We cannot allow our languages to be consumed by Hindi

[ Bengia Ajum ]

For any democracy to grow, there needs to be healthy debates among its citizens on issues concerning the citizens. Over the years, since Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre, the democratic ethos in India is gradually declining. But to the surprise of many, Arunachal is slowly but surely witnessing a culture of debate and discussion emerging in recent years. It is a known fact that Arunachal Pradesh, which is largely inhabited by tribes, became part of India only in 1947, and before that, the concept of governance, democracy, etc, was unfamiliar to us.

There are instances that show that Arunachal is finally maturing. First is the heated debate witnessed over the defacing of the civil secretariat’s ‘wall of harmony’ in Itanagar. While one section strongly supported the activists for defacing the wall, claiming that it is a democratic right of citizens to dissent, on the other hand, another section heavily criticised the anti-dam activists for their actions and claimed that they had disrespected the work of fellow artists.

Both sides engaged in a feisty debate on social media. However, the debate was mostly done in an intellectual manner, without making personal attacks, which are usually witnessed in Arunachal. The government initially went a bit overboard by arresting the two activists. But it seems that it immediately realised the mistake and therefore did not press the case further, paving the way for the release of the duo from the jail.

The second was the debate over a banner installed by the Itanagar Municipal Corporation (IMC), declaring Itanagar as the ‘Hindi capital’ of Northeast India.

The majority of the citizens took offence at the banner and suggested that, instead of Hindi, the IMC should promote local languages. After much criticism, IMC Mayor Tame Phassang conducted a press conference and tried to explain the reason behind installing the banner. To his credit, despite the heavy criticism the IMC faced, the mayor graciously invited people for more debate on the issue and declared that he is open to all kinds of debate and discussion.

One more example of the growing maturity exhibited by the tribes of Arunachal is how tribal Christians have responded to provocations and insults hurled at them by right-wing supporters. Despite extreme provocation by Hindutva right-wing supporters seeking cancellation of the ST status of tribal Christians, there has been no adverse reaction. The tribal people consider ST status as a pride, and such demand earlier would have been meted out with much anger. But people seem to believe that debate and discussion are better options, which is a good sign.

For a tribal society, in which clan and tribe bodies play a critical role in deciding many aspects of life, this new culture of debate and discussion shows that finally, we are moving towards democratic norms in the true sense.

Coming back to the issue of Itanagar being declared as the Hindi capital of the Northeast, there is no doubt that the majority of people in Arunachal speak Hindi, but it is nothing to be proud of. We should be proud to be speaking in our own tribal languages. Tamilians are proud Indians, but for them, the Tamil identity and Tamil language come first. Today our tribal languages are almost on the verge of extinction. Efforts should be made to preserve the tribal languages. I belong to the Nyishi tribe, and I often joke that today there are different categories of Nyishi, based on the languages spoken by them at home. First are the North Indian Nyishi (those who speak Hindi at home), Assamese Nyishi (those who converse in Assamese), Hindmese Nyishi (those who speak a mixture of Hindi and Assamese), and lastly Nyishi (who speak in Nyishi language at home).

I am pretty sure the situation must be the same for almost all tribes. Today, people no longer feel proud of their own tribal languages.

Just carrying placards saying ‘loss of culture is loss of identity’ during various rallies, or wearing a traditional dress during tribal festivals will not save the tribal identity. Language is the most vital part of any identity. The RSS and the BJP always propagate the Hindu-Hindi movement. We cannot allow our tribal languages to be consumed in the garb of Hindi nationalism.