By Manoranjan Pegu
The Assam government recently decided to make Sanskrit compulsory up to Class VIII in all state run schools. The Assam Cabinet’s decision as expected has received sharp criticism from various student groups and political parties. The student groups have clearly highlighted that Sanskrit being introduced as an ‘optional subject’ would have been better. I believe that an arbitrary decision like this will prove to a big blow to the tribal languages in the state, considering its already ‘vulnerable’ status.
The UNESCO in its Atlas of World Languages in Danger (2011) highlighted that there are more than 187 languages in India which are under severe threat and are categorized in either of the following categories, Vulnerable, Endangered, Definitely Endangered, Severely Endangered or Critically Endangered. A regional analysis of the report clearly highlights that more than 39 languages under the Endangered list is in Northeast. Tribal Languages like Deori, Karbi and Mising (Miri) feature in the Definitely Endangered List while two languages (Tai Nora and Tai Rong)
feature in the Critically Endangered List. Even the Bodo language, which is included in the Eight schedule of the Indian Constitution is under the ‘Vulnerable’ list. Under UNESCO; “vulnerable” means ‘not spoken by children outside the home, “definitely endangered means ‘children not speaking the language anymore’, severely endangered means ‘only spoken by the oldest generations’, and “critically endangered” means ‘spoken by only a few members of the oldest generation, often semi-speakers’. So, the Assam government’s decision to make Sanskrit compulsory in schools, rather than making attempts to preserve the tribal languages which are almost at the brink of extinction is nothing but arbitrary.
Moreover, the mandatory nature of the decision also does not consider the 3-language formula for language learning which was introduced by the government of India in 1968. According to the formula, Hindi, English and a modern Indian Language will be studied in States. In the case of Assam, it has been Hindi, English and Assamese. With the introduction of Sanskrit as a compulsory subject, the students will be now forced to study four languages. Such a decision will put further pressure to the tribal students and accentuate the language loss among the tribal communities in Assam.
The tribal communities in Assam have been long struggling for the government to recognize their languages and make attempts to preserve them. The Bodos after a long struggle were able to include their language in the Eight Schedule of the constitution. Communities like Misings, Deoris and Karbis have been long fighting for introduction of their language as optional subject in the school curriculum in Assam. However, not much has progressed till yet. In such a scenario, the introduction of Sanskrit as compulsory subject completely ignores the ongoing popular struggles for language protection in Assam.
The Article 29 (1) of the Indian constitution clearly highlights that ‘Any section of the citizen residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same’. In addition, Article 350 (A) states that ‘the state shall provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary state of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups….!”. The Assam government rather than fulfilling this constitutional obligations, deciding to introduce Sanskrit as compulsory subject, is definitely not a happy news for the linguistic minority groups in the state. Most of the tribal languages are only on paper and even though some of them are taught, they are in a bad shape. For instance, the Assam govt. had agreed to introduce Mising as an optional subject at primary level in certain regions. However, with no books and teachers or funds, the language is not taught anywhere and students chose to opt for other subjects.
Languages are vehicles of our cultures, collective memory and values. They are an essential component of our identities, and a building block of our diversity and living heritage. Schooling, if not the primary, is definitely one the key reasons for loss of language. It comes just second to ‘not being spoken at home or community’. When not taught at schools, the students pick up other non-tribal languages such as English, Assamese and Hindi etc. as they are viewed as more ‘functional’ and ‘powerful’. These languages enable them to get degrees and their job. Moreover, articulation in these languages are given preference over learning its own indigenous language. Thus, it would have been better if the govt. of Assam would have rather focused its efforts on helping these communities preserve their language. Steps like making funds available for research, publications of books, recruiting and training teachers for indigenous languages would have gone a long way.
Manoranjan PeguManoranjan Pegu– The Author is an alumni of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and currently works with an International Organization as its South Asia Head. He is based in Delhi. Views expressed here are personal.