Ground Report: For Tripura’s Tribal Youth, a Fresh Language Battle

BJP has floated a ‘proposal’ to replace the tribal language – Kokborok – with Hindi in local news bulletins.

3 min read

For the tribal population of Tripura, the Tripurasa language – or Kokborok – has always been an intrinsic part of their identity. The state has seen a long history of tribals agitating against successive non-tribal governments to give Kokborok the recognition they think it deserves. Therefore, during the 2018 Assembly elections in the state, when the BJP promised to include Kokborok in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution if voted to power, they managed to sway a lot of tribal votes. However, a recent “proposal” at a government meeting has now left the tribal youth infuriated.

In the minutes of a meeting of the Circulation Committee under the Department of Information and Cultural Affairs (ICA), a proposal was raised to introduce Hindi by replacing Kokborok in local news bulletins to “promote nationalism.” While the government can’t impose Kokborok on any news channel, the proposal advocated sending “recommendations” to these channels, asking them to replace Kokborok with Hindi.

“We Feel Cheated”

When The Quint visited Khumulwng, Tripura’s tribal headquarters located about 40 kilometres from Agartala, the tribal youth said that this was a classic case of appeasement before elections.

We can understand that he has cheated us. Before the elections, he said whatever is necessary. Now the step he’s taken is very sad for our tribal people. If he is thinking about the betterment of tribals, why is he taking this step?
Prasenjit Debburma, tribal youth

Over 19 tribes in Tripura speak Kokborok – that’s around 25 percent of the entire population of the state. The tribals say they have always been considered secondary to the “Bengali” population of the state, and now they have to fight against Hindi dominance too.

Kokborok is our mother tongue – our unique heritage. It is our own linguistic. Why is Bengali not being thrown away to make way for Hindi? Why does Kokborok have to suffer? It is the nature of partiality and exploitation towards our Tripurasa people?  
Peter Debburma, tribal youth

“People Think We Are Stupid Because We Speak Kokborok’’

The youth at Khumulwng, mostly students, also said that this “proposal” by the government is further distressing because of the daily racism they have to face by virtue of their mother-tongue.

When we speak in Kokborok, people think that we don’t know anything. They think we are illiterate. The chief minister said that he wants Hindi to replace Kokborok. We don’t accept this. We have always been speaking in Kokborok. We understand that Hindi is our national language. We respect it, but it can’t come at the price of Kokoborok. People should be given an option between Kokborok and Hindi.
Ramesh Debburma, tribal youth

Stigmatised for being “non-Bengali”, the students consider this proposal as an assault on their identity.

When we go to Agartala, they look at us wrongly. We respect all languages – Bengali or Hindi – but Kokoborok doesn’t get the same respect. When people speak Bengali, they think they’re smart and that Kokborok speakers are villagers.
Apu Debbarma. tribal youth

“Our Language Will Be Lost”

The biggest fear among the tribal youth now is that their language will be lost, with successive governments now overlooking their demands.

Hindi is our national language but we have to preserve Kokborok as it is our mother-tongue. Kokborok should be given more respect, else the language will be lost.  
Apu Debburma, tribal youth

Some say that the problem is with a non-tribal person being at the helm of affairs historically, and are already rallying for the replacement of Biplab Deb with a tribal chief minister.

He’s not eligible. Let him resign and make the deputy CM (a tribal) the chief minister.
Peter Debburma, tribal youth

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