Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why and how Mizoram should promote multilingualism

By Paritosh Chakma

Let me begin by saying Mizoram is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. In short, it is a pluralistic society in character. But the real problem is with the state government’s policy which favours a homogenous society or seems to project that way. Just take a look at the official website of the government of Mizoram, Only the culture of Mizos is on offer. Anyone who has little knowledge of Mizoram will, after visiting the website, think that only Mizos are the residents of the state and the only language spoken is Mizo.

The problem is not only lack of official promotion of multi-cultural society. First, the majority (Mizos) will need to do away with their linguistic hegemony – both at personal level and governmental level. If we promote multilingualism, we have no loss but only to gain. I am in no way advocating that Mizos should not promote their language but only trying to say that other languages must be given space as well and we need to respect the differences. That is to say, Mizos must promote their own language but must turn bilingual or multilingual to promote communication and ties with other communities who do not speak Mizo tawng.

Language is not merely a means of communicating thoughts and ideas, but it helps build friendships, cultural ties, and forges social and economic relationships between communities. Language creates feelings of cultural kinship. If we cannot understand what another speaker is trying to communicate, how can we put in practice the ethics of Tlawmngaihna by which the Mizo society is well known?

I do not have any problem with Mizo being the only official language but I am pained at how the state treats other minority languages with glaring neglect. In turn, this creates hardships and remains one of the reasons for feeling of alienation among the Mizos and non-Mizo speakers such as Chakmas. Majority of Chakmas cannot speak Mizo and few Mizos indeed speak Chakma. The communication gap and lack of understanding of each other’s culture have created feelings of alienation, suspicion and mistrust among the two largest communities in Mizoram which is a stumbling block to the state's progress. Never has the Chakma culture been showcased in an official cultural programme outside the Chakma Autonomous District Council. It is critical that these gaps are filled for state’s integration.

Vis-à-vis the Chakmas, the state government can do this in two ways: by promoting the Chakma native tongue and helping the Chakmas learn the Mizo language. The rest will follow inexorably.

Promotion of Chakma mother tongue

One of the vital aspects is the preservation and promotion of the Chakmas’ scripts. Why should the Mizoram government promote the Chakma language and script? It must be promoted and protect because it is a unique language. With its death will die the identity of an ethnic group in the state.

The most fascinating thing about the Chakmas is that they among the rarest tribal groups in the world having their own scripts to write their language and literature (In India, most tribal groups express their literature in either Roman or Devanagari scripts in absence of scripts of their own). The scripts of the Chakmas are called “Aja Paat”. Chakmas’ folklore and folk music are inseparable from their culture and these are written in Aja Paat. The Chakma folk music includes romantic love songs known as Ubageet while the Genkhuli ballads narrate the bravery and romances of the Chakma princes and kings. These are played in blend with extraordinary traditional musical instruments. There are also epic poems like Radhamon and Dhanapati. These are orally passed on from one generation to another and have survived centuries. Buddhists books, translated into Chakma and written on palm leaves, are known as Aghartara. The Tallik is a detailed account of medicinal plants, methods of their preparation, and their use in the treatment of disease. These have also been written in Chakma script. All these exhibit the extremely rich and invaluable treasures of the Chakmas. But all these are very much on the verge of extinction today. That is why Mizoram must be proud to include, preserve and promote these treasures of the Chakmas in the Aizawl Museum. Even if Mizoram does not feel proud, it has the obligation to protect all tribal treasures – language, music, art, literature, architecture, science, medicine etc belonging to all tribal communities in the state.

Regrettably, Mizoram is not doing that for the Chakmas. While in the Chakma Autonomous District Council, the authorities have take steps to impart Chakma mother tongue in Chakma script in schools up to primary level, the Chakmas residing outside the CADC are being deprived. It is pertinent to state that more Chakmas reside in Mamit and Lunglei district than in CADC which is in Lawngtlai district and their cultural antiques including the scripts are neither protected nor promoted by the state government.

As a result, the Chakma script is in peril. Today, the script is almost dead. No one expect the Chakma traditional medicinal practitioners/healers in rural areas use it.

There is no economic incentive for learning the script by the Chakmas. Neither will the learning land us a job nor is there any scope for higher learning or research simply because the Chakma language is not rich enough for that. And, sadly, there are not many amateur learners among the Chakmas.

Once I tried to learn to read and write the Chakma “Arog” (script). After acquiring the preliminary knowledge of the script and returning back to Delhi, I remember having written a short letter to my father in the village totally in Chakma script. Bewildered at my adventure, my father, I am told, had to dash off to an elderly person, who could help him cipher my message.

One’s mother tongue is as important as one’s breath. The following poem by an Evenki poet, Alitet Nemtushkin summarizes this:

If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?
If I forget the smell of the earth
And do not serve it well
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?
How can I believe the foolish idea
That my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last words
Were in Evenki?

I am happy that in the Chakma Autonomous District Council in Mizoram, Chakma language is taught up to the primary level. That is inevitable if the Chakma script and language are to survive. And, teaching the Chakma mother tongue to the Chakma children in areas falling outside the CADC must be high on the agenda of the state government of Mizoram. Otherwise, Mizoram will be seen as treating its own minorities with neglect and apathy. As the poem above notes, it is a “foolish idea” to believe that one’s language is superior to another.

Promoting Mizo among the Chakmas

I strongly suggest that the state government of Mizoram must take immediate and adequate measures to teach Mizo to the Chakmas. The idea is not to assimilate the Chakmas or to impose the ethnic/linguistic chauvinism of the majority over the minority but to promote integration. The teaching of Mizo should effectively begin at school level, may be from Middle School onwards.

The older generation of the Chakmas have been inclined towards learning Bengali as an additional subject on, according to me, two primary grounds: it is a rich language, and alienation from the Mizos (because the Chakmas live within their communities in habitations far away from the Mizos). But now there is shift towards the Mizo language due to various factors. First, a lot of Chakma students study in Aizawl, Lunglei and other towns and the youths have been instrumental in shift of attitude. Second, Chakmas are beginning to understand the Mizos better as there is now more democratic space given to the Chakmas. Third, there are social and economic incentives to learn the Mizo language in terms of social mobility and employment opportunities within Mizoram.

But, I must say, the state government of Mizoram has been doing a great injustice to the Chakmas. One, it has legislated Recruitment Rules making knowledge of Mizo prerequisite for employment. But on the other hand, it has denied the Chakmas any chance to learn the official language in schools. Simply no teacher has been appointed in Chakma village schools to teach the Mizo language. I cannot understand this paradox in the government’s language policy. Such ill planned policy does not help. Is it basically intended to deny the Chakma educated youths jobs in the state machinery? If true, this could be dangerous for the future.


Today the Chakma script is in danger and Mizoram will suffer an irreparable loss if it becomes extinct. There is also need that all communities must come forward to forge unity amidst diversity for the betterment of Mizoram.

Therefore, I urge the Mizoram government to:

- Frame a language policy which would respect the Chakma and other minority languages and promote them with priority;

- Promote and protect the Chakma script and language, including by encouraging research and documentation;

- Take appropriate measures to teach Chakma language in Chakma script up to primary school level in Chakma dominated villages within Mamit and Lunglei districts in similar line as is being taught in Chakma Autonomous District Council;

- Do away with the language eligibility rules and therefore, suitably amend all such Recruitment Rules which insist on knowledge of Mizo at the time of recruitment. The selected non-Mizo candidates should be asked to learn the language during probation period or given some more time to learn the language; and

- Provide training and scholarships to such Chakma teachers who are willing to learn Mizo and appoint them as Mizo language teachers in Chakma village schools

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Brian Barker said...

I believe in the need to protect endangered languages :)

However, although there are at least 7,000 languages throughout the World, an increasing number are endangered through the linguistic imperialism of both Mandarin Chinese and English.

Your readers may be interested in the following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008.

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.

See or

Why>! said...

It makes little sense to teach Chakma in areas with low density of chakma population. But I think that the language should be protected. There are several other languages that are dying/dead in Mizoram like Ralte and others like Hmar may soon follow due to increasing usage of Duhlian(Mizo) in the state administration and general public.
It is our duty to preserve our cultures. No one from outside will help us, we have to take the initiative by ourselves.

Paritosh Chakma said...

"It makes little sense to teach Chakma in areas with low density of chakma population"

Let me correct you a bit. The Chakmas in Mizoram live in contiguous areas along the western belt and in the South (CADC). In the CADC the Chakma language is being taught up to primary level. The areas outside the CADC lie along the India-Bangladesh border and all the villages along the border are dominated by Chakmas. Hence, it only makes loud sense that their mother tongue be taught to them, as you have also stated that "the (endangered) language should be protected".

"It is our duty to preserve our cultures. No one from outside will help us, we have to take the initiative by ourselves."

Without state's help it is not always possible. You need funding. In case of the Chakmas in Mizoram, CADC has made it possible. If the Mizoram govt is unwilling, the Chakma dominated areas in Lunglei and Mamit district should be included within the CADC so that Chakmas can protect their language, culture and script better.

Anonymous said...

I completely support your suggestions.

There is no harm in learning new languages. So Chakmas should also learn Mizo ṭawng to facilitate intercultural interactions.

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