Monday, October 31, 2011

Our script is our birthright

By Paritosh Chakma

The rally by Chakmas in the streets of Agartala, the capital of Tripura, on 18th August 2011, three days after the India’s Independence Day, is an unforgettable event. Although I was not physically present there, the photos flashed through the Facebook inspired me to write this article.

The Chakmas participated in the rally holding placards and banners written in Chakma script, Bengali and English conveying their demands. Most of the placards and banners were written in Chakma script but they were also written in Bengali and Roman scripts so that others and Chakmas who cannot read the Chakma script can read and understand.

The rally was participated by over 400 people, including women and girls, from the nook and corners of Tripura. Given the lackluster attitude of Chakmas towards social movements across India, the number (400) is significantly higher, also given the fact that the rally was held at Agartata where not many Chakmas live. The number reflected the honour Chkamas would like to have by getting official recognition of their script and language.

Constitution vs Tripura govt

The Constitution of India has provided adequate safeguards for minorities, including linguistic minorities. While all the constitutional safeguards like the right to equality, non discrimination etc, are also applicable to the minorities, the Constitution has spelt out several safeguards specifically for the minorities. Article 29 (1) of the Constitution explicitly states that “any section of citizens” has the right to conserve the “distinct language, script or culture of its own”. The Constitution also says that it shall be the endeavour of every state government to provide adequate facilities for instruction in mother-tongue at primary stage (Article 350 A).
But the Tripura government has “imposed” the Bengali script on Chakmas. It is an insult to the whole Chakma community and naked violation of the fundamental rights of the minorities in India.

Not many tribal languages have their own scripts. Since Chkama is an endangered language, the State must take adequate measures to safeguard it. The first and most important measure would be to officially recognize the Chakma language and script and give all the protections under the law.

But the Tripura government has separated the Mother Tongue from its script. The state government had agreed to introduce Chakma language but not the script. The million dollar question is: why should the Chakmas read or write their language in some other’s script when they have their own script which is centuries old and well developed?

Who’s to blame?
If the Tripura government has refused to adopt the Chakma script who is to blame? The Tripura government has squarely blamed the Chakmas themselves, and to be more specific, the Advisory Committee for Development of Chakma Language (hereafter “Advisory Committee”) which is headed by a Chakma. Figure this. Vide letter dated 16 August 2010, Director of SCERT, Tripura informed the General Secretary, Undandhi Sadhak (NGO) that “Chakma Text-Books are being prepared in Bengali Scripts on the basis of the resolution adopted in a meeting of the Advisory Committee for Development of Chakma Language held on 10/08/1998, which was approved by the higher Authority vide DO.No. 256/Min/Edn/99 dated 1-4-99”. “In this regards, it may be mentioned here that the Authority of School Education is acting on the basis of the advise/ recommendation of the Advisory Committee for Development of Chakma Language,” the letter further pointed out. 

Earlier, responding to an RTI application filed by Aniruddha Chakma, GS, Chakma Students’ Association, S. Debbarma, Deputy Director, SCERT, Tripura reiterated the same thing on 25 February 2008: “Bengali script was adopted [for Chakmas] as per recommendation of Advisory Committee for Development of Chakma Language”.  

The allegation also goes that the Advisory Committee on 10 August 1998 secretly embraced the Bengali script. Interestingly, the Advisory Committee has never publicly refuted these allegations. 

However, to be fair to the Advisory Committee, prior to 1998, it had indeed recommended to the state government for adoption of Chakma script. For example, such a resolution was passed on 8 October 1993 but the state government did not accept it. Instead, the state government vide letter No. F.19(8-11)-DSE/88(2-3)/850-58, dated Agartala, the 05 September 1995 announced that Chakma subject will be taught in Bengali script!

So, it is evident that prior to the Advisory Committee’s resolution of 10 August 1998, the state government had already approved Bengali script. 

There is also evidence to suggest that the Advisory Committee did indeed lobbied for Chakma script. In a letter dated 2 November 1995, Officer-in-Charge, Tribal Language Cell, Directorate of School Education, Agartala informed Pragati Chakma, Member of the Advisory Committee that “the Hon’ble Education Minister has kindly agreed to introduce only Chakma Language subject in Chakma Scripts from Class III onwards at the Primary level as per report submitted to this office by the Chairman of Advisory Committee for Development of Chakma Language.”  

But the state government of Tripura never kept its promise. It needed an excuse to scuttle the Chakma script. That excuse came in the form of the Advisory Committee’s resolution of 10 August 1998 that was passed under mysterious circumstances.  

That however does not exonerate the Advisory Committee which has a lot to answer.   
On August 29th, Chakma social leaders and Advisory Committee members held a meeting with state’s Education Minister. The Education Minister decided to send the proposal for Cabinet consideration. Chakmas believe this is a delaying tactic. Only god knows how many more years it will take to come to a solid decision.

Way forward
We must not be disheartened by the August 29th event. Chakmas must continue to keep the movement for Chakma script alive.  

Our fight must be both at state level and national level. We must bring our demand to the notice of the President of India and the National Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities, who reports to the President. Under Article 347 of the Constitution, “On a demand being made in that behalf the President may, if he is satisfied that a substantial proportion of the population of a State desire the use of any language spoken by them to be recognised by that State, direct that such language shall also be officially recognised throughout that State or any part thereof for such purpose as he may specify.” There are several pockets in Tripura where Chakma speakers could be considered “substantial” in number. We must make it clear that language and script are inseparable.  

The National Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities, created under Article 350B of the constitution, has the authority to “investigate all matters relating to the safeguards provided for linguistic minorities under this Constitution and report to the President”. 

Chakmas must use various constitutional mechanisms. If nothing works, we must seek legal guidance as to whether or not this case could be taken to the court.

The Chakmas’ understanding is: Our script is our birthright. What does the constitution say?

(First published in SOJAAK, Issue No. 3, October 2011, available at )

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