The recent protests in Darjeeling hills against West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee have drawn attention from many circles.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha came out in the street and called for a general strike against what they claimed was the chief minister’s decision to impose Bangla language in the schools there.
She, however, denied that it wasn’t an imposition as such. She has also exempted Darjeeling from implementing the decision.
A friend of mine living in Kolkata tells me that the state of Bangla language and culture in the entirety of West Bengal is at stake. The Bengali culture along with the language have been going through a crisis due to a weird onslaught of Hindi corporate culture.
The intelligentsia in West Bengal are also worried about the very existence of Bangla. This has also made the state administration apprehensive, and that’s why perhaps the chief minister has started thinking about the means to re-energise the glory of Bangla and the culture related to the language.
This phenomenon perhaps has resulted in an attempt to make Bangla language compulsory in the schools of West Bengal. That’s perfectly OK for a government to do: Make Bangla a compulsory subject at the school level.
Perhaps she also wanted to create socio-economic opportunities for the Adivasis in West Bengal by involving them in the mainstream education. Previously, Bangla wasn’t a compulsory subject in the state; from now on it will be one.
There may be another reason for her to evoke the people’s sentiment around Bangla; perhaps she wanted to prevent BJP from gaining influence in West Bengal by using Bangla as a tool. There are a few states in India where the native languages are compulsory in schools. Therefore, making another native language compulsory in education may not be a new thing to do, but the way she has announced it made it seem like an imposition.
We all know that a language cannot be imposed on a population that has been bathing in a particular language for thousands of years. Since the history of the world is a history of migration, it’s the people who have carried languages from one place to another and thereby changed the flow of a language.
A language is like a flowing river; it changes course naturally; whenever one tries to change its course by putting up dams and or any other obstruction, the problems originate from there
A language is like a flowing river; it changes course naturally; whenever one tries to change its course by putting up dams and or any other obstruction, problems emerge.
Allow me to cite some examples from America. At the federal level, there is no official language, although there have been efforts to make English the official one. Louisiana state is unofficially bilingual in English and French. Hawaiians are officially bilingual -- in English and Hawaiian.
Three American territories are also bilingual: American Samoa (Samoan and English), Guam (English and Chamorro), and Puerto Rico (Spanish and English). One US territory is trilingual: Northern Marianas Islands (English, Chamorro, and Carolinian).
The American states with a large Hispanic immigrant population such as California, Texas, and Florida often provide government services at the municipal level in Spanish as well as English.
In Florida, for example, Hialeah recognises both English and Spanish while Miami recognises English, Haitian Creole, and Spanish as official government languages.
Therefore, you see, it also depends on the people’s background as to which language would be spoken as well as used by them. If a language of a certain place or population is changed, it would change like the natural course of a river. Any kind of imposition is not wise.
A history lesson for the unwise
Remember what Pakistani leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah tried with Urdu in the erstwhile East Pakistan when he declared that Urdu would also be the language of Bengali-speaking people? He, perhaps, didn’t think much when he (or his advisers) decided to announce this (they miserably failed to fathom the consequences of the announcement).
His intention to impose a language brought misfortune. His announcement ignited protests in Bangladesh; they open fired on the peaceful protests. That’s when the seed of independence of Bangladesh was sown by a leader who sought linguistic hegemony in order to rule.
Yes, there could be one predominant language in a country where diverse languages exist. For example, Emperor Akbar had introduced Urdu as the language for the language of his troops who came from many different backgrounds.
Over the years, preserving a language and trying to enrich it have become a right of a population. Therefore, nations across the world have language policies -- for preserving and enriching their existing language, not to imperialise their own language.
Will Banerjee follow Bangladesh?
Bangladesh could be a good example for Banerjee. We also made Bangla compulsory for the Adivasi population; and it continues to be compulsory. However, the government in Dhaka has changed its policy as far as the Adivasis are concerned.
There are many indigenous languages in Bangladesh. For Adivasis, the mode of education at the primary level is their own respective languages. They are taught in six languages in schools. Bangladesh government also has a plan to develop a dictionary of all Adivasi languages.
All said and done, we the Bangla-lovers must thank Banerjee for taking Bangla language seriously and making an attempt to uphold our language across her constituency. For doing that, she may have to engage the West Bengal litterateurs and the media in a massive way.
Ekram Kabir is a fiction writer.