Indigenous languages and linguistic pluralism

Pavel Partha | Published: 02:17, Feb 21,2021


— BBC Future

My mother’s cellar was

Full with harvest and joy!

Bangla is my mother tongue

Bangla, my motherland.

Kaykobad, ‘Bangabhumi and Bangabhsha’ cited from Amar Bangla Boi, Class IV edited by Professor Kabiruddin Ahmed Mazumdar, National Curriculum and Textbook Board, Reprinted September 2005, Page 8-9, Translated from Bangla


ON FEBRUARY 21, schools are closed to celebrate International Mother Language Day. After having his breakfast with thajong alu (wild potato), George Chiran, a student of the Pirgacha Saint Paul’s High School is memorising the above mentioned poem by Kaykobad. George was born in Chunia Mandi village in Madhupur’s rapidly disappearing Balsal Bring (Shalban, Madhupur National Forest). George’s mother tongue is Mandikusuk (A’chik language). George is not a Bengali. He grew up in Mandi (Garo) community, which is one of the 60 ethnic communities other than ethnic Bengalis that live in Bangladesh.

Mandi, Chakma, Mro, Santal, Laleng (also known as Patra), Khasi, Hajong, Koch, Dalu, Bishnupriya Manipuri, Mei-tei Manipuri, Lushai, Kora, Koda, Oraon, Munda, Kharia, Mahali, Mrainma, Rakhaine, Tripura, Pankho, Gonju Sing, Bhumij, Mahato, Paharia, Khiyang, Khumi, Munda and Bawm children are told everyday by the state that their mother tongue is Bangla. In their text books, Bangla is introduced to them as their mother tongue. Bangla is the national language of Bangladesh and is the mother tongue of ethnic Bengalis, but not the mother tongue of Mandi, Chakma, Mro, Santal and other national minorities. In this context of linguistic inequality, this article is a primary discussion on the minority languages, their alphabets and literary tradition and practices. The first part of my discussion is focused on the debate around the alphabet and script of different endangered languages and the second part revolves around the question of national recognition, and the lack thereof, of indigenous literary practice and works.

Indigenous communities in Bangladesh have their own languages, but not all have a written form. Chakma, Marma, Rakhaine, Tripura, Mei-tei Manipuri, Santal, Mro, Berman-Khatriya have their own alphabets. Mandi, Lyngngam, Koch communities have proposed alphabets for their respective languages for a while now. Sections of the Khasi, Mandi, Mahali, Bawm, Khumi and Santal influenced by the Christian missionaries use Roman alphabets after making some changes to meet their language needs. Fifty years since the independence of Bangladesh, the state has failed to recognise and protect minority languages with the dignity and care that they need to survive. This tendency to deny and invisibilise other languages must be arrested, because it is in the end is the denial of the very spirit of Amar Ekushey. In a state, all language and alphabets must be given equal space and opportunity to thrive.

In Bangladesh, the National Education Policy 2010 has finally recognised indigenous children’s right to education in their respective mother tongues. The Ethnic Minority Cultural Institution Act 2010 pledges to preserve the minority cultures and languages. Section 9 of this Act says, it would collect data, conduct research and work ‘towards preserving the history, social and cultural tradition meaning language, literature, music, dance, craftwork, religion, customs and rituals of ethnic minority communities living in their respective areas’. In 2012, the state initiated a project to introduce textbooks for Chakma, Marma, Santal, Mandi, Tripura and Oraon communities in their own mother tongues. The decision was made to use Changma alphabet for Chakma, Marma alphabet for Marma community, for Tripura and Mandi community reformed Roman alphabet and for the Sadri speaking Munda-Oraon community Bangla alphabet. Sadly, the debate over the use Bangla, Ol Chiki or Roman alphabet stalled the introduction of textbooks in Santal. In January 2017, pre-primary textbooks in indigenous languages were formally given to children in some communities. The textbooks reached children of the Chattogram Hill Tracts, but not all indigenous children living in the plain gained access to such resources. It is not enough to produce books in minority languages, its reach and access also needs to be ensured. Properly trained teachers should also be made available to offer lessons to children using teaching materials in indigenous languages. In order to make that happen, everyday use of the endangered languages needs to be protected and encouraged. That has not been the case in Bangladesh and a brief look at the current status and practices of indigenous languages is enough to prove this point:



The changma alphabet is in use at the community level to a certain extent. Some books are published including books on learning alphabet. The book on traditional Chakma medicine is written in Changma language using its own alphabet. In addition, literary writing in Changma has continued using Bangla alphabet. In 2004, Debapriya Chakma published his novel ‘Febo’ in Changma language using its own alphabets, it was published by Pogadang, and the cover was done by Hapang Tripura Milon. In 2013, KB Devasish Chakma published his novel ‘Mui Mottei’ in Changma.


Marma (Mrainma)

Limited use of the language within the community is known. There are a few published books. Published kit to learn the alphabet is also there. Some Marma medicine books are written in Marma alphabet. In Kheyangs (Buddhist temples), many speak in Marma. Besides, literary works are produced and published using Bangla alphabet.



The alphabet in Rakhaine language is called Rakhaine Akkhara. Within the community, the language is in use. There are some published works in Rakhaine including booklets on learning alphabet. Literary works in Rakhaine language have been published using Bangla alphabet.



Kok Borok bathai — the alphabet of the Kok Borok is not commonly used within Tripura community, but there are learning kits for children to learn the language. Tripura literary works are published in Bangla alphabet.


Mandi (Garo)

So far, there are three proposed and published sets of alphabet for A’chik Thokbiram, the alphabet of A’chik language of Mandi community. Within the community, the written form of the language is not commonly used. However, literary works are published in A’chik language. In Mandi community, the use of Roman alphabet with some changes is also common. In this regard, the influence of the Christian missionaries is visible. Bible, religious texts and prayers are published in Roman alphabet. Besides, Mandi literary tradition continues to use Bangla alphabet.


Meitei Manipuri

Maitai Lon is the language of Meitei Manipuri and their alphabet is called Maitai Meyek which is rarely in use within the community. There are some books in this language including alphabet learning kit for children. Meitei literary works are being published using Bangla alphabet.



The Lyngngam community has proposed and published their alphabet, Lyngngam Thapirsoit. Many in the community have been using their own alphabet in their literary pursuit. A section of the children from the community is also familiar with the script.



The pioneer of Krama religion Menle Mro Mrochet wrote the alphabet for Mro language. It has been in use within the community. Krama religious texts are written in this language. Books to learn the alphabet also exist.



The Nagri alphabet of Thar language is not commonly used within the Berman community these days. There are some old handwritten scripts in Nagri, but today Berman literature is published using Bangla alphabet.


Ol Chiki

Pandit Raghunat Murmu created the script Ol Chiki for Santali language which was officially recognised in India in 1925, but its status in Bangladesh is still uncertain. There are some books in Ol Chiki. However, in Bangladesh, a debate over the use of Roman, Bangla or Ol Chiki to write the Santali language has created an obstacle to the literary or pedagogical pursuit in this language. So far, Santal literature is being written in Bangla script. First Santali pre-primary books were published in Bangladesh using Bangla alphabet. There are some published works in Santal using a reformed Roman script. Works on Christianity are also published in the same language form.



In 2006, Mahale script was created for Mahali language reforming the Roman alphabet. There is alphabet learning kit for children, which are also known to be in use in some schools.



In Bawm language, Roman script is used with some changes. In this case, the influence of Christian missionary is prominent. Religious text, booklets on learning alphabets, all are written in this reformed Roman script.



The use of ‘A-bi-ke’ script, which is a script they have created changing the Roman to meet their language need, is recorded within the Khasi community. In this case, the influence of Christian missionary is explicitly visible. Bible, religious texts, prayer songs and alphabet books and charts are published in this reformed Roman script. In Meghalaya of India, a daily newspaper called, ‘Mawphor’, is being published using the same script.



Language learning and teaching kits are published for Koch language using Bangla script. In literary pursuits Bangla script are also used. To help with the pronunciation, some new letters are added to the script in India.



In Assam and Bangladesh, some Hajong literature is published using Bangla script for some time now.


Bishnupriya Manipuri

For long, literary and cultural movement is going on in this language community using the Bangla script. In the Assam state of India, Sudeshna Singha sacrificed her life demanding the state recognition of Bishnupriya Manipuri language.



In some small areas of Rajshahi among the Kol community, a non-governmental initiative is there that offers pre-primary education in Kol language, but it uses Bangla alphabet.



In Sylhet, among the Laleng (Patra) indigenous community, the ‘Patra Community Welfare Association’ has published pre-primary education material using Bangla script. In 2020, they have published the dictionary of Patra language.



A novel titled, ‘Karam’ by Ujjal Mahato was published in Mahato (mainly Sadri) language using Bangla alphabet. The young generation of this community today is continuing their pursuit in Mahato using Bangla alphabet.


In addition to the debates around the alphabets and scripts of many minority languages in Bangladesh, it is important to look at the status of literary pursuits in minority or indigenous languages. The state’s failure to recognise literary works in minority languages made such works invisible or marginal in the national literary scene. The Ethnic Minority Cultural Institution Act 2010 pledges to preserve and develop the language, culture, literature, and heritage of indigenous population of the country, but we do not see any sincere attempt by the government to this end. What we see are some media reports crying over the imminent death of indigenous languages on or before International Mother Language Day or World Indigenous Day. We witness conservationists are making noises saying ‘Languages are disappearing’, but the state does nothing to protect the language and literature of indigenous population. Instead, the state appears to have imposed discriminatory policy on the minority community while rhetorically committing to the cause of endangered languages. The state must know that language does not survive without an enabling environment, it must also realise that a language cannot be killed with bullet. In this regard, the policy level attitude of the government and the state has to be non- discriminatory.

In Bangladesh, the question of protecting and preserving the indigenous languages are limited to introducing primary education in different languages and that initiative is also stalled over unresolved debate over the scripts and alphabets of the ethnic minority languages. However, a language can never survive unless institutional and socio-political supports are there for literary works and its use in everyday life. It is important that the government initiates recognise and reward literary practices in indigenous languages. Every year, the way literary work in Bangla is rewarded, same should be done for the literature produced in Changma, Marma or Ol Chiki or other languages. The Bangla Academy and other cultural institutions should play a role in this regard. Indigenous writers and their works must be considered for the national awards such as Ekushey Padak or Shadhinata Padak. There are oral literatures including Sheranjingpala, Rere, Ajia of Mandi community, Ramadhan-dhanpudi of Chakma community or Rashpala of Maitai and Bishnupriya community and these oral forms of writing should also be considered when rewarding indigenous literature.

In Bangladesh, we see poets from indigenous communities are writing poetry in their respective languages either using Roman or Bangla alphabet or their own alphabet. Many have also written essays, biographical pieces, and political commentaries in similar language forms.  In some areas, plays are written and performed in indigenous languages. The International Institute of Mother Languages is conducting survey on minority languages. They have plans to conduct research on the grammar of these endangered languages. However, for people from these communities who are producing literary works in their own language, there exists no form of state support for or recognition of their work.

In the eyes of Bengali chauvinistic state, their works remain invisible. The government should establish an ‘Indigenous Language and Literature Award’ to recognise the works written in languages other than Bangla. They should play the khram (Mandi drums) of justice to create a social environment in which indigenous writers can continue their literary pursuit with dignity. From jum lands to Bangla Academy to parliament, let the khram, madol(Santali drums), dama (Mandi drums), and ploong (Mro flute) play the indigenous melodies establishing their right to speak, sing and write in all languages with dignity. True commemoration of Amar Ekushey lies in the recognition of linguistic plurality that exists in Bangladesh.


Pavel Partha is a researcher and writer. Translated by Saima Azad.

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