Land, Language And Religion

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By Ananya S Guha

Sunanda K Datta Ray the veteran journalist writing in The Telegraph Kolkata has anatomized the violence in Assam as attributed to three factors: land, language and culture. While economic causes are primary, language and culture I think are peripheral.

To the common man or woman language and culture matter little, it is the economic possession valued not so much in terms of money, but assets in the form of land which is a bone of contention for the poor, who has to live on a day to day basis, and perhaps fortuitously. While culture did predominate in the larger Assamese ethos in the struggle against `Foreign Nationals` this same feeling rebounded, because the smaller tribal communities also reacted against a pan Assamese culture by speaking against linguistic domination or subservience, the very same communities who hitherto considered themselves to be Assamese.

The formation of the Bodoland Tribal Council and the Bodoland Tribal Autonomous Districts (BTAD) were a step towards autonomy, but at what cost? Soon fissures erupted, against the Assamese, the Adivasis, the Bengali Hindu and the Bengali Muslim, in different phases dating back to the early nineties.

Assam as Ray has rightly pointed out is a microcosmic India and this we must protect. Its inhabitants tribal or not are very much a part of larger traditions and cultures. The Assamese language is spoken in pidgin form in Nagaland, as lingua franca and even in Arunachal Pradesh. But Ray is right in a way; cultural assimilation perhaps is a solution to the problem. In parts of Assam the average person immigrant or otherwise can speak Assamese fluently. But in the BTAD areas it is doubtful whether such assimilation has taken place.

Mind you not all Bodos are Hindus; there are Christians as well, so the analysis of a sharp Hindu Muslim divide is a bit facile as well. The ethno religious stance is now taken for granted. I am not sure, student leaders and social workers have pointed out that these communities have been living in harmony and contiguity for years. So the reason can then be `political` or some political agencies out to create disruption in a semblance of order.

Autonomy is power, if that power is not willing to be shared among all sections of the society, then there can be subversion of order. When the Bodos wanted autonomy, they were in actuality clamouring for rights associated with language and economy.

The word culture is too broad and obfuscating for the commoner. But it so turned out that in these areas there were other linguistic and religious communities as well. Such heterogeneity marks other parts of Assam as well; which is integral to a larger Assamese matrix and culture which makes this part of India so beautiful, with rumbustious songs and dances, the inimitable Bihu festival, the folk songs of Goalpara language which incidentally is an intermix of Assamese and Bengali, on the hinterland of the Bodo areas. Bodos, Adivasis have contributed to the Assamese language and literature in the form of creative writing such as poetry.

Culture is give and take, land, money and spoilage are not. Even as the tension abates in Assam, in the Bodo areas, it will take a long time for wounds to heal, and the refugee camps to be dismantled till homes and hearths are re established once again. This same context is true for the rest of India, microcosmic and macrocosmic cultures intermingle and also there is collision. One is of course the larger Hindu Muslim animosity, and anti `others` as in Maharashtra, culminating against Hindi speaking people who whether we like it or not, form the heartland of India.  

Even as I write these I can only feel sad, but writing is catharsis. Now, thanks to ‘Telengana’ there have been separatist demands for state formation by the Bodos and the Karbis. This has spilled over to other parts of the country such as West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. Even our own state Meghalaya is feeling the pangs. The writing on the wall is quite clear: a different language necessitates a separate state. Whether, this is legitimate or not is a matter of polemics. After all, states in India were carved out initially largely on a linguistic basis. So, if we push this logic to its end then there is no end! Language is related to a particular culture, maybe even religion, the arts, music and literature. Whenever, we talk about language these inevitably come up as strong cultural forces. Even the government encourages the literatures of small miniscule communities of the country through bodies like Sahitya Academy and the Lalit Kala Academy. Language and its diversities are a hallmark of the country. There is hardly any other country in the world which boasts of such diversity. To live in the midst of such linguistic and even religious diversity is a challenge. Only history will tell whether the people of India are ‘argumentative’ enough to withstand demands which sound legitimate on the one hand but go contrary to the spirit of diversity. Diversity in itself is a spirit to reckon with but so is language which is inherent to a person. History the great arbiter which does not always repeat itself as Romila Thapar argues will be the determinant here. In the meantime, forces which are discontent in the form of both political and a-political will continue to voice their grievances. If we make this into an ethnic syndrome then we are both right and wrong. We are right because language is related to ethnicity, we are wrong because it countervails to the spirit and best relations of diversity.

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