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NEP 2020: A boost to the linguistic and cultural variances of North East India

The National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) has already concocted a mission and a vision to generate prodigious changes in the education sector that can really turn out to be life-changing for the citizens in the longer run. A lot has already been deliberated and confabulated about its divergent dynamics, but an untold chapter of this entire draft has to be the massive impact it can have upon preserving the idiosyncratic linguistic and cultural variety of North East India.

The multi-ethnic society of North-East India comprises of the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim. North East India is also the home to a large number of ethnic groups who came from different directions at different intervals of time. An ethnic group may be defined as a group, whose members share with each other a common heritage, consisting of a common language, culture, religion, and an ideology that stresses common endogamy. The subsequent result of the amalgamation of different ethnic groups of North East India is the coming up of different languages that are used in the region. In fact, to be precise, North East India is the home to more than 75% of languages belonging to the four language families, viz Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian (small population of Tamil Speakers in Moreh District of Manipur). The region is also unique in the sense that it boasts of languages which are actually a confluence of languages shared by the process of borrowing, divergence or convergence. An example of it can be Nagamese (the Assamese-based pidgin of Nagaland, now creolizing.)

The linguistic variety of North East India though is quite incredible, but the unfortunate thing is that these languages are on the verge of extinction, star-crossed by various issues hovering around the North East like internal strife and conflicts, less usage of a particular language, and most importantly India’s 3 language policy system. This 3 language policy system dictates that educational institutions in India of different states must operate with 3 languages: Hindi (the official language of the country), the official language of the state, and English. This means most local languages are pushed towards endangerment without official status.

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2009, India has around 196 endangered languages of various degrees, out of which a stupefying count of about 80 languages are from the North East region itself. Therefore in this context, it is important for us to enter into the mainland terra firma of each of the 8 states of North East India, to understand the linguistic diversity in terms of the languages frequently used and those that are on the verge of extinction.

The North-Eastern state known as Arunachal Pradesh is linguistically very rich and one of the most diverse regions in entire Asia, with at least 50 distinct languages in addition to the numerous dialects and sub-dialects within them. According to the 2011 census, speakers of the major languages include Nyishi (28.60%), Adi (17.35%) Bengali (7.27%), Nepali (6.89%), Bhotia (4.51%), Assamese (3.9%), Mishmi (3.04%), Nocte (2.9%), Tangsa (2.64%), Wancho (2.19%) and Others (13.62%). But on the other hand, languages like Sherdukpen, Bugun, Aka/Hruso, Koro, Miji, Bangru, and Puroik/Sulung are heading towards extinction.

Assam is another state, where one can witness linguistic diversity. According to the 2011 language census, in Assam, out of a total population of around 31 million, the Assamese is spoken by around 15 million. The various Bengali dialects and closely related languages are spoken by around 9 million people in Assam. With Assamese, Bodo, and Bengali being the major and official languages of the state, some of the languages are on the verge of being extinct with most of the speakers shifting to the majority languages of the state. Though other languages like Mising, Deori, Rabha, Dimasa, Tiwa, etc also find their place in the demography, languages like Ahom and Turung are already extinct, whereas Khamyang is critically endangered. 

As Per Grierson’s classification system, Naga languages can be grouped into Western, Central, and Eastern Groups comprising of different languages. But even in Nagaland, languages like Pochury, Kuki, and Chakhesang have less than 20,000 native speakers.

Meiti, being the lingua franca of the state of Manipur, there are a number of languages in the state, which are spoken by an astonishing low number of speakers which is evident from the 2011 language census.

In case of Mizoram, several sub-communities and dialects are losing its existence and amalgamating with larger language group of the state.

Speaking of Meghalaya, Khasi is a branch of the Mon-Khmer family of the Austroasiatic stock, and is one of the very few surviving Mon-Khmer languages in India today.

The prevailing pathetic scenarios, the political issues revolving around ethnicity and the ascendancy of a particular community has already seen the demise of many aboriginal languages from the state of Tripura.

The case with Sikkim is no different either, as in Sikkim languages like Groma, Majhwar, Thulung and Yakha are already in an endangered state.

Therefore understanding the urgency of the situation, it is pivotal for us to actively work towards preserving and spreading the word for resurrecting of the languages, since it is quite rightly said, “When a language dies, along dies the culture, knowledge and a way of life.

In this regard, the New Education Policy 2020 has come as a blessing at the right time to revive, save, and preserve many lost linguistic and cultural diversities of North East India. By including a chapter known as “Promotion of Indian Languages, Art and Culture”, the policy focuses on the preservation and promotion of India’s cultural wealth. By giving much focus on promoting cultural awareness, cognitive development, and cultural identity of individuals, at all levels of education, the draft desires to directly promote Indian arts. Languages, as we all know, survives only when it is spoken and written by the majority of the population residing in a region, the education policy endeavours to achieve that perspective by using the age old concept of teaching and learning. Another great thing that the policy has brought about is the idea of introducing specialized language education programmes in Indian languages and also maintain high quality learning materials in these  languages- including textbooks, workbooks magazines etc.

According to the New Education Policy, for linguistic and cultural furtherance, schools and higher education institutions shall hire outstanding local artists, writers, and other instructors specialized in various subjects of local expertise. In addition to this, these institutions shall design programmes in Indian languages, comparative literature, creative writing, arts, philosophy, archaeology etc. But the biggest advantage that this policy brings with it is the proposal to set up Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation (IITI), which can indeed become one of the most pivotal steps in terms of not only promoting literature and culture but also reviving lost linguistic and cultural diversities. Therefore considering the degrading linguistic and cultural scenario of North East India and then taking into consideration the various perspectives of this policy, we can hopefully conclude that this policy in the longer run might be able to bring into the limelight many lost ancient languages, culture and traditions of North East India.

However, for the purpose of properly implementing the various provisions of this policy, states can form a State Education Commission on the basis of the formation of the National Education Commission. The State Education Commission can be the apex body for the purpose of policy making in the states which can be related to the fact that the subject education falls under the concurrent list. Further, in every state, Language Teaching Institutions can be set up so as to not only promote indigenous languages but also to keep in pace with the provisions of the New Education Policy. Further for the proper promotion and preservation of customs, traditions, folklores, archaeological artifacts etc institutions of such kind must be set up and experts in such traits must be employed for achieving the desired goals. In fact, for the proper implementation of the National Education Policy 2020, the Assam Government has already proposed to set up a 40 members committee and it will be interesting to see the noteworthy changes that this committee will bring to the education sector of Assam, keeping in terms with the latest released policy.  Moreover, segregating students on the basis of academics and life skills just after class 10 can also be really crucial when we confabulate about promoting and preserving language and culture, which are directly interlinked, since no policy can work wonders until and unless we appoint the right human resource for that purpose.

Therefore, like a stitch in time saves nine, in the same way the new National Education Policy of 2020 might turn out be the right stitch at the right time to promote and preserve the rich linguistic and cultural dimension of North East India.

Article authored by –
Dr. Navajyoti Borah( Associate Professor, Pandu College, Guwahati).
Bishaldeep Kakati (Writer, Poet, and Socio-Political Commentator).


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