The Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institutions Act 2010 is committed to the protection and development of the language, culture, literature, and heritage of the ethnic minority groups of the country. But regrettably, we have not yet seen a consolidated initiative on the question of protection and development of ethnic minority languages and literature. Ethnic minority communities have been the historical targets of colonial identity-politics, and the victims of demographic dominance of the state.
We tend to see some routine publicity in the media under typical headlines like "Indigenous languages are disappearing," or stories on International Mother Language Day (21 February) and International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples (9 August). The civil society sheds some crocodile tears from their so-called "developmental" standpoint on these occasions.
But the state does not stand up for the protection of the language and literature of ethnic minorities. The state, as always, prefers the policy of discrimination, and on every 21 February, we hypocritically say "all languages must be saved."
The state must understand that a language does not survive by itself. It requires food, clothing, shelter, education, and care. To protect the mother tongue of each of the ethnic minority groups of the country, the behaviour, attitude, political philosophy, and policies of the state must be non-discriminatory and fair.
"Primary education in the mother tongue for ethnic minority groups" is an important task for the state, to save our country's ethnic minority languages, which has not yet materialised for all the languages spoken in this country.
Ensuring the security, recognition, and dignity of a language and its literary practices is one of the conditions of its survival. It is important for the state to introduce an "ethnic minority language and literature award" to ensure this dignity and recognition.
This award can be given every year, focusing on literary works written by ethnic minority authors in their own languages. Bangla Academy, or a cultural institute which works on ethnic minority issues, could be given the responsibility for this. Ethnic minority artistes and writers should also be considered for national awards like Ekushey Padak and Swadhinata Padak.
Ethnic minority groups have their own forms of artistic expression, for example, oral narratives like sheranjingpala, azia, and rere of the Mandi community, jaa of Marmas, radhaman-dhanpudi or tara of Chakmas, rasapala of the Bishnupriya Manipuri society, and Mahishasurbadh pala of the Hajong society.
It is important to consider both oral and written literary works with equal importance and dignity for the ethnic minority language and literature awards.
A rich history
According to Bangla Shamoyeekpatre Adibashikatha, ethnic minority studies from an ethnographic point of view started around 1885. A new wave appeared in Chakma language, literature, culture, art, and music for the first time in the 1970s. During this renaissance of Chakma society, a number of promising literary and cultural organisations were born.
In 1972, three literary and cultural organisations were formed in Rangamati town: Jumia Language Promotion Department (Juvaprada), Murolya Sahitya O Sanskriti Goshthi, and Girisur Shilpi Goshthi. In the same year, Juvaprada published their first literary collection Biju, and Murolya Sahitya O Sanskriti Goshthi published Lura, on the occasion of Biju festival.
In 1974, Girisur Shilpi Goshthi published Shinga, a collection of modern songs in Chakma-Marma-Tripura languages. In the 1970s, Rangamatya, a poetry collection consisting of 12 children's poems by Sugat Chakma (Nanadhan) was published from Rangamati. The Rangamati Aesthetics Council was formed in Dhaka on 27 February 1981 to study, research, publish, and propagate the language, literature, culture, and art of ethnic minorities. It changed its name to Jum Aesthetic Council (JAC) later.
The Murlaya Sahitya Goshthi in 1980 and the Rangamati Aesthetics Council in 1981 published the first and second volumes of Radhaman-Dhanpudi in Changma language and Bangla script from Rangamati. A poetry quarterly edited by Mrittika Chakma was published in Changma language and Bangla script in 1981 from Rangamati.
Not only the Chakmas, but all marginal communities of the country have a history of struggle for their own art and literature. Ethnic minority groups even have a historical role in the development of Bangla language and literature. Maharaj Dharmamanikya of Tripura translated Rajmala by Shukreshwar and Baneshwar into Bangla in 860 Tripura calendar (1450 AD).
The golden chapter in the literary heritage of the Tripura nation goes back to 1860. Surendra Kumar Debberma published a literary magazine called Tripura Bhasha in 1903. Mahendra Debbarma's play Patibrata was published in 1917, Radhamohan Debbarma's book Kokborok Maa was published in 1900.
Khushi Krishna Tripura's anthology of lyrics Kha Kachangma Khumbar was published in Bangladesh in 1936. In the year 1370 of the Tripura calendar, his book Kokborok Kaktang was published. Surendra Lal Tripura, Baren Tripura, Navavikram Tripura, Prabangshu Tripura, Mahendralal Tripura, and Shobha Tripura have published their literary works in Tripura and Bangla languages by overcoming various obstacles and discrimination.
The movement goes on
Among the Mandi, Koch, Hajong, Berman, Banai, Dalu, Hadi, Rajbangshi, and Lyngam communities of Mymensingh, Netrokona, Sherpur, Jamalpur, Tangail, and Gazipur districts, printed literature could be found mainly in Mandi and Hajong communities. An irregular publication called Janira is being published from the Birishiri Cultural Academy, established in 1977 at Birishiri in Durgapur, Netrokona. The publication calls itself the literary mirror of the ethnic minority society. It mainly publishes songs, poems, and research writings on different issues.
In 1999, Daring wrote 17 stories for children in Roman script, but in Mandi's Achik language. Among the Mandis, poets and writers like James Jarnesh Chiran, Matendra Mankhin, Sanjeeb Drong, James Ward Khaksi, Bachan Nakrek, Babul de Nokrek, Porag Ritchil, Rakhi Mrong, Mithun Rakshsam, and Banjon Mree have raised their literary voices mainly in Bangla.
Among the ethnic minority communities in Sylhet, Meitei Manipuri, Bishnupriya Manipuri, Khasi, Mandi, Hajong, and the community of the tea garden are carrying on their literary movement quite vigorously. Meitei Manipuri poet AK Sheram and Bishnupriya Manipuri poet Shuvasis Sinha are very important writers. A living trend of literary practices is also vibrant among the Santal, Munda, Orao, and Mahali communities of the northern region. Manik Soren is coordinating the "Santal Wikipedia '' as an admin, and promoting their Olchiki alphabet.
Changing the mentality
In Bangladesh, most poets and writers from ethnic minority communities write mainly in their own languages and scripts, or in their own languages using Bangla script. Many write research articles, creative prose, memoirs, and so on. Debashish Chakma's novel Febo was published in 2004 in Changma script and language. It was published by Pogadang with a cover designed by Hapong Tripura Milon. Uzzal Mahato's novel Karam was also published in Kurmali language and in Bangla script.
Yangan Mro and Sing Yung Mro have an important contribution in promoting Mro language, script, and literature. Some have also written short stories and novels in Bangla script and language.
Many write plays, and are involved in theatre in their own languages in their own areas. Literary practices in their own language and script are dominant among Chakma, Meitei Manipuri, Mandi, Bishnapriya Manipuri, and Tripura communities.
Despite all this, it is true that ethnic minority languages are being lost day by day through an unquestionable colonial process. The International Mother Language Institute has not yet clarified its activities on the security and progress of the languages of ethnic minority peoples in Bangladesh. Also, it is planning to conduct grammatical studies of ethnic minority languages, but no state recognition has been ensured for the people who are relentlessly writing literature in different ethnic minority languages and scripts.
The state refers to something as "national literature'" only when it is literature written in Bangla language and script. It is necessary to change this Bangla-dominant mentality of the state. Ethnic minority languages and Bangla should both be allowed to create, shape, and enrich the literary landscape of this country.
Literary works written in ethnic minority languages should be honoured by the state every year. The state should stand beside the dying languages by introducing ethnic minority language and literature awards to protect the language and literature of all the communities in this country. The dignity and history of ethnic minority languages and literature can at last be ensured with these little steps.
Pavel Partha is a researcher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.