages that go beyond conversational language.

Professor Miri in his essay “One Language and Many Languages” notes that it is through language that one enters in the moral, ethical and emotional world of cultures. And having grown up in the Northeast or in any plural society, we grow up understanding and speaking many tongues. In each of the languages we come across, the moral, ethical and emotional worlds are different. Each of them has its share of “minute particularities, subtle unities, its surprises and magnificence.”

As we move ahead, languages, like technology, also undergo change. It gets webbed in intricate relationships and these new hues only enrich a language. There is something more important to language.  It enables us to “understand” that which is at the core of the idea of language, notes Prof. Miri, as opposed to “explanations” that a constructed language has to offer. He further notes that linguistic diversity is the essence of human diversity. It is the most “magical” fact of humanity and we ought to preserve and nurture the plurality of cultures with great care.

The use of mother-tongue in schools can make a lot of difference and there are multiple studies which show this fact. It is through a child’s mother tongue that one enters in to the “human world of a community”. It is through the mother tongue that one develops a sense of identity and belonging. If a child’s mother tongue is completely cut off there ought to be a sense of disconnect. It can be a battleground for the child to go to a school where they are speaking a different language. It impacts their will and confidence. This is one of the aspects that Kamal Kumar Tanti was trying to highlight in terms of adivasi students and texts used in the schools of Assam.

In other words, the knee-jerk reaction of Dr. Gohain and whoever refuses to give place to other languages are, in fact, refusing to participate in the moral, ethical and emotional life of the Miyah and adivasi community. It is at the same time eroding and denying the magical aspect of humanity—its multilingualism. It is also denying a cultural world for many. Their views are contrary to Bishnuprasad Rabha’s plural understanding of Assamese and its cultural debt that it owes to numerous languages and cultures. The “pulse of Assamese culture” lies in its plurality and sharing of the different cultural repertoire. It gets reflected in the celebration of this multilingualism and not in a linguistic despotism of Assamese.

Read more:
I Am ‘Miya’ — Reclaiming Identity Through Protest Poetry
Write Down ‘I am a Miyah’: An FIR against Poetry?​

Parag Jyoti Saikia is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Angshuman Choudhury is Senior Researcher, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.
Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore.