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The distinct cry of an imperilled frontier

The outburst against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, or CAB, (now an Act, or CAA) in the Northeast has left many outside the region confounded. Unlike the objections to the CAA everywhere else in the country — which is about the discriminatory and seeming Islam-phobia attributes of the new law — they are bewildered that in the Northeast, CAB is seen as a threat to survival. This inability of those outside the Northeast to see what the Northeast sees betrays to an extent an ignorance and an insensitivity to a stark reality small marginalised communities there face.

‘Population anxiety’

The truth is, going by UNESCO’s definition of endangered languages, all of the 200 and more languages spoken in the Northeast, with the exception of Assamese and Bengali, are in the vulnerable category. Even in the case of Assamese, though it is the language of the majority in the State with about 15 million speakers (Census 2011), they are still a tiny minority when the larger region of Bangladesh, Bengal and Assam is considered. Bengali speakers in Assam total about 9 million (Census 2011); however, neighbouring Bangladesh alone has 164 million speakers of the same language. The fear in Assam of being overwhelmed by an unceasing influx of people from Bangladesh therefore is nothing beyond legitimacy. This is a peculiar situation often described as “a majority with a minority complex”; its consequences have resurfaced in the region time and again, yet few take cognisance of it, perpetuating the phenomenon.

In Bhutan in the 1980s, when a lakh or so Nepali migrants were evicted from the country, and even in the current Rohingya crisis, it is this same and largely ignored “population anxiety” that lies at its roots.

Issue of marginalisation

Bertil Lintner, Swiss journalist and author who has been very closely associated with the region, has pointed out in a recent interview that the Rohingya crisis is nowhere near the popularly projected binary of Muslim versus Buddhist. The ethnic Rakhines, numbering about two million in the Rakhine state — shared with the Rohingya — were the ones feeling the pressure of a continuing population influx from Bangladesh, expanding the Rohingya population. That the Myanmar government favoured the Rakhines was always obvious but it may be noted that the crisis was precipitated when a previously unheard-of militant organisation, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, made a coordinated attack on 30 Myanmar police camps in August 2017. This major incident prompted the Myanmar government to begin its brutal ethnic cleansing campaign.

Even now, says Mr. Lintner, the presence of seven lakh Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh close to the Chittagong Hill Tract, is making small ethnic Buddhist communities such as the Chakmas and Marmas uneasy: they could become marginalised if the refugees were to be resettled among them. These are tragedies that are indeed multi-layered but often only one is made visible.

Language and survival

A closer look at the UNESCO classification of endangered languages will illuminate further the Northeast’s reaction to the CAA. If a language is vulnerable because of the small size of the number of speakers, it becomes more so if the language is spoken only in certain domains — for instance at home, but not at schools and offices, etc. It becomes definitely endangered if parents speak the language and children only know the language but do not speak it as mother tongue. It becomes critically endangered if the grandparents’ generation speak the language, parents know it but do not use it, and children do not know it any more.

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