The Northeast too has witnessed violent ethno-linguistic agitations and even secessionist movements over decades.
The ongoing agitation in Darjeeling by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), triggered by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that Bengali would be made compulsory till Class 10 in all schools in the state brought back into focus the politics of linguistic, ethnic and cultural identity. In a multicultural society like India, identity politics revolve not only around major indicators like region, religion and caste; but also the ethnic, linguistic and socio-cultural diversity of the Indian population. Linked to this are broader questions of national unity, collective and multiple identities, and the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities.
Ms Banerjee’s later clarification that Bengali would remain optional and not compulsory in the hills did little to help calm the situation. The agitation turned violent, three people lost their lives, and Darjeeling and its surrounding areas have come to a standstill in the peak tourist season, leading to a loss of revenue for the state and loss of livelihood for hundreds of locals dependent on tourism.
But it would be over-simplistic to limit the Gorkhaland agitation, or any agitation demanding a separate state, to just ethnic and language parameters. It’s about sharing and devolution of political power, redistribution of resources coupled with real or perceived threats to ethnic identities. However, in a multi-lingual society, language does play a key role in reassertion and reconstruction of identities underscoring political dynamics. The north-south divide over Hindi goes back to pre-Independence times. The late 1930s and 1940s saw violent protests in the region over a move to make Hindi compulsory in 125 schools of the Madras presidency. The anti-Hindi agitation in the 1960s led by the DMK brought it to power in 1967. Since then, opposition to compulsory teaching of Hindi has been a regular policy of almost all Dravidian parties. The bid to impose Hindi on the non-Hindi-speaking population of the South is seen as an attack on Dravidian identity and an attempt to enforce North Indian hegemony on the South.
A classic example of a language movement in contemporary history comes from neighbouring Bangladesh. Known as East Pakistan after the 1947 Partition, the land erupted when in 1948 the then Pakistan government declared Urdu as the sole national language in that country. After massive protests, the government banned all rallies and public meetings. Defiant students of Dhaka University and other activists organised a protest on February 21, 1952, when the police brutally killed the protesting students, which provoked widespread unrest throughout the area. The “Bhasha Andolan” triggered the assertion of Bengali national identity as a political movement and was the forerunner of the subsequent nationalist movement and Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan. In 1999, Unesco declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day as a tribute to language movements and an acknowledgement of the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world.
In post-Independence India, states were reorganised on linguistic lines and the process of linguistic reorganisation of states under the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission was broadly over by the late 1960s. The idea was to incorporate cultural identities into political and administrative units and to strengthen this expression of diversity by devolution of power through the federal structure. The process continued, and new states were carved out due to agitations over language and cultural identities. The demand for Punjabi Suba by the Akali Dal stressed linguistic considerations for creating a new state primarily for Punjabi-speaking people. This demand was accepted, and the then state of Punjab trifurcated into Punjab, Haryana, and with the Pahari-speaking areas merged into Himachal Pradesh by Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966.
In a geographically vast and culturally diverse country like India it’s not possible to have perfect demarcation for creating administrative units based on ethno-linguistic markers. While some attempts have been made, it’s an ongoing process to handle major linguistic issues in a way that preserves the cultural integrity of major linguistic groups in India, within newly-formed states, as communities of ethno-linguistic minorities continue to exist. Coupled with the continuous stream of inter-state movement and migration, the issues over the right of linguistic minorities and the status of migrants in linguistically-organised states still pose a major challenge and remain a source of potential conflict.
The agitation in Assam between the majority Assamese and the migrant Bengali minority community in the 1980s revolved around ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities. The majority population of indigenous Assamese resented the presence of a sizeable migrant community of Bengalis. They not only had to share the resources of the state, specially land, with people seen as illegal immigrants, they also feared their presence as a polluting effect on indigenous culture. The Bengalis in Assam, on the other hand, agitated for citizenship rights and for the right to maintain their own cultural identity. In 1961, the Bengali language movement in the Barak valley, which has a concentration of Bengali-speaking people, violently protested against the Assam government’s decision to declare Assamese as the state’s only official language. After violent mob protests in which nine people were killed, the state had to revisit the decision and include Bengali as an official language in three districts of the Barak valley.
The Northeast too has witnessed violent ethno-linguistic agitations and even secessionist movements over decades. In a vast multi-cultural, multi-lingual pluralistic India, a certain degree of ethno-linguistic conflict is perhaps inevitable, but these are not irreversible. While recognising the importance of ethno-linguistic elements as a key component of identity politics, one can’t ignore links between the dynamics of development and ethnic conflicts. One thing is certain: there can’t be a straightjacketed one-time solution for such conflicts. For each such agitation, there has to be nuanced solutions. To preserve a unified national identity without disturbing the diverse ethno-cultural identities of the Indian people is indeed a challenge, but this “unity in diversity” is also perhaps our greatest strength.