There will be a “protest” against Hindi imposition if the Centre presses forward with its proposal to make Hindi compulsory till Class 10 in Assam, warned All Assam Students’ Union president Dipanka Kumar Nath.

He was reacting to statements made by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who had presided over the Parliamentary Official Language Committee on April 7. Shah had said that Hindi, and not English, should be the link language between different linguistic communities.

He added that Hindi should be made compulsory till Class 10 in North Eastern states and that nine tribal communities in these states had already switched to the Devanagari script.

In Assam, many were up in arms. Samujjal Bhattacharya, advisor to the All Assam Students’ Union, tweeted that the proposal to make Hindi compulsory till Class 10 “threatens the future” of “indigenous languages” in the region.

Nath claimed that the proposal was driven by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s “political interest”. The party, he said, was trying to “impress” the Hindi belt of the northern states.

Assam’s BJP government is now in a bind. The party had come to power chanting the slogan of Assamese subnationalism – “jati, mati, bheti” (community, land, hearth).

But Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is believed to be close to the central leadership, is now trying to strike an uneasy balance. He said there was no central order yet to make Hindi compulsory till Class 10.

“Amit Shah said that children must know Hindi, and we also want them to know Hindi and English, but he has not said that one must give up learning Assamese to learn Hindi,” Sarma reasoned.

Sarma’s solution to the problem was to introduce a four-language instead of three-language formula advocated by the National Education Policy. Under the national policy, states, regions and individual students could decide which three languages they learnt, but at least two of these had to be “native to India”.

According to Sarma, under the four-language policy, a student would learn Assamese, English, a tribal language and Hindi in the Brahmaputra Valley. In the Barak Valley region of Assam, students would learn Bengali instead of Assamese. The Assam Sahitya Sabha and other tribal literary bodies were already on board with the four-language policy, Sarma claimed.

While Sarma tried to play it down, Shah’s announcement has cut to the heart of identity politics in Assam and other North Eastern states.

Language and identity

As Nath himself acknowledged, Hindi is already compulsory in Assam government schools till Class 8, and students could choose to take Hindi up to Class 10.

“A Class 10 student can choose Hindi from around 30 elective subjects, including Assamese, history, geography, advanced maths, among others,” said an Assam education department official.

So the present proposal does not drastically change the system in reality. It does, however, have deep political resonances in Assam, where language has been central to a regional identity.

“Why should we accept the imposition of others’ mother tongue?” demanded Nath.

Assertions of Assamese cultural identity were made through language in the colonial era, with the Asam Sahitya Sabha established in 1917. In the 1950s and ’60s, Assamese was pitted against Bengali, which had been the official language of colonial Assam. When the government tried to make Assamese the official language in 1960, it led to agitations in the largely Bengali-speaking Barak Valley, where 11 people were killed.

For decades, there has been a pervasive fear that Assamese speakers will be a linguistic minority in the state. Those who identify as indigenous Assamese are anxious that their language and culture are threatened by migrants – from former East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and from Hindi-speaking states. These anxieties about language fed into the Assam Movement of the 1980s, which eventually gave way to an armed struggle for secession.

Successive censuses fuelled these anxieties. People who report Assamese as their mother tongue are already below 50%. The percentage of Assamese speakers also fell marginally from 48.80% in 2001 to 48.38% in 2011. During the same period, the number of Hindi speakers rose from 5.89% in 2001 to 6.73% in 2011.

Fears of the Assamese language being marginalised were exacerbated with the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which facilitates citizenship for undocumented, non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many in Assam felt it would open the door to a tide of migration from neighbouring Bangladesh.

With Shah’s statement, anxieties about language have emerged again. “Making Hindi compulsory would create apprehension in the minds of people,”Assam Sahitya Sabha president and former director general of police Kuladhar Saikia told “The Assam Sahitya Sabha has been asking for development and spread of Assamese language as well as the language of other ethnic groups.”

Back in 2019, as anti-CAA protests engulfed Assam, the state government had proposed the four-language formula to address anxieties about language. But this was met with opposition from the Bodo Sahitya Sabha.

A Bodo Sahitya Sabha member told that if the four-language formula was implemented, members of the Bodo community would have to read Assamese, which would lead to a language problem. The Bodo language has now switched to the Devanagari script. Having to learn both Bodo and Assamese, that too in different scripts, would be confusing for children, he felt.

According to Sarma, the implementation of the four-language policy has been held up by objections from the Bodo Sahitya Sabha.

Other tongues

Not just Assam, but other states have also protested against the move to make Hindi compulsory till Class 10. The Mizoram government said it had not yet given the nod to the proposal and Nagaland pointed out the Centre had not yet issued formal instructions to implement it.

In a letter addressed to Shah, the North East Students’ Organisation, a conglomeration of the eight leading students’ bodies representing seven states of the North Eastern region, said: “The imposition of Hindi as a compulsory subject in the NER [North Eastern region] will be detrimental not only for the propagation and dissemination of the indigenous languages but also to students who will be compelled to add another compulsory subject to their already vast syllabus.”

In a linguistically diverse region like the North East, the language question is never simple. While state governments push back against Hindi, smaller ethnic groups within the states have often resisted the imposition of the state language as the primary language.

Despite the Assam Sahitya Sabha’s demand that other languages be developed, Manoranjan Pegu, a researcher who belongs to the Mising community, was not convinced. “I am against the Hindi imposition. But let’s not somehow think the Assam sahitya sabha worries about other local languages,” he tweeted.

Thongkolal Haokip, who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is originally from Manipur, tweeted: “Why so much opposition to Hindi in the #NorthEast when most states in the region are imposing their own state language ruthlessly within their state boundary?”

The proposal to impose Hindi has doubled the pressure on smaller communities that fear the extinction of their linguistic identities.

‘Not opposed to Hindi’

Litterateur and former director general of police in Assam Harekrishna Deka said Shah’s statement “smacks of [a] dictatorial temper”.

He elaborated, “Learning Hindi may be encouraged by giving rewards [and without] making it compulsory. Hindi is a rich Indian language and in the long run, learning [it] will help in India. But imposition will be seen as coercive.”

For political scientist and author Udayon Misra, imposing Hindi was a step in a larger cultural agenda. Shah’s statement, he said, was yet another “direct assault by the BJP” on the principles of federalism.

“One is certainly not opposed to learning Hindi,” he said. “But the manner in which this is being done is indicative of a much more comprehensive plan of the BJP-RSS to appropriate the defining markers of local language, tradition and culture and bring them within the parameters of so-called one nation, one language and one culture. This is what is deeply worrying.”

According to Misra, the “long-term agenda” was to iron out the structures and processes of Assam and other North Eastern states, “which stand in sharp contrast to the in-built social inequalities and caste prejudices which mark most of the North Indian regions where the BJP holds sway”.

Vanishing languages

A language expert who has been working with the state government to implement the three-language formula of the National Education Policy, said that if Hindi was really made compulsory in all schools, Assamese and other tribal languages would “disappear” from the Brahmaputra Valley. Similarly, Bengali would “vanish” from the Barak Valley, said the expert, who did not want to be identified.

Under the three-language policy, Hindi is not yet compulsory. “If Hindi is made mandatory, and children use English, they will have to take either Assamese or any tribal language,” he said. “So if the students study the tribal language as a third language, they will not read Assamese or Bengali.”

However, the four-language policy proposed by the Assam government would make more room for linguistic diversity, he felt.

For now, the Assam BJP is trying to defend Hindi being made compulsory. “Hindi is the national language and the Assam BJP wants people to learn it,” Assam BJP chief spokesperson Kamakhya Prasad Tasa. “Apunar bakha apuni a roikhya koribo lagibo [Your own language will have to be protected by you only]. How can learning Hindi be a threat to other languages?”