‘Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation’. Angela Carter
As the Darjeeling hills burn once again, one can see a discernible pattern—familiar to many in the region who have witnessed decades of conflict over the question of language, especially surrounding the issue of one’s right to pursue one’s mother tongue. The recent ‘nude protest’ by Karbi youth groups in the hill districts of Assam against the Assam government’s proposal of making Assamese language compulsory at the school level, or the Manipur government’s attempt to make Manipuri a compulsory subject for state civil services which was later struck down by the judiciary, or the recent announcement by the education minister of Assam to make English medium education an essential eligibility criteria for teachers applying for certain school level teaching positions , all take on a particular significance in the context of the region. Those observing the region also know that the issue of language is a crucial tool in the built up of the larger identity matrix in the region. As identities often overlap and even counterpoise against each other in this extremely diverse region, what then does the fight to practice one’s mother tongue signify?
The situation in the Northeast offers an interesting case for the analysis of political and social aspects of language planning and promotion embedded in the wider context of assertion and reconstruction of identities.
The Context: Identity, Resources, Power
Languages historically have been both a resource as well as an identity for people and communities. The Mexican American Linguist Richard Ruiz, recognised internationally for his research and scholarship in language planning and policy development, developed the framework of language as a problem, as a right, and as a resource, to examine the effectiveness of language learning policies. Presently, in India, according to the National University for Education Planning and Administration, most Indians prefer to enroll their children in English medium schools which is why they have the fastest growing rate of enrolment. The predominance of English in India is linked in part to the colonial and postcolonial legacies that favour global languages which subsequently lead to the undervaluing and underdevelopment of indigenous languages. In the context of globalization, widespread proficiency in English is regarded as a key indicator for expected economic development, thus in India there is greater emphasis on English Language Teaching (ELT).
However, it is important to understand that the decision on the medium of instruction is more than an educational or pedagogical one. There are social, political, and economic considerations to be made and such a decision may have profound political and economic consequences. Like other identity resources, the question of language too is built on a discourse of relative deprivation which essentially means that the same language at times perceived to be at an disadvantageous position viz a viz others, can also assume a hegemonic and homogenising stance over other languages within the same region at other times.
In the context of controversy of the state language status of Assamese in the 1960s, then Home minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (‘Shahstri formula’) had called for (i) provisions to give local bodies the authority to alter the official language of their area by a two-third majority and (ii) provisions to incorporate stronger provisions for the protection of linguistic communities. It is worth re-examining in today’s context of competing linguistic claims. The three-language formula adopted by the Indian government officially in 1968 to redress the allegations of Hindi hegemony and imposition was considered a landmark in this regard too. The National Curriculum Framework 2005, which lays down broad guidelines for teaching and learning, sums it up: ‘A renewed effort should be made to implement the three-language formula, emphasizing recognition of children’s home language(s) or mother tongue(s) as the best medium of instruction. These include tribal languages’. The three-language formula adopted by the Indian government helps in fostering bilingualism and multilingualism, traits that improve ‘cognitive growth, social tolerance, divergent thinking and scholastic achievement’, the report says. UNESCO too takes a position in support of multilingual education when it adopted a resolution in 1999 by saying that the ‘specific needs of particular, culturally and linguistically distinct communities can only be addressed by multilingual education’. In another paper on the issue in 2003, UNESCO emphasized, ‘questions of identity, nationhood and power are closely linked to the use of specific languages in the classroom’.
Multilingualism as the Essence of ‘National Imagination’
The aggressive push for ‘state’ languages have to be understood in the context of the centre vs. state debate, where the issue of right to medium of instruction has become a matter of regional pride and a site of resistance to the increasingly centralizing union government that has been pushing for wider implementation of Hindi as a ‘national language.’ A national government promoting a single language in a multi language country is indeed against the spirit of multiculturalism and a multilingual, federal polity. However, let us not forget that despite the rounds of state re-organisation on linguistic lines, the states in India remain linguistically diverse and multicultural, non-homogenous political entities. One has to remember that there are regions within regions in India and the projects of nationality formations are far from complete. In India’s context, it is crucial to emphasize that the existing multi-lingual pedagogic system is one of the celebrated aspects of the Indian political system which makes it truly federal unlike other models like the United States of America. This linguistic diversity is an essence of the Indian republic as well as Indian ethos that needs to be handled with care and in fact celebrated.