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http://sih.sagepub.com ‘Tongue Has No Bone’: Fixing the Assamese Language, c. 1800c. 1930
Bodhisattva Kar Studies in History 2008; 24; 27 DOI: 10.1177/025764300702400102 The online version of this article can be found at: http://sih.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/24/1/27

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‘Tongue Has No Bone’: Fixing the Assamese Language, c. 1800–c. 1930
Bodhisattva Kar
Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Kolkata

This article deals with the politics of envisioning a vernacular for Assam proper during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Through a small, connected history of orthographic contests, grammarians’ debates and print-culture, it tries to understand the various ways in and through which the boundaries of a vernacular were drawn, policed and violated during this period. Rather than narrating the complexities of the question in terms of stable and ever-present languages, this article attempts to show how the metropolis-oriented production of linguistic knowledge came to hypostatize an abstract grid of standard languages within which the mutable, heterogeneous and fluctuating speech practices (and the corresponding scribal culture) of a frontier province had to be definitively mobilized. The article explores the debates regarding the alleged dialectal status of the ‘Assamese’ and traces some connections between spatial sequence, linguistic imagination and proprietorial logic.

‘The tongue because it has no bone, says various things.’ In his famous compilation of Some Assamese Proverbs, P.R. Gurdon classified this popular Assamese adage under the entry of ‘proverbs relating to the human failings, foibles and vices.’1 In short, this article is a note on such cultures of classification in which the plural becomes a sign of human frailty. Put more cautiously, the article is focused on the politics of envisioning a vernacular for Assam proper over the long nineteenth century. Through a small, connected history of orthographic contests, grammarians’ debates and print culture, it tries to understand the various ways in and through which the boundaries of a vernacular were drawn, policed and violated during this period. Rather than narrating the complexities of the question in terms of stable and ever-present languages, the present article endeavours to show how the metropolis-oriented production of linguistic knowledge came to hypostatize an abstract grid of standard language within which the mutable, heterogeneous and fluctuating speech practices (and the corresponding scribal culture) of a frontier province had to be definitively mobilized. The ensuing debates regarding the alleged dialectal status of the ‘Assamese’ are closely analyzed, which allow us to
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Gurdon (1896: ii, 8).

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trace some connections between spatial sequence, linguistic imagination and proprietorial logic. ‘An Active Plurality of Languages’2 In 1836, while finalizing the press copies of the forms of ‘Pottahs and Kubooleats’, the Agent to the Governor General in the North-Eastern Frontier decided that it was adequate to print them in two languages—English and Bengali. The Assamese version, I myself consider to be unnecessary, it is used in none of our official documents, the Bengallee being sufficiently well understood, and it is a point, I think of great importance that we should not assent to uphold a corrupt dialect, but endeavour to introduce pure Bengallee, and to render this Province as far as possible an integral part of the great country to which that language belongs, and to render available to Assam the literature of Bengal.3 This brief aside of Francis Jenkins in a Revenue Consultation remains one of the clearest policy statements of the early British Indian administration regarding the vernacular question in Assam. It is difficult to trivialize the importance of the opinion of a man who headed the British Indian establishment in the North-Eastern frontier uninterruptedly for twenty-seven years. But it is always possible to ask what this ‘pure Bengallee’ was. Thirty-five years ago, William Carey had defined ‘pure Bengalee’ as a language ‘principally derived from the Sangskrito’. Although ‘multitudes of words, originally Persian or Arabic, are constantly employed in common conversation,’ wrote Carey in the first edition of his book, the phenomenon ‘perhaps ought to be considered as enriching rather than corrupting the language.’4 Evidently, Carey was reacting to Nathaniel Halhed’s Grammar of the Bengal Language. Considered as the first modern grammar of Bengali, Halhed’s book is known for its categorical detestation of the vernacular’s overlap with the Persian.5 As an informed analysis points out today, ‘[t]o arrive at the most general qualities of the Indian subject, Halhed is forced to reconstruct its origins in Sanskrit, for the surface of the linguistic map of India alone reveals chaos.’6 In the vast territorial scope of Sanskrit, ‘the grand Source of Indian Literature, the Parent of almost every dialect from the Persian Gulph to the China Seas,’ Halhed saw the perfection
This phrase is from Bakhtin (1984: 471). F. Jenkins, Agent to the Governor General in the North Eastern Frontier, to the Sudder Board of Revenue, Fort William, dated 3 December 1836, No. 120, in ‘Extract Bengal Revenue Consultations, 12 April 1836, No. 554’, in ‘Conditions for Grants of Land in Assam, Enclosed in Letter to Mr. Prideaux.’ 4 Carey (1801: iii). 5 Halhed (1778), see preface. See also Cohn (1985: 295–99). 6 Schwarz (1997: 517). Qayyum (1982) offers a description and analysis of Carey’s gradual ‘Sanskritization’ of the vernacular. See also Rocher (1983).
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of his imperial imagination—the promise of a wide and united geography. In its status as a dead literary language ‘shut up in the libraries of Bramins,’ he found the most inviolable purity beyond the fluctuations of living speeches. However, ‘interspersed’ as Sanskrit was ‘with an infinite variety of extraneous matter’, wrote Halhed, in the impure vernaculars ‘arises one capital impediment to the uniformity of political arrangements in Bengal.’ Their varieties and ‘corruptions’, their unmanageable heterogeneities and intractable ‘intercourses’, make a coherent government impossible. ‘[T]he proper Bengalese’, therefore, must turn towards its ‘main ground-work’—‘the Shanscrit; a language of the most venerable and unfathomable antiquity.’7 Carey, who certainly had greater acquaintance with the diverse speeches across the province of Bengal than Halhed, wrote to a friend in Birmingham in 1795, Should you pursue the knowledge of the Hindoo language, it will no doubt have its use; but could you learn to read, and understand, and pronounce well all the books that are written in that language, yet not one in a hundred of the people would understand you, nor you could understand them, so different is the language called Bengallee (which is spoken by the higher ranks of Hindoos) from the common language of the country, which, is a mixture of the Bengalee, Hindoostanee, Persian, Portuguese, Armenian, and English, that is a mere jargon.8 However, as recent studies have shown, Carey substantially revised his initial position regarding ‘the provincialisms’ in the successive editions of his Grammar, and his increasing emphasis on the essentially ‘Sungskrit’ character of ‘the Bengalee’ gradually reinforced Halhed’s envisioning of the vernacular.9 The point is that the pursuit of ‘pure Bengallee’ could be possible only by effectively distributing the differences in the mutable, heterogeneous and fluctuating speech practices into settled poles of defined languages. Such polar distributions were the elemental conditions of linguistic ideologies.10 The communicative competencies had to be classified, organized and framed off from each other in order to be reinscribed on the new philological register of distinct languages. It is only predictable that for the scribal network operative in the late Tungkhungia world of concurrent sovereignties, the metropolitan efforts to define a pure language carried little sense. The exact scope and constituency of this scribal web are still to be known. But scattered references in the early nineteenth-century documents point at the existence of an extensive network of literate muharrirs which was embraced and employed by the Tungkhungias as well as a range of local power holders.
Halhed (1778: iii–ix). Carey to Pearce, dated 31 December 1795, quoted in Das (2000: 81). 9 Ibid., pp. 100–1. 10 Silverstein (1979: 193) famously defines linguistic ideologies as ‘sets of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use.’
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‘The Cosseahs are ignorant of the use of letters, as far as their own language is concerned,’ reported Jenkins in 1832, ‘although some of the chiefs retain Bengalee Mohurreers, for the purpose of carrying on their correspondence with the public officers, and inhabitants of the plains.’11 The language of these ‘Bengalee Mohurreers’—coming mostly ‘from Sylhet, Mymensing, and Dacca’—was certainly not the new Sanskritized and sanitized language under preparation in Calcutta.12 The words and expressions of their correspondences came from a number of ‘stocks’ which the new philological imagination understood as ‘foreign’ to ‘Bengali’. As a typical late Tungkhungia scribe, Ambarish Majundar Barua was reported to be fluent in ‘Persian, Hindi, Bhutanese, and Burmese’, apart from other local speeches.13 The extant samples of the Swargadeo’s letters to the neighbouring courts testify that the Tungkhungia participation in a shared vocabulary could and did vary depending upon the speech and status of the addressee.14 In 1800, John Wade made particular note of the fact that the Tungkhungia administration was not monolingual. He identified ‘the language of the Race of Swargee Deo’ as ‘Bailoongh or Ahom’, which, according to him, was ‘written in a character utterly unknown to the Pandits of Bengal’. Rather, ‘the Bakha (Batta) being a dialect of the Bengalese’, said he, was in common use in the scribal culture of Na mani.15 ¯ Bha kha or Bha sha , a term for distinguishing different South Asian speeches from ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ the rule-bound Sanskrit, was characterized by its almost generic evasion of written grammars. The European attempts to write the grammars of the bha ¯ (of which ¯sha the books of Halhed and Carey provide the best-known examples) explicitly ran counter to the prevailing literary code. Letters in bha ¯, land grants in a Sanskrit that abounded in ‘provincialisms’16, ¯sha burañj…s in both bha ¯ and ‘Bailoongh or Ahom’, and the maintenance of a huge ¯sha establishment of different Katakis (interpreters) to communicate with the various speech communities in the hills: adequate evidences survive to suggest the robustly polyglot character of the late Tungkhungia administration.17 Indeed, the ability to
Jenkins, Private Journal (under Private Papers). F. Jenkins, Commissioner of Revenue, Assam, to W. Grey, Secretary to the Government of Bengal, dated Gowhatty, 7 December 1854, No. 236, in ‘Correspondence relating to the Question whether Assamese or Bengali Language should be taught in the Assam Schools’, (hereafter ‘Correspondence’), under Unpublished Sources. 13 Bhuyan (1930: i–ii). 14 Tunga (1985) contains a representative sample of such letters, although Tunga is too eager to read them as instances of ‘early modern Bengali’. 15 Wade, Account of Asam (under Private Papers). 16 Hoernle (1898: 99–108) offered a long litany of the ‘usual provincialisms’ in the Sanskrit land grants of the Tungkhungias: ‘Syllables are frequently omitted... Similarly letters are omitted... Occasionally superfluous syllables are inserted... Anusva ra and visarga are very frequently omitted... Long ¯ and short vowels are frequently interchanged.’ 17 We must clarify here that in our judgment the connection of this polyglot world to the culture of multiple sovereignties is structural and not casual. We are far from celebrating what David Bell has so acerbically called an idealized ‘linguistic state of nature’. See Bell (1995: 1408).
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operate in the multiple registers of communicative competencies was considered a prized skill for the higher Tungkhungia officials. According to Jenkins, from ‘the Rajahs Poorunder Sing and Chunder Kant Sing, with their chiefs’, he had ‘never heard any other languages spoken than Hindoostanee and Bengali’.18 While the speech of the Khamtis often functioned as the major medium of communication in the eastern hills,19 the Khamti chief himself was reported to have ‘a tolerable knowledge of the Bengalee language’.20 The Duaria Baruas in the western part of the kingdom were specifically required to be acquainted with the linguistic styles that had come to be identified as Persian, Sanskrit and Hindustani. The Katakis, more numerous in the eastern part, were employed to mediate between the specific speeches of the Banskata and Choiduaria Daflas, Panibatia Miris, Tarbatia Miris, Charak Miris, Ghasi Miris, Abors and Nagas.21 Despite occasional impatience with ‘these wretched impostors of kotokies’,22 even the British officials were forced to continue with their services for most part of the nineteenth century.23 Indeed, as late as 1885, there were at least sixteen registered Katakis only in the Lakhimpur district and ‘they receive[d] salaries amounting to Rs 130 per annum’.24 ¯ ¯ Haliram Dhekiyal Phukan’s A sam Burañj… and Muneeram Dutt Borwah’s Burañj… Vivekratna might be the two most characteristic texts to explore the issue
18 F. Jenkins, Commissioner of Revenue, Assam, to W. Grey, Secretary to the Government of Bengal, dated Gowhatty, 7 December 1854, No. 236, in ‘Correspondence’. In an early private journal, Jenkins had similarly mentioned that Purandar Singha spoke ‘Hindustanee fluently’. See Jenkins, Private Journal (under Private Papers). 19 It was reported to be ‘ the common language not only of the Singphos but of all other rude and numerous tribes in contract [sic] with either to the east and [sic] north-east.’ F. Jenkins, Agent to the Governor General in the North-Eastern Frontier, to W.H. Macnaghten, Secretary to Government of India, Political Department, dated Calcutta, 22 July 1833, in Foreign Department (P. C.), 11 February 1835, Nos. 82–106, National Archive of India, New Delhi (hereafter NAI). 20 Robertson described the ‘Suddya Khowa Gohayn’ as ‘a person of a specific character to some little literary acquirements’. Extract Fort William Political Consultations of 7 January 1833, from T.C. Robertson, Agent to the Governor General on the North-Eastern Frontier to G. Swinton, Chief Secretary, Dated 14 December 1832, Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library, London (hereafter OIOC). 21 E.T. Dalton, Officiating Political Agent, Upper Assam, dated 19 March 1852, to the Agent to the Governor General, North-Eastern Frontier, quoted in “‘Posa” payable to certain Hill Tribes on the North Eastern Frontier’, Foreign Department, Political B, July 1877, Nos. 83–86, NAI. 22 W. S. Clarke, Deputy Commissioner, Luckimpore, to the Personal Assistant to the Commissioner of Assam, No. 2P, Debrooghur, 9 May 1872, in ‘Annual Meeting of the Deputy Commissioner, Luckimpoor, with the Abor tribes’, Foreign Department, Political-A, August 1872, Nos. 139–141, NAI. 23 For interesting references to the crucial roles played by the Katakis like Jagnyadatta (Bar Kataki) and Radhanath (Kataki) in the early British administration, see Sharma Majundar Barua (1991: 40, 115–19). 24 Extract from the Proceedings of the Chief Commissioner of Assam in the Judicial Department, No. 718, dated 4 May 1885, in ‘Posa payment to the Hill Tribes of the Lakhimpur District’, Foreign Department, External B, June 1886, Nos. 96–100, NAI.

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a little further.25 Dhekiyal Phukan’s book was primarily written for an emergent bhadralok readership in the contemporary capital city of Calcutta. Its language was meant to be ‘Bengali’, and has always been identified as such. Indeed, the author has come to be consistently praised in the standard histories of Bengali literature for his ‘extraordinary command over Bengali’. It is a consensus among the experts that the Burañj… is the earliest instance of original history writing in modern Bengali.26 The language of the text is almost indistinguishable from the new ‘anonymous’ language of reportage and description that structured the evolving idiom of print-capitalism in early nineteenth-century Calcutta.27 And yet, at several points of the narrative, the homogeny of the language is playfully disrupted through purposeful emphases on the unfamiliarity of a number of words and phrases. The flow of a Sanskritized-sanitized ‘pure Bengallee’ often happens upon expressions from (primarily) Ahom, (but also) Persian, Arabic, English and ‘hard Sanskrit’. The author immediately uses the conjunction ‘artha t’ (‘that is’) after ¯ such expressions to explicate the specific meanings in the dominant language of the text, giving it a grainier texture than the usual.28 The ceaseless juxtapositions of familiar and unfamiliar expressions continually unsettle the monotony of the monolingual. Dewan Dutt Borwah’s Burañj… Vivekratna, which was neither written for a metropolitan audience nor published until 2002, reflects the heterogeneity of the Tungkhungia scribal culture much more forcefully. A bland monolingual translation cannot do justice to the strange, uneven density of its language. Burañj… Vivekratna’s ‘multilingualism’ goes far beyond the mere use of unfamiliar words. In positively refusing to abide by one syntactical structure, the text shuttles between Sanskrit and a wide range of bhasha conventions. As the perturbed twenty-first¯ ¯ century editor describes, The introductory section of Burañj… Vivekratna is in Sanskrit. The language of the very next chapter is Bengali. A mixture of Assamese and Bengali has been used in the third chapter. Continuing the use of this mixed language until [the section] “The Dismissals of the Da ngar…ya s”, he has started to use Assamese ¯ ¯ from [the section] “The Investiture of the Da ngar…ya s”. Again, he begins [the ¯ ¯

See Dhekiyal Phukan (1962) and Dewan [Dutt Borwah] (2002). Sen (1998: 37–8). 27 Ray’s upanibes er samaj (1990) is still the best account of the process. In various early nineteenth´ ¯ century Calcutta newspapers, there are scattered references to the literary enthusiasm of Dhekiyal Phukan. 28 The editor of asam burunj…, Jatindramohan Bhattacharya, provides a long list of this textual ¯ ¯ practice in his introduction. We must also clarify that these phrases or words were not necessarily ‘technical jargons’, as one might suspect, but common everyday expressions like ‘seat’, ‘wife’, ‘alcohol’, ‘pig’, and ‘fowl’.
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section] “Account of the Origin of the Tungkhungia House” in Bengali, but swiftly changes into Assamese. ... Yet again, the chapter on “Enthronement” begins in Bengali, becomes Assamese in the middle and finally becomes a mixture of Assamese and Bengali.29 Such a description, let us remember, is possible only when the describer takes the prevailing boundary between Sanskrit, Assamese and Bengali as ever-present. Indeed, it is the text’s constant play with the major constituents of this boundary— unique verb-forms, prefix-negatives, distinctive case endings—that baffles today’s commentator. The text appears as a disjunctive, even incoherent, patchwork of speeches. The editor declares that Burañj… Vivekratna’s multilingualism is a characteristic sign of the historical ‘inferiority complex’ of the early nineteenth-century Assamese intellectuals.30 Nothing, we may say, could be more misleading. As any user of the imperial archive knows, Muneeram Dutt Borwah, one of the first non-European contributors to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, was perfectly capable of writing petitions in the Calcutta argot.31 The addressee of Burañj… Vivekratna was not the metropolitan audience. Its self-conscious location in the late Tungkhungia scribal culture did not immediately subject the text to the exigencies of polar distribution. One could say that those exigencies had been acutely felt by Ruchinath Buragohain, a Tungkhungia nobleman who visited Calcutta in the early years of the nineteenth century in a political mission.32 Ruchinath was asked to prepare a set of ‘Comparative vocabularies of Sanskrit, Assamese and Kamarupi languages’, which he finished by 1810. Reportedly the first wordbook of Assamese, the manuscript contains three parallel columns of words classed as ‘Sanskrit’, ‘Ashami Bhasha’ and ‘Camarupa Bhasha’. Even if we believe that ‘Ashami Bhasha’ refers to the dominant speech of Upper or Eastern Assam (Ujani) and ‘Camarupa Bhasha’ to that of Lower or Western Assam (Na mani), no definitive comparison between ¯ the two is possible as the third column abruptly disappears after folio 41b. Moreover, the differences in pronunciations, intonations, speech tempos and inflections which continued to trouble the dream of a uniform Assamese language even after standardization could hardly be captured in such a format.33 The attached notes

See ‘Introduction’ by Nagen Saikia in Dewan [Dutt Borwah] (2002: xvii). Ibid., pp. xvii–xviii. 31 The vernacular text of the petition, drafted by Muneeram on behalf of Purandar Singha, strongly protesting against the Assam Company’s desecration of the Swargadeos’ tombs, is available (along with a translation) in Foreign Department, Political Branch, 20 April 1840, Pros. Nos. 91–92, NAI. 32 ‘Extract from a Despatch from the Governor-General in Council at Fort William, in Bengal, to the Court of Directors of the East India Company; dated 12th September, 1823’, in Wilson (1827: 6). 33 Cf. Goswami (1982: 12–17); Goswami (1970).
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on the Sanskrit and ‘Ashami’ conjugation of verbs and declension of nouns vigorously point at the demand of the European philology to understand every unfamiliar speech in terms of its distance from a supposed centre of unalterable Sanskrit.34 It is difficult to ascertain the extent to which Ruchinath’s vocabulary helped William Carey in his project of translating the Holy Bible into ‘Assamese’ (1811–19). Carey depended mostly on a Koliabor pundit, Atmaram, for this translation.35 In spite of a certificate from Haliram Dhekiyal Phukan and three Brahmin pundits from Assam,36 the Assamese New Testament was a flop. James Rae,37 who was sent to Assam with 429 copies of the Book ‘in Assamese, Khasee, Burman, Bengalee, and Sungskrit [,] and with 250 [other] Bengalee Tracts’, reported in 1830 that the Bengali texts ‘have been received with readiness, for the Assamese are fond of reading Bengalee’, but not the Assamese translation of Atmaram.38 The language of the 864-page Assamese Bible, with all its painful struggles to maintain a precarious balance between dead Sanskrit and living speeches, was too much of a product of the linguistic laboratory at Serampore to strike any ready chord of familiarity or belongingness in Assam.39 Carey’s ‘Kassee’ venture suffered a similar end.40
34 See ‘sañskrita, a sa mi o ka mr™p… bha sha r sabdasañgraha’. A slightly differing transcript is also ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ´ available as ‘Vocabularies of the Ashami and Camarupa languages’. See both under Transcripts and Manuscripts. 35 J.N. (1886: 32). 36 ‘In the year 1811, a translation of the New Testament into the Assamese language was begun, which was finished at press in 1819; and in the year following, the Old Testament was put to press. Testimonies respecting this version, from learned natives, have not been wanting. Nearly seven years ago, three Assamese Brahmins in particular, then studying at Nudeeya, sent the following lines to Serampore: “We have received the specimen of the Assamese scriptures which you sent to us. We have read and understood it. It is excellently done. Whoever of the Assam people shall read this book will understand it.” Much about the same time, in a letter addressed to the Rev. Mr. Thomason by the late Major Barre Later, there is the following passage: “The New Testament printed by the Missionaries at Serampore, is written in the present vernacular idiom of Assam. It was shown to a Vukeel (envoy), a person of some rank under the King of Assam, and also to a learned Assamese named Hulee Ram, who had just arrived at Gwalpara. The report sent me by the officer commanding at Gwalpara is as follows: ‘I showed your Testament to the Vukeel, and to the Hulee Ram, they read it with great ease, and said that it was written in the Bengalee character, which is in general use, and understood by all; and that the language is good Assamese, such as is spoken and written in Assam. In short, it is just what it was intended to be.”’ Periodical Accounts (1834: 177–78). 37 In 1829, on the representation of David Scott, James Rae, an ex-PWD official, set up a oneperson branch of the Serampore Mission at Guwahati. See ‘Assam’ (1836: 266). 38 Ibid., p. 408, No. VI. At any rate, Rae’s activities were mostly limited to the darogahs, zamindars and other ‘respectable natives’ of Na mani. Many of these a-paikan bhadraloks, like Haliram and ¯ Jagnyaram, were acquainted with the emergent Calcutta language. Cf. Ibid., p. 590, No. IX. 39 Cf. The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, translated from the Originals into the Assam Language by the Serampore Missionaries, Vol. V containing the New Testament, Serampore, 1820. An early specimen of the work was published in Fac-simile of Specimens (1816: 5). 40 For an interesting account of the Serampore New Testaments which ‘used the Shella dialect and the Bengali script’ in its purportedly Khasi Bible, see Snaitang (1993: 67).

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The failure of this laboratory Assamese in Lower Assam41 can be, and probably was, contrasted with the success of the de-Persianized and Sanskritized Bengali in contemporary Calcutta. Mobilizing a particular lexical repertoire from the newfound standing-reserve of classical Sanskrit, the early nineteenth-century orientalist scholarship was able to institutionalize a version of ‘pure Bengallee’ that occupied the position reserved for a refined and manageable vernacular in the emergent world of print-capitalism. The official endorsement of the grammars modelled on the perceived Sanskrit rules (like those of Halhed, Carey and Haughton) and the telling indifference to the grammars that attempted to emphasize the non-Sanskrit conventions of ‘Bengalee’ (like Rammohun Roy’s Bengalee Grammar in the English Language, 1833) indicate the rough outlines of a complex process which still awaits its historian. At the moment, we only wish to draw attention to the well-known fact of the massive growth of printed texts in this ‘pure Bengallee’.42 In June 1831, therefore, when ‘the European gentlemen residing at Gowhuttee formed themselves into a society for maintaining schools in Assam, and requested Mr. Rae to act as secretary’, they ‘determined that the Bengalee should be the language taught in the schools, for this reason, that in Bengalee many school books are already prepared, whilst in Assamese there are none but the Bible and a tract or two.’43 By the early years of the 1830s, the idea of gathering the local speeches in Assam into a distinct category of Assamese was deemed unrewarding in the official circle. In 1828, Lower Assam had been formally declared as a part of the Bengal Presidency, and within a decade Upper Assam was annexed too. The conviction of Jenkins ‘that we should not assent to uphold a corrupt dialect, but endeavour to introduce pure Bengallee’ was concordant with the general administrative decision to popularize ‘pure Bengallee’ in the entire Presidency. Only a year before, in 1835, the decision had been taken to dislodge Persian from its official status in Bengal (including Lower Assam) of being the medium of correspondence in the Provincial and Sudder Courts. As Jenkins explicitly remarked, the decision to ‘introduce pure Bengallee’ in Assam was primarily a territorial move: an attempt ‘to render this Province as far as possible an integral part of the great country to which that language belongs’. However, neither the popular speeches nor the scribal cultures changed overnight. The surviving samples of official notices from the 1850s and 1860s display a language which could hardly be called ‘pure Bengallee’.44 As late as 1867, we are told, the language of the court was ‘a mixture

Rae went ‘out in the wild and most populous parts of Assam’ for a total of twenty-four days in January 1832, when he travelled at most 200 miles from Guwahati. See Periodical Accounts (1834: 56), No. XIII. 42 Roy (1995). 43 Periodical Accounts (1834: 622), No. X. 44 Two such samples have been printed in Bhuyan (1990: 14–15).

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of Hindustani, Bengali and occasionally some Assamese words’.45 In the schools ‘pure Bengali books’ used to be ‘put into the hands of the pupils, but they g[a]ve all their definitions, and the teachers all their instructions and explanations’ in local speech.46 ‘As They Dropped from the Lips of the People’ It is perhaps not a pure twist of fate that the first joint-stock plantation company to commercially exploit Assam, the first Assamese grammar and the first comprehensive Assamese dictionary share the same year of birth. At least, in the opening page of his Grammar of the Assamese Language, William Robinson set the backdrop of his project in unhesitating terms: The country itself is now fast rising in importance. The extraordinary fertility of its soil—its varied productions, among which the tea plant ranks as the most important—its extensive and hitherto unexplored mineral treasures, all tend greatly to augment its value and to render it a highly valuable acquisition to the British Government. An acquaintance therefore with the language of the country must be acknowledged to be important, especially to those who may enter it on mercantile speculations, for besides affording an intelligent medium of negotiation with the people, it will likewise furnish facilities for friendly intercourse with them whereby extensive information may be gleaned respecting the commercial advantages which the country affords.47 Hence, ‘a grammar on a reduced scale’: ‘The Compiler has ... endeavoured to introduce nothing but what appeared important.’ Indeed, ‘syntax of the language’ and ‘rules of prosody’ were categorically not given any attention in this eightypage book. Rather, models of official applications—matters of ‘real utility’— were carefully appended in the end.48 Grammar was a name of power: the power to determine what was useful and essential in a language, and what was redundant and pointless. In the same year Jaduram Deka Barua completed the ‘voluminous’ Bengali and Assamese Dictionary. Jenkins, who had commissioned this work, presented the manuscript to the newly arrived American Baptist Missionaries.49 The American Baptists, after taking over the ‘Lower Assam field’ from their British brethren at
See the Assamese introduction to Bronson (1867: vi). M. Bronson, Missionary, the American Baptist Mission to F.J. Halliday, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, dated 13 November 1854, Nowgong, in ‘Correspondence’. 47 Robinson (1839). 48 Ibid., pp. i–ii. 49 See Bhuyan, ‘Report on Old Assamese Manuscripts’, p. 1 (under Manuscripts and Transcripts). See also Barua (1934) for a short biographical note on Jaduram.
46 45

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Serampore, set up a printing press at Sadiya.50 When the Khamti insurrection of 1839 forced the missionaries out of Sadiya, Nathan Brown and Oliver Cutter moved to Jaipur to ‘work’ among the Singphos, while Miles Bronson moved further southeast into the Naga settlement of Namsang. By 1841, however, the American Baptist Mission revised its original policy to convert the ‘Shans’ into Christianity and resolved to concentrate on the residents of Assam proper.51 Cyrus Barker went back to Guwahati.52 Bronson set up an Orphan Institution in Nagaon.53 But the press remained with Brown and Cutter in Sibsagar, and so did Jaduram’s manuscript. It is rather curious that although Brown did not publish the manuscript as a separate tract or in parts in Orunodoi—the first ‘Assamese’ monthly that he began to publish from his Sibsagar press since 184654—he strategically invoked its authority to validate his peculiar envisioning of the Assamese language. In 1848, Brown published his famous Grammatical Notices of the Assamese Language, which not only rejected the official understanding of Assamese as a dialect, but also outlined the theoretical principle on which the identity of the language was to be sought and found. Each letter in the alphabet, said Brown, should ideally correspond to a specific sound. Reading into the orthographic conventions used in Jaduram’s manuscript, Brown claimed that Jaduram had ‘sanctioned’ seven ‘most important variations from the Sanskrit orthography’, namely, using one ‘i’, one ‘u’, one ‘n’, and one ‘s’ in place of their dual or multiple Sanskrit forms, omission of the disused letters ‘li’, ‘au’, ‘lri’ and ‘lr…’, using ‘kh’ for ‘ksh’, substitution of ‘ch’ for ‘chh’, and, with few exceptions, of ‘j’ for ‘jh’. The alphabet being thus far simplified, it was discovered that only two redundant letters still remained; ‘r’ to express the united sound of r and i; and ‘ya’, used to . represent the sound of ‘ja’, j. To these therefore the knife was applied without hesitation, and the written character brought to as exact a correspondence with the pronunciation, as the nature of the language will admit; every radically different sound having one and only one distinct symbol as its representative. In accomplishing the desirable end, not a single new character has been introduced; so that the language, as now printed, is read at once, and with entire ease, by natives who had previously been acquainted only with their own manuscripts.55

Downs (1971). See Brown (1890) and Merriam (1913) for the details. 52 Downs (1971: 29). 53 Keeler (1887: 184). 54 For a standard history of Orunodoi and its impact on the literary culture, see Sharma (2003: chapter 4) and Misra (1987: 58–100). 55 Brown (1848: x).
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Thus, on the ventriloquistic testimony of ‘Joduram Deka Borua, a learned Assamese Pundit’, Brown advocated a form of phonemic spelling that was already popular in the United States after the publication of an enlarged edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language in 1840. Webster’s conviction that the American speech would one day become a distinct language was reflected in his new lexical style, which insisted on acoustic immediacy and simplification of spellings.56 Brown’s tirade against the unscientific ‘Bengali’ spelling—which, by now, was standardized into a close image of Sanskrit orthography—was similarly tied to his claims for the autonomy of ‘Assamese’. ‘The perfection of a written language evidently consists in its corresponding, as far as possible, with the language actually spoken’, said Brown. ‘The Sanskrit alphabet, a modification of which is used for writing Asamese, contains fifty letters, while the number of sounds in Assamese is only thirty-six.’ The use of an alphabet containing so many redundant letters, has naturally led [to] the great variety of spelling which we now find in native writers; the same sound being expressed by two, and sometimes by three and four different letters; while, not unfrequently, the same letter has been employed to express different sounds.57 This notion of ‘redundant letters’ was underwritten by an idea of economy that perfectly suited the hypothetical addressee of Robinson. In the contrapuntal unity of imperial science and evangelical enterprise, perceptions of the error of imprecision and of the sin of extravagance merged to produce a strictly utilitarian view of language. The language should be useful, and the language must retain only the useful. In highlighting the distance between Carey’s Sanskritized orthography and popular pronunciations, the American Baptists sought to believe in the transparency and immediacy of their own spelling conventions. The spelling conventions of the American Baptists had important implications, particularly if we remember that Orunodoi was not only the earliest but also the longest surviving Assamese periodical in the nineteenth century (1846–82).58 The champions of phonemic orthography based their claim to scientificity in professing a transparent relation between sounds and letters, unhindered by history and untainted by conventions. At the level of the script, the effort to divest the words of their etymological Sanskrit forms maximized the visual effect of a distinct and

Cf. Bynack (1984); Laird (1946); Rollins (1976). Brown (1848: viii). 58 For the first seven years, its circulation varied between 390 and 568. Majority of the subscribers were based in Guwahati and Sibsagar. See ‘Circulation of the “Orunodoe” to the close of 1852’, in ‘Correspondence’. There are reasons to believe that this did not increase very sharply in the following decades. Cf. the subscribers’ list appended to Saikia (2002: 465–74).
57

56

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separate language while working within the constraints of using the same ‘vernacular’ typefaces which were in use for the metropolitan Bengali.59 At another level, this necessarily emphasized the ethnographic criteria of familiarity and experience. ‘It is only by long familiarity with the spoken language, that the proper sound of [a] letter, in its various positions can be acquired,’ warned Brown.60 Experience with ‘the people’ became the talisman against the possible abuses of phonetic freedom. When Brown’s colleague Miles Bronson published his Dictionary in Assamese and English, the first of its kind, he too explicitly invoked his ‘thirty years’ familiar acquaintance with the people’. In the fourteen thousand words here collected, will be found many in daily use by the people, that no Bengali scholar will understand. Many of these words have been written as they dropped from the lips of the people. While I have thus endeavored to give the spoken language, I have also inserted the more common Sanscrit words that are used in the Puthis, and therefore known to the people.61 However, ‘the lips of the people’ were hardly the cold, clay lips of a corpse. As a disgusted Neufville had recorded in 1828, ‘the principal difficulty which I have experienced in tracing the route from Rangpur into Ava, from various sources of information, has arisen less from any actual differences of statement than from the discordant dialects and mode of pronunciation of the people.’62 For the early British officials, variations in pronunciation were a major source of irritation. In fact, when they argued that ‘Assamese’ was a ‘corruption’ of ‘Bengali’, they quite consistently maintained that the difference between the two was to be sought more along the ways of pronunciation than in terms of the word lists, implying, of course, that pronunciation was a superficial and less real aspect of a language. In arguing that it was ‘necessary to make the orthography correspond with the pronunciation’,63 the American Baptists were at once compelled to emphasize the centrality of speech sounds to the distinctiveness of a language and to underplay the issue of pronunciative variations among the people indexed as Assamese. Two iron-printing machines in the Sibsagar Mission Press were tirelessly active throughout the 1840s and 1850s. There were also ‘a Bindery, with two Standing
59 In his Grammatical Notices, Brown tried to maximize the effect of this difference by pointing out that the Bengali transliteration of the Sanskrit ‘name of the Hindu god Shiva’ would be ‘Sib’ and the Assamese transliteration would be ‘Hiwo’. See Brown (1848). 60 Ibid., p. xiii. 61 Bronson (1867: iv). 62 Neufville (1828: 346). 63 Brown (1848: ix).

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Presses, a small Type Foundry and three Engravers.’64 Apart from bringing out an issue of Orunodoi every month, the Baptist crew continued to publish a number of religious tracts (including Brown’s fresh translation of the New Testament), ‘a number of elementary books for Schools’,65 a translation of the Indian Penal Code, and a Vocabulary and Phrase Book which claimed to reflect the ‘authentic Assamese spirit’.66 The tracts were tried both in ‘bazaar preaching’ and in the vernacular schools which the missionaries ran in Guwahati, Nagaon and Sibsagar. The missionaries were evidently unhappy with the ‘[e]ducational efforts of the Government’, which, according to them, were ‘emphatically an alien, and must continue to be such so long as Government carefully excludes the Vernacular from the schools.’ Alleging that ‘education is growing up here merely as a foreign plant’, A.H. Danforth submitted a petition to Moffatt Mills, the Sudder Court Judge on Deputation, voicing the general concerns of the American Baptist Mission.67 ‘When will their minds be opened to the light of Heaven, through God’s revealed word, so long as they are compelled to seek knowledge through a foreign tongue?’68 An interesting point about the open and intense debate in 1854 between the British officials and the American Baptists is that both parties theoretically agreed over the necessity of promoting ‘vernacular education’ in Assam, although they could not come to an agreement regarding what the vernacular was. ‘Bengali ... is not the Vernacular but a foreign dialect,’ insisted Miles Bronson. ‘The common people do not understand that language, written or spoken.’ In expressing their ‘united and entire dissent’ from the official understanding of Assamese as a dialect of Bengali, the missionaries homed in on William Robinson, the Inspector of Government Schools.69 Accusing him of ‘specially interdict[ing]’ the teachers in the government schools who reportedly ‘gave all their instructions and explanations
64 65

See ‘Correspondence’. A list of these books are available in Saikia (2002: 144). 66 Any reader of Fabian (1986) will be invariably tempted to read the specific exigencies of the evangelical enterprise into the seemingly innocent compilations of Cutter (1877) and Ward (1864). See also Bezbaroa (1909d: 311) for a reference to the impact of these texts. 67 A.H. Danforth to A.J. Moffatt Mills, Judge of the Sudder Court, on Deputation, dated Gowhatty, 19 July 1853, Appendix I-A, in Moffatt Mills (1984: 90). Danforth, however, clarified that he had no objection to impart higher education in ‘the Bengallee’, as long as the elementary education was continued in Assamese. This was also the opinion of Anundaram Dakeal Phookun: ‘[Bengalee] should be cultivated as a language indispensable to complete the cause of vernacular education, and that the standard Bengalee works should likewise be introduced in the higher classes. We are only opposed to its exclusive adoption as the medium of instructing the people.’ See ‘Observations on the Administration of the Province of Assam by Baboo Anundaram Dakeal Phookun’, Appendix J, in Moffat Mills (1984: 106). 68 I.J. Stoddard to M. Bronson, dated Nowgong, 7 November 1854, in ‘Correspondence’. 69 We must clarify here that this William Robinson should not be confused with his namesake who had published A Grammar of the Assamese Language in 1839.

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[of the Bengali books] in the Vernacular, the Assamese’, Bronson exclaimed that Robinson, ‘standing as the representative of the Educational interests of all Assam, gave his voice against Educating the people in their own tongue!’ On the play-ground, in the family circle at home, on their religious assemblies when their shasters are explained, the first word the new-born child hears from his mother, the first word he learns to lisp, the rude song of the boatman as he plies the oar, or spreads his sail, the joyous song of the reaper, as he shouts the ‘harvest home’, always, and every where, the language used is Assamese, not Bengali; and in our humble opinion, the only way to render any plan of Education popular in this Province, is to give it to them in their own mother tongue.70 In ‘Some Remarks in Defence of the Use of Bengali in the Government Schools in Assam’, Robinson replied that he saw no reason in ‘perpetuating what at best is but a dialectal difference’. ‘The language spoken in Assam I believe to be essentially the same as the Bengali.’ After an elaborate description of how ‘during the last half century’ the Bengali language—originally ‘extremely clumsy and uncouth’—had been ‘refin[ed]’, ‘polish[ed]’, and ‘develop[ed]’ by ‘an acquaintance with the classical Sanscrit’, Robinson pointed at the very placelessness of ‘pure Bengali’. Indeed to so great an extent have these Sanscrit interpolations been admitted, that the so-called Bengali compositions are perfectly unintelligible to one unacquainted with the Sanscrit. ... All persons of a liberal education are acquainted with it, and among them it is the usual means of correspondence and the language of ordinary composition. But among the common people probably one in the thousand may understand it.71 If one was looking for the diglossia between the primary spoken language and the standard written form of that language, said Robinson, one would find ‘differences more or less great in almost every zillah [of Bengal], glottological differences as well as differences in grammatical form.’ He reasoned that therefore it would be futile to go by the differences in the spoken forms, since the ‘Bengalis coming from distantly-situated zillahs’ were usually ‘unable to understand each other except through the medium of the written language, or the language of the books.’ Now it is, I fear, usual with those who maintain that the Assamese is a language distinct from the Bengali to draw their conclusions from a comparison
M. Bronson, Missionary, the American Baptist Mission to F.J. Halliday, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, dated 13 November 1854, Nowgong, in ‘Correspondence’. 71 William Robinson, ‘Some Remarks in Defence of the Use of Bengali in the Government Schools in Assam’ (Ibid.).
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of colloquial language of Assam with the refined and elegant Bengali they find in books. This is far from being a correct mode of procedure and necessarily leads to incorrect results.72 Rather than trying to prove the identity of Bengali and Assamese, Robinson was more interested in drawing attention to the inescapable abstractness of each and every ‘national language’. The ‘refined and elegant Bengali’ would at best be similar to the speeches popularized ‘at the seats of [Sanskrit] learning, in and about Nuddea, and by the Directors of the periodic Press in the metropolis’. In the ‘more remote parts of Bengal’, said Robinson, ‘not only a large number of vocables but several idioms and grammatical forms’ of this language would necessarily remain ‘unintelligible’ to the local people. Why should one consider the gap between the metropolitan Bengali and the speech current in Assam as more substantial than, say, the difference between the speeches ‘of Sylhet and Dinagepore, or of Chittagong and Krishnaghur?’ In any case, even within the administrative boundaries of Assam, there were great varieties of pronunciation, and in an absolutely arbitrary manner, ‘Mr. Brown ha[d] adopted that most common to his part of the country, and this ha[d] been set up as the standard.’ The discrepancies between ‘Bengali’ and ‘Assamese’, concluded Robinson, were merely ‘differences of form’— a superficial chasm which ‘Mr. Brown’s system of spelling ha[d] tended ... to widen.’73 In his rejoinder, Brown contended that although the Mission books were ‘in the strict Vernacular of Upper Assam’, they were ‘readily and perfectly’ understood by ‘the thousands in Kamroop’. Intelligibility, contra Robinson, was the crux of the matter: People that speak the same language can generally understand each other, and those who speak different languages cannot .... If to be mutually unintelligible is consistent with speaking the same language, it will be difficult to refute Mr. Robinson’s theory that the Assamese is identical with Bengali.74 Robinson was making a desperate ‘effort to sustain a favorite theory where the facts are wanting’, alleged the Guwahati missionary W.M. Ward: ‘a theory convenient perhaps to the rulers, but quite contrary to the people.’ It may sound very well in theory to talk of conforming to the Bengali as many as possible of the languages having an affinity with it; and thus supplying all at once, from one and the same great fountain of learning at the Metropolis; but
72 73

Ibid. Ibid. 74 N. Brown to M. Bronson, dated Sibsagar, 5 October 1854 (Ibid.).

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when you come to reduce it to practice, it is quite another thing. It will do for gentlemen to ask impatiently ‘what business the Assamese have with a separate language’, but the fact remains the same; they have such a language, and I hope that the Government will pause and sift this question, before committing itself to an error, fraught with such serious consequences both to the people of this Province and the surrounding Tribes. Can they change the language of the people? And if so, would it be expedient to do so?75 One would only have to move out ‘of the sudder stations, where there are numerous Bengali traders’, argued Danforth, in order to recognize the ‘fact’ that the ‘Assamese do not understand the spoken language of the Bengalis any better than they do the books’.76 The recurring allusions in the missionary correspondences to ‘the village or Mofussil people throughout Assam’ (Stoddard), ‘the common people’ (Brown and Bronson) and ‘the common people in the Mofussil’ (Danforth) appear somewhat self-congratulatory today. In their unceasing invocation of distinction between the outer and the inner—the debased public and the immaculate private, the exposed sadar stations and the impeccable mofussil villages, the Bengali-ridden courts and the pure Assamese homes—the American Baptists reaffirmed their faith in themselves: the empirical subjects of experience, who had ‘long and familiar acquaintance with’ the true and authentic Assam unspoiled by the profane influences of administration and commerce.77 In arguing that the government had been deceived by superficial impressions, Danforth asserted that ‘[l]ong lists of similar words prove nothing’. ‘The Assamese and Bengali derive the greater portion of their Vocabularies from a common stock, the Sanscrit; hence there must be a great similarity in the word.’ The point was whether ‘the Assamese’ could ‘understand the Bengali books’.78 The question of ‘understanding’, however, was mired in a striking ambivalence. Was the unpopularity of the ‘pure Bengali’ books in Assam ascribable to the foreignness of that language, as Brown seemed to imply, or was it a symptom of a deeper racial incapacity of the Assamese to think rationally, as the government officials routinely regretted? For Danforth, at least, the two issues were not irreconcilable. ‘To an ignorant, stupid and bigoted [sic] people like the Assamese, abstract studies are often difficult and unattractive even when communicated in the most common language; how much more so must it be when veiled in a foreign tongue.’79
W.M. Ward to M. Bronson, dated Gowahatty, 3 November 1854 (Ibid.) Emphasis in original. A.H. Danforth to M. Bronson, dated Gowhatty, 30 October 1854 (Ibid.). 77 See particularly the Assamese introduction to Bronson (1867: vi); W.M. Ward to M. Bronson, dated Gowahatty, 3 November 1854, in ‘Correspondence’. 78 A.H. Danforth to M. Bronson, dated Gowhatty, 30 October 1854, in ‘Correspondence’. 79 A.H. Danforth to A.J. Moffatt Mills, Judge of the Sudder Court, on Deputation, dated Gowhatty, 19 July 1853, Appendix I-A, in Moffatt Mills (1984: 90).
76 75

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Insofar as the American Baptist rhetoric anticipated the idioms of Assamese nationalism, the abstracted figure of the Assamese-speaking villager (ga ¯) re¯ol…a mained caught between the contradictory profiles of the authentic and the vulgar. Pronunciation became an important issue here, because if the vocables were genetically the same, a great deal would depend on the way they were articulated in speech. Declared Nathan Brown: Mr. Robinson asserts that there is a great variety in the modes of pronunciation in the Assamese. I challenge any person to point out an equal extent of territory in any part of the world, where there is a greater uniformity of pronunciation than there is among the Assamese, excluding of course the Dhekeris of Kamrup, the Kacharis and other Tribes, to whom the language is not Vernacular, and who cannot therefore be expected to speak it in its purity.80 In his riposte, Robinson pointed out ‘that the term “Dhekeri” or dhik-kari signifying ¯ contemptible, is applied opprobriously to all the people of Lower Assam.’ In the absence of any precise data on which to found a correct estimate of the population of Assam, I believe it may be assumed, as a pretty close approximation to the truth, that it amounts to about 11,20,000 souls. The lower portion of the country being more thickly populated than the upper, the inhabitants of the Districts of Seebsagor and Lukhimpore, forming what is usually known as Upper Assam, cannot be estimated at more than one-third of the entire population of the Province. Indeed few will admit that it amounts to so much. But supposing that there are in all about 3,70,000 souls in Upper Assam, we must deduct from this the Kacharis and other tribes who have emigrated from the neighbouring hills, amounting, at the lowest estimate, to about 1,40,000; and we have a population, amounting at most, to about 2,30,000 souls, to whom the Assamese is Vernacular, while to the rest of the population, 8,90,000 in number, the Assamese is a ‘foreign tongue!’81 With the emphatic entry of numbers in the discourse on vernacular, the ethical horizons of that discourse were substantially redrawn. As Robinson quipped, Is it then a matter of so much importance that this comparatively small section of the community should be educated in their own language while by far the larger portion of the population are to be deprived of a like privilege? And
N. Brown to M. Bronson, dated Sibsagar, 5 October 1854, in ‘Correspondence’. ‘Mr. Robinson’s Remarks in reply to the Missionaries on Vernacular Education’, dated 5 December 1854, in ‘Correspondence’.
81 80

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might not the Government then, with equal justice, as at present, be charged with “retarding the elevation of this people by suppressing their mother tongue!”82 One can find a desperate effort to draw on this statistical imagination in the small pamphlet that Anundaram Dakeal Phookun, Haliram’s Calcutta-educated son and a regular contributor to Orunodoi, published from the Mission press in 1855 with a view to contest Robinson’s arguments. Offering a novel form of lexical analysis, Anundaram placed the ‘Bengali’ and ‘Assamese’ versions of one story in two parallel columns, at the end of which he calculated that out of 287 words of the ‘Assamese’ version, 112 were ‘in no way connected with the Bengalee’. Out of the remaining 175 words, ironically a greater number, he identified ninety-eight as having ‘derived from Sanskrit’, while ‘only 77 words’, according to him, ‘are either derived from, or have a resemblance’ to Bengali. This was not ‘theory’, said he, ‘but a conclusion from actual facts.’83 Numbers, rather than phrases like ‘acquaintance’ or ‘experience’, were increasingly accepted to have a more direct and non-ideological connection with the concrete. The passionate abstraction of the Assamese-speaking ga ¯ was hardly a match for the cold abstraction of the ¯ol…a enumerated subject. The American Baptists lost the first round of the debate. The government continued to promote ‘pure Bengali’ textbooks in its vernacular schools in Assam. Oceans and Pythons ‘[L]et the Government try the Bengali Vernacular. They will only retard Education, and some twenty years hence they will fall back upon the Assamese,’ said the missionary Samuel Whiting in 1854.84 In less than twenty years’ time, the government actually revised its classification and declared Assamese as the official vernacular of the Assam Division (19 April 1873), as a prelude to the constitution of a separate Chief Commissionership of Assam (6 February 1874). Through the grid of this bureaucratic fact, the sphere of the social became legible to a section of the emergent middle class in the province since the late nineteenth century. In the process, we may also add, a number of displacements occurred in the original site of the fact which generated a range of forces far beyond the control of the imperial bureaucracy. In order to appreciate the complexities of the process we must begin by troubling the customary conflation in the present-day histories of the Baptist campaigns of the mid-nineteenth century and the middle-class language activism of the late years.
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Ibid. [Dakeal Phookun], A Few Remarks, pp. 4–11. 84 S.L. Whiting to M. Bronson, dated Sibsagur, 3 October 1854, in ‘Correspondence’.

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Wind was taken out of the sails of the American Baptist Mission by 1855, when the Home Board of the American Baptist Missionary Union expressed its distrust of the worth of the Assam Mission. As a recent historian curtly puts it, ‘[d]espite 25 years of work by 22 missionaries there were only 50 Assamese Christians in three small churches.’ Solomon Peck, the Secretary of the Home Board who visited Assam in 1854, was convinced that too much attention to the issues of language and education had diverted Brown and his colleagues from engaging in the real work of conversion. A humiliated Brown resigned from the Mission and returned to America in 1856. Hit by the economic downturn of the 1850s, the Board even proposed to close the Assam field in 1858. Bronson, who fervently and successfully resisted the proposal inside the Missionary Union, was eventually forced to accept the change in the Mission policy to concentrate, once again, on the communities beyond Assam proper. The proselytizing success of the Mission in the Garo Hills dates from 1867, the same year when Bronson finally published his long-promised dictionary.85 The choice of the new constituencies (Garos, Mikirs, Nagas and the ‘Chota Nagpuris’ imported by the tea gardens from the Santhal Parganas) contributed to the Mission’s slow withdrawal from the Assamese language issue. And it might be of interest to note that many of the post-1873 Assamese language activists were singularly uncomfortable with the Mission arguments and proposals. The discomfort came in full view in 1859 when Hem Chandra Barua (Hemchunder Shurma) published his Asam…ya Bha ¯r Bya ¯ ¯sha ¯karan, the first grammar that was written in ‘Assamese’. ‘[T]he native language is the entrance to the temple of knowledge,’ wrote Barua in his English preface to the first edition. The entire book made no allusion to any work by the Baptist missionaries, a gesture strikingly different from Dakeal Phookun’s. Indeed, Barua suggestively insisted that there were no ‘proper books’ in Assamese, that ‘by the negligence and ignorance of our people, our language is going through a gradual decay,’ and that ‘this is the first time the grammar of the Assamese language has been made.’86 From the structure of the book it became clear that this derecognition of the missionary endeavours emerged from Barua’s deep disregard for phonemicism. His orthographies were strictly etymological and his rules overtly Sanskritic.87 It might be somewhat misleading to understand the language agitation in mid-nineteenth century Assam as a ‘battle for due recognition of Assamese as a distinct and separate language’.88 Neither the intense mobilization nor the clear-cut opposition suggested by the metaphor of a battle can be said to have been present in the 1850s and 1860s. In 1859 Barua was not defending the Assamese that Bronson was writing a dictionary of.
85 86

Downs (1971: Chapter 5). Barua (1999: 109–10). 87 Ibid., p. 117. 88 Cf. Guha (1977: 22).

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By 1873, the year when he published a substantially rewritten version of his grammar, Hem Barua seemed to have softened his position regarding orthography and non-Sanskrit styles. In fact, as far as the lexicon was concerned, he even wrote, ‘Although Sanskrit is the foundation of Assamese, and Sanskrit is a great language, it is unreasonable to use a Sanskrit word in place of a word current in the Assamese language. ... It is unfair to borrow other people’s words when we have our own.’89 The search for ‘our own words’ had to be combined, unlike Bronson, with a recognizably etymological spelling convention. In order to understand the appeal of etymology, we must recognize which Assamese the government agreed to endorse in the 1870s. In the 1872 census, Assamese was still classified as ‘merely a dialect of Bengali’.90 But as an official order proclaimed in February 1874, In all primary schools Assamese will be taught to the exclusion of Bengalee; also in all middle schools and in the lower and middle classes of higher schools, when a class of twelve or more boys wish for it, Bengalee may be separately taught as a language. In the upper classes of higher schools every subject in which there is an Assamese book is to be taught in Assamese; subjects in which Assamese school-book do not exist can be taught either in Bengali or English.91 In April 1874, the Inspector of Schools received a detailed note from the office of the Chief Commissioner regarding the ‘Introduction of Assamese’. In the first and second classes of the middle-class schools, ‘Bengalee should be taught as a language, Assamese remaining the medium of instruction.’ This measure appears to be necessary, in order to enable boys who have been taught Assamese in the lower classes to be reduced to a precise system of orthography, and be made comfortable to the ordinary canons of literary taste (as it must be before it is introduced)...92 ‘It is to be understood that classical literary Bengalee is to be taught in these higher classes; not the vulgar tongue,’ clarified the Chief Commissioner. He feared that although a large number of ordinary school books would be required for the use of the lower classes in the middle-class schools, their authors would probably
Barua (1999: 290–91). Beverly (1874: 72). 91 ‘Teaching of Assamese in Primary and Middle Class Schools’, Home Department, February 1874, Nos. 11–12, Assam State Archive, Dispur (hereafter ASA). 92 H. Luttman-Johnson, Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Assam to the Inspector of Schools, Assam, dated 14 April 1874, in ‘Introduction of Assamese’, Home Department, April 1874, No. 7, ASA.
90 89

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have ‘no standard of literary excellence to guide them in their style of composition.’ Therefore, ‘I am to request that you will allow your opinion to be their standard.’ In the matter of orthography, however, Keatinge was not prepared to allow much autonomy. As uniform spelling is everything in a primer, it would be as well that you should satisfy yourself that the spelling adopted in these primers is uniform. Great variety exists at present in the spelling of (so-called) Assamese books. The set of primers now introduced, will probably become the standard of spelling throughout Assam proper. You should therefore be careful that their orthography is as much according to ordinary literary canons as may be for instance, the Chief Commissioner would not tolerate the changing of (ch) into (s) merely because in Assamese, as in [eastern] Bengalee, ch is nowadays pronounced as s.93 The parenthesized ‘so-called’ is interesting. But even more interesting is the enormous, self-conscious investment in orthographic standardization. It was clear from Keatinge’s note that the government ‘would not tolerate’ the Baptist spellings, although theirs was the most extensive collection of printed books in Assamese. The ‘standard of spelling throughout Assam proper’ must follow the standard maintained in India proper: it should be brought closer to the stable, motionless conventions of classicized Sanskrit. The opinions of those ‘educated inhabitants of the Province’ should be taken into account ‘who have had an opportunity of learning in what respects the vulgar tongue of Bengal differs from the literary tongue.’94 Keatinge’s Assamese was not the Assamese of Brown or Bronson. It was closer to Robinson’s Bengali in spirit: an abstract ‘national language’ with an etymologically fixed orthographic convention that would not be dependent on the phonemic variations in speech. In May, the district-level officers were particularly instructed to acquaint themselves with this language.95 Very soon, the mapmakers and local clerks were directed to use a uniform standard of place-name spellings.96 To the emergent middle class in Assam, the attraction of Keatinge’s Assamese was far greater than that of the Missionary Assamese. In the attempt to make the Assamese orthography closely resemble the Sanskrit forms, many discovered a promise of a share in the great Indian tradition. Even the missionaries had argued
Ibid. Ibid. 95 Proceedings of the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Home Department, May 1874, File No. 204, Sl. No. 15, ASA. 96 Proceedings of the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Home Department (B), Miscellaneous, January 1878, File No. 243, Sl. No. 2, ASA.
94 93

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that Assamese, rather than being a patois of Bengali, was a distinct and direct descendant of Sanskrit.97 But their insistence on the autonomy of Assamese led them to highlight the distinctiveness of living speech rather than its proximity to the dead language. Their spellings, in an attempt to grow away from the dominant force of metropolitan Bengali, had also steered away from the massive symbolic capital accumulated by orientalism in the form of Sanskrit. Etymology signalled a way to lay claim to this capital, and an etymological orthography was consequently considered indispensable.98 ‘Sanskrit grammar is the source of our grammar,’ said Lambodar Bora, ‘therefore the more likeness we can maintain between the grammars and orthographies of Assamese and Sanskrit, the better.’99 In a long and partially self-contradictory article, Bora argued that the best orthography ought to strike a balance between pronunciation, etymology and conventions. While Bora agreed that pronunciation was the most important factor among the three, he was in no way ready to endorse phonemicism.100 Caught between the attraction of the classical and the promise of the popular, Bora reflected a dilemma somewhat characteristic of the Assamese language activists of his generation. Chandramohan Goswami, a legendary Bengali teacher in the Gauhati High School who did not believe that Assamese was a separate language, analyzed the situation with perceptible delight. Though the missionaries and the Assamese are advocating for a cause having the same [characteristics?], they have in reality two different objects in view. The Missionaries are desirous of having a language degraded to the level of comprehension of the mass whereas the Assamese want to have the dialect of Upper Assam recognised as the language of the whole country.101 Very soon, Goswami predicted, ‘there would be a division in the camp’. Interestingly, he clearly anticipated some of the crucial worries of the latter-day Assamese language activists. The missionaries have never considered that though the language which they are trying to form may serve the purpose of the hewers of wood and drawers of water, but it cannot satisfy the intellectual wants of the scholar, the philosopher and the poet. The language of the poor and uneducated who are accustomed to
Brown (1848: iii–iv). Arguing that Sanskrit ‘is the language of Hindu religion’ and ‘the mother of Assamese’, Lakshminath Bezbaroa wrote, ‘Boro and Ahom languages could not snatch the Assamese language from the breast of Sanskrit.’ See Bezbaroa (1909a: 13). 99 Bora (1891b: 4). Sharma (1910) is a typical example of the new Sanskritistic grammars of Assamese written in the 1910s. 100 Bora (1892: 296–98). 101 Goswami, ‘Remarks on the Assamese Language’ (see under Transcripts and Manuscripts).
98 97

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things that are gross and tangible, and whose sphere of action is confined within their own village, is quite unfit for the educated man whose ideas are all abstract and whose field of action is the wide world.102 For Goswami, there was only one possible solution: ‘we must largely draw words from the inexhaustible stock of the Sangscrit language, and use them in such form as to retain their original capability of grammatical declination [and] assimilation into the Bengalee.’103 Of course, this was hardly acceptable to the budding intellectuals of Assam who otherwise believed in the cause of recovering the authentic from the vulgar. Most of them, like Hem Barua, were convinced that the phonemicist orthography of the Baptist Mission, in underplaying the relationship between Assamese and Sanskrit, had done some damage to the claims of respectability of the language. The particular group to which Keatinge’s orthography revealed its promises was the network of the Assamese students studying in late nineteenth-century Calcutta. Until the establishment of Cotton College in Guwahati (1901) there was no institution for formal higher education in Assam. ‘The attempt that was made in 1866 for starting a Collegiate Section in the Guwahati School proved a failure and the Government satisfied itself in providing a few scholarships to those who proceeded to Calcutta for Collegiate, medical and technical education.’104 As late as 1872, ‘[t]here were only six English schools which sent up candidates for the Entrance Examination of the Calcutta University’, and the success rate of these candidates was not very enviable.105 Although leaving studies midway was fairly common among these students, there is evidence that most of them chose to understand the Calcutta experience as a definitive moment in their individual life histories. There is yet no full-length, intensive study of the empirical network of the Calcutta-resident Assamese students—let alone of their wide affective worlds— and this article cannot provide one. But the complexities of the peculiar relationship between the late nineteenth-century Assamese language activists and the Calcutta they discovered certainly demand further investigations, because it took long to reconcile the embarrassingly émigré location of the activists with their claims to represent the authentic Assam. Thrown open to the anonymity of the big city, students and job seekers from particular districts and divisions usually chose to group together in particular
Ibid. Ibid. 104 Barpujari (1993: 219). As late as 1919, Cunningham opined that the ‘needs of Assam ... cannot at present aspire to a university of it own’. Statement of J.R. Cunningham, in Report of Calcutta University Commission (1919: 246). 105 Guha (1991: 214). ‘Of the University’s 938 successful matriculates out of 2144 candidates in 1872, only four were from Assam Proper.’
103 102

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mess-houses in Calcutta.106 This is not the place to recount the history of the gradual evolution of the institution from the patron-based ‘basas’ of the early nineteenth ¯ ¯ century. It suffices to say that since the 1860s a number of student mess-houses sprang up in the capital city, which were distinguished not only by a remarkable absence of the heterogeneity of the ba ¯ crowd but also by a self-conscious practice ¯sa of following formalized ‘democratic’ rules, the employment of salaried common cooks and servants, and a discourse of equal rights and responsibilities. As a site that was to be simultaneously lived as a home and rationalized as a public space, the mess-houses constituted an uneven middle-class cosmos of male morality where many ideals of nation building were deliberately tried out.107 At the same time, woven as they were mostly around the administrative units of districts,108 the mess-houses, particularly those of the students, were unmistakably caught between the compulsions of defending district identities and acquiring urban respectability. The distance between the metropolis and the mofussil did not diminish with the travel to the city; it was reconstituted on several other scales. It was in these greenrooms of respectable identities, the ‘Little Sylhets’ and the ‘Little Assams’ of north Calcutta,109 that the infinitesimal procedures of calculating the social—as an object of reform and desire—began to take shape in the late nineteenth century. Although always represented as microcosmic reflections of the respective districts, the mess-houses in fact constituted one of the earliest possibilities in eastern India for understanding the districts as legitimately stable sites for building identities. After the administrative reshuffling of 1874, the students from Orissa and Assam—more sharply than the students from Dhaka, Tripura or Barishal—began to insist on this sense of distinctiveness. This however should not be taken to mean that these mess-houses were closed cultural isolates. Most of the Assamese students of this time, for instance, could speak and write in fluent metropolitan Bengali, were au fait with the incipient idioms of nationalism and modernism in contemporary Calcutta, and had access to various polite addas or informal gatherings of the bhadralok literati.110 In the shadow of this dialectics
106 In its briefest possible definition, a mess-house was a collective residential establishment of male middle-class migrants to the city who could not afford to hire a whole house in their individual capacities and bring their families along. In the mess-houses they shared the rent and the cost of kitchen. 107 A characteristic idealization of the mess-house as a free, ‘republican’ and harmonious community is to be found in the memoirs of the nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal who joined the Sylhet Mess at 15 Nimu Khansama Lane in 1875. The host of English terms through which Pal stylized his institution included democracy, republic, budget, rights, court, election and law. See Pal (2005: 104–10). 108 It is interesting to see Pal writing ‘Jessore and Khulna were not yet separated; it was an undivided district. [Therefore] there was one Jessore-Khulna mess[-house].’ See ibid., p. 105. 109 Between the 1870s and the 1920s, there were many ‘Assam Messes’ in the area around College Square (Goldighi) in Calcutta. The most famous centres of the language activists were the following: 50 College Street, 14 Pratap Chandra Chatterjee Lane, 62 Sitaram Ghosh Street, 68 Mirjapur Street, 2 Bhavani Dutta Lane, and 43 Amherst Street, all situated within an approximate radius of 2 km. See Sharma (1972: 25–26) and Chaliha (1987: 18–19). 110 See Chakrabarty (2001: Chapter 7), for a discussion of the bhadralok practice of adda.

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of proximity and distance, the members of the Assam Mess of 67 Mirjapur Street came to form the Asam…ya Bha sha Unnati Sa dhin… Sabha (Society for the Improve¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ment of the Assamese Language) in August 1888.111 The dazzling success of the Unnati Sa dhin… Sabha and its periodical Jona ¯ ¯ ¯k… (which various generations of the Sabha continued to publish intermittently over ¯ a stretch of fifteen years from 1889 through 1904) in decisively shaping the agenda of the early twentieth-century language activists in Assam has received more than adequate attention in the standard histories, although little has been done to unpack their self-congratulatory accounts. Much less, in fact, has been told about the alternative conceptualizations of Assamese with which Jona and particularly ¯k…, its gifted founding-editor Lakshminath Bezbaroa, had to grapple. In his autobiography published in 1937, Padmanath Gohain Barooah distinctly recollected that in his late nineteenth-century student days there were two contending ‘schools’ of Assamese language: some were adherents of Hem Chandra Barua’s 1873 grammar; and the others followed the lexical style of Goonabhiram Barooa, the editor ¯ ¯mbandhu (1885–86) and the author of the popular of the Nagaon monthly A sa ¯ sa Burañj… (1884). ‘There was no absolute difference of opinion between the A ¯m two’, clarified Gohain Barooah, an ardent Ahom revivalist, ‘[except that] one was an unadulterated Assamese writer, the other a Sanskritic Assamese writer.’ It is interesting to see the readiness with which Hem Barua was greeted as ‘an unadulterated Assamese writer’ within the Calcutta circuit. But equally interesting is the fact that Gohain Barooah regarded Goonabhiram Barooa’s language as lacking in the firmness of prose and consequently better suited to poetry.112 Elsewhere Gohain Barooah wrote, ‘After much discussion of the different opinions of the two experts of the Assamese language, Hem Chandra Barua and Goonabhiram Barooa, regarding the use of verbs, the former view has been accepted.’113 However, one suspects that the question was not as much about the use of verbs (or about being inherently ‘poetical’ or ‘prosaic’) as about the question of the dhekeri speech which had so violently erupted between Brown and Robinson. Gohain Barooah consistently maintained that the speech of Lower Assam, ‘Kamru ¯ ’, was not Assamese per se; the Assamese language came into existence ¯ ¯p…ya only after the Ahom kings entered Ka maru ‘If the Ahom kings did not reign as ¯ ¯pa. independent monarchs, then the old Ka mru p…ya language would have dissolved ¯ ¯ ¯
111 It is said to have replaced an earlier literary club (Sa hitya Cara ) established by Jagannath Barooah, ¯ ¯ Manick Chandra Barooah and a number of other Assamese students residing in a Sitaram Ghosh Street mess-house. Barkakati (1892: 155–62); Sharma (1972: 27–28). For an interesting reference to the establishment of the Sabha as a response to the letters written by a few students from the Sylhet ¯ Mess (against the claims of an independent Assamese language) in an English newspaper, see Bezbaroa (1893a: 78). 112 Gohain Barooah (1971: 31). There is reason to suspect that for Gohain Barooah the ‘poetical’ was not very different from the ‘effeminate’. 113 Gohain Barooah (1909: 777).

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into Bengali. Perhaps we could not have found the slightest trace of Assamese today. The Ahom kings have saved this language.’114 The ominous proximity of the Ka mru ¯ speech to the allegedly domineering neighbour, Bengali, was always ¯ ¯p…ya reflected in its inscription as a local and primitive speech which must strive to grow into the modern and national Assamese. This was largely the operative consensus within the Jona k… group. Goonabhiram Barooa, Kafaitoolla and Anundaram ¯ Dakeal Phookun, all representative of an earlier generation of literary workers from Lower Assam, were frequently chastised by the new language activists in Calcutta for ‘their impurity, provincialism, vulgarism and Bengalism’.115 The chastisement, let us clarify, often came in the abstract, veiled forms of grammatical corrections. Lakshminath Bezbaroa, for instance, pointed out that in Assamese the word ‘moi’ [I] is a singular personal pronoun. Its plural form is ‘a mi’ [we], and not ‘a ma lok’. The form ‘a ma lok’ is incorrect: it has been ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ modeled on ‘toma lok’. But we have a number of authors amongst us who use ¯ this incorrect word ‘a ma lok’.116 ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯mbandhu titled In 1885, Naranath Mahanta had written an entire article in Asa ‘a ma lok’ trying to prove the grammatical incorrectness of the word. He distinctly ¯ ¯ saw it as an instance of the unsought Bengali influence which corrupted the distinctive character of Assamese. Interestingly, Goonabhiram Barooa appended a three-line editorial note to this article stating that in this manner many foreign words have entered our language and new words have been created. With the coming of the foreigners, a number of new words, new phrases, new ideas and new customs have become current in this country. This is a sign for improvement and change.117 Bezbaroa’s notion of improvement was different. He freely made fun of the Ka mru p…ya , which he evidently regarded as a rustic jargon. In fact, once he had ¯ ¯ ¯ to even tender an ‘explanation’ for one of his acutely caustic poems parodying the
114 See Padmanath Gohain Barooah’s presidential address (1917), in Hazarika (1955: 4). It is interesting to see that what was recorded as an unmistakable sign of Ahom decadence in the early nineteenth-century imperial archive (For example, in describing the Ahoms’ ‘conversion to Hinduism’ as the chief cause of their decline, James Leonard wrote in 1839, ‘The Assamese adopted the language of Bengal, that of the Ahoms becoming obsolete.’ Leonard, Assam, p. 6), became a distinctive expression of Ahom greatness in the early twentieth-century nationalist memory. The Ahoms never tried to impose their original language on the local residents; rather they helped them in finding their true tongue. 115 Goswami, ‘Remarks on the Assamese Language’ (see under Transcripts and Manuscripts). 116 Bezbaroa (1909b: 24–32). 117 Mahanta (1885: 305–7).

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Na mani speech.118 In one of his more serious essays, presented in a session of the ¯ Asam…ya Bha sha Unnati Sadhin… Sabha, he directly addressed ‘the favourite topic’: ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ whether Assamese was a descendant of ‘the Ahom language of Ujani’ or of ‘the Ka mru ¯ language of Bha ti’,119 meaning, in effect, which one of these two broad ¯ ¯p…ya ¯ types should be considered as the ideal standard for the new ‘improved’ language. To a Sabha which included members from both areas, Bezbaroa’s message was ¯ clear, if predictable: ‘The Assamese language is neither exclusively the language of Ujani nor solely the Bha ti language. It is the language of entire Assam.’ It was ¯ however not difficult to read the condescending attitude of the big brother between the congenial lines of the harmony talk: It is certainly possible that even the Bha ti language was also as strong as the ¯ Ujani language at one point of time; it is also possible that the Bha ti language ¯ would not have given way its seat of prestige to the Ujani language had it received royal patronage and popular support. But the fact remains that it could not survive the struggle for existence.120 The harshness of the Social Darwinist catchphrase was softened by a historicist explanation. Bezbaroa said that both Ujani and Bha ti speeches were actually two ¯ ‘dialects’ of the great Assamese language. ‘It is a natural law that in a favourable situation a certain dialect of a particular locality gathers strength and finally establishes its dominance on the other dialects.’ Curiously, his analogy of the ‘natural law’ came from his observations of the formation of nations. In every society, he said, one clan (phaid) gathered strength and established its dominance over other clans to eventually grow into a nation. There was nothing unnatural in the dialect of the Ahom capital, Sibsagar, becoming the standard language of Assam. The Calcutta speech bore the same relation to Bengali. While the Ujani people would have to accommodate more and more Bha ti words, it was primarily the duty of ¯ the Bha ti speakers ‘not to create a sense of antagonism’. Maintaining that he ac¯ tually appreciated the use of the Bha ti speech in the local context, Bezbaroa ardently ¯ ‘requested’ the people from Lower Assam to keep their ‘local’ inflections out of what was ‘the public property of all Assamese’.121 As rivers emptied themselves into an ocean, said Bezbaroa, they lost their individual traits of colour or taste of water. It would be absurd to look for the particularity of river-water in the vast body of an ocean. The standard Assamese, as a
Bezbaroa (1912a, 1912b). Bhati, literally meaning downstream, was Bezbaroa’s preferred gloss for Lower Assam. By the ¯ early twentieth century, the word also came to be used to indicate the further Western countries, including the province of Bengal. 120 Bezbaroa (1909c: 42–52). 121 Ibid.
119 118

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national language, resembled an ocean. The dialectal river of Bha ti might maintain ¯ its distinctiveness in its own terrain but in the end it must fully dissolve into that great ocean. ‘It is required to abolish the small freedoms to achieve the large freedom.’ In the gap of two pages where he took great pains to describe how the ‘large freedom’, the autonomy of the standard Assamese, was under threat from the belligerence of the Bengali language activists, Bezbaroa employed another simple allegory to illustrate the situation: a large python trying to swallow the small animals. ‘We think the pro-diversity desire of the God is better served if these small animals remain alive and independent,’ wrote Bezbaroa. ‘Otherwise the God would have created just a python and not the different small animals.’122 Read together, the allegories activate a sense of contradiction which was central to the project of standardization of Assamese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. How to identify a serene ocean from an evil python? How to distinguish between internal reforms and external aggressions? For the contemporary Bengali language activists, Bezbaroa’s Assamese was precisely a dialectal river that should eventually disappear into the ocean of Bengali. For the dissenters in Bha ti, it was a belligerent python. Recognition of this structural incompleteness ¯ in each other’s arguments only triggered intense emotional reactions on both sides. The administrative surface of the imperial state space became the geographical unconscious of linguistic imagination. The geographical proximity of Namani (Bhati) to the northern districts of Bengal ¯ ¯ allowed its residents a greater degree of mutual accommodation in speech than the people staying in Ujani. This became increasingly suspect in the new discourse of language activism in Assam as several Bengali nationalist scholars, working under the shadow of the Territorial Redistribution Scheme of 1905 and the ensuing bhadralok hysteria,123 made concerted efforts to define a ‘Greater Bengali’ identity inclusive of the administrative divisions of Orissa, Assam and eastern Bihar. Policing the frontier speeches in extensive areas of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang and even Nagaon became strategically crucial for the Assamese language activists. Particularly, the speeches current in Goalpara and Kamrup became objects of suspicion and reform. In a perceptive and detailed analysis of the early twentiethcentury ‘struggle’ around the ‘Gowa lpa r…ya ’ speeches, involving the Bengali cam¯ ¯ ¯ paigners, the Assamese activists and the local zamindars, Sanghamitra Misra has recently explored the complexities of the Goalpara case.124 Here we draw attention to the less addressed and more ambiguous case of ‘Ka mru p…ya ’ speeches; more ¯ ¯ ¯ ambiguous, because unlike Goalpara, Kamrup was very much considered a part and parcel of Assam proper, and even the very name of the district invoked a range of memories crucial to the project of constructing a historical Assamese
122 123

Ibid., pp. 47–50. Sarkar (1973) is still the best account. 124 Misra (2006).

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identity. At the same time, as the previous references to the arguments of Gohain Barooah and Bezbaroa suggest, there was always the indefinable fear among the early twentieth-century language activists that ‘Ka mru p…ya ’ was a little too ¯ ¯ ¯ Bengali-ish. Truths of a False Conspiracy Theory ‘The Upper Assam dialect is spoken only by a small portion of the population of Assam district[s] of Dibrugarh and Sibsagar and is altogether unimportant and meager and its capabilities and chances to make itself the language of the entire province are extremely limited,’ complained a petition from 1,226 residents of Lower Assam. A number of lawyers, mouzadars and the lower-rung clerks from Kamrup and Darrang strongly resented ‘[t]he presumption of Upper Assam people to force their own patois to the acceptance to the people.’ The missionaries, said their petition, had ‘already made a sad havoc with our language by adopting an absurd system of spelling by phonetic representation and by publishing [a] highly objectionable dictionary and one or two grammatical primers.’ Bengali, therefore, ‘must yet continue for long years to be the medium of instruction in our schools.’125 Bezbaroa was not firing into the air. There were a range of rival claims to contend with, a number of frontiers to man and a great deal of opposition to overcome. In spite of Keatinge and Campbell, there were local European officers like the Deputy Commissioner of Sibsagar, Knox White, who said, ‘Cut off the tongue, knock out the teeth and make him speak, what he will speak then, he will speak Assamese.’126 There were the undependable zamindars in Goalpara,127 the emerging Kamatabihari programme in Rangpur,128 and the dissidents among the literati. The short-lived Assamese periodical from Calcutta, Mau, which preceded Jona ¯k… by a year and reflected a very different position from the latter, was rather hostile to the project it anticipated crystallizing in the Mirjapur Street mess-house. As a periodical which used the ‘Bengali R’ instead of the ‘Assamese R’129—probably
Quoted in Roychoudhury (1998: 71–72). ¯ ¯ Quoted in Asambhraman, Calcutta, 1889, p. 139. 127 Misra (2006). 128 Under the patronage of the zamindar of Kundi, a small group of Ka mata biha ri activists was ¯ ¯ ¯ particularly visible in the Rangpur Sa hitya Parishat (since 1905) and the Uttar Bañga Sa hitya Sanmilan ¯ ¯ (since 1908). These residents of Rangpur were vigorously engaged, eventually without much success, in fashioning what they alternatively called a ‘Ka mata’ and ‘north Bengali’ identity, with a linguistic ¯ and literary tradition distinct from the metropolitan Bengali history. According to them, Ka mata was ¯ comprised of Rangpur, Dinajpur, Koch Bihar, Jalpaiguri, and Dhubri. See Sarkar (1907b: 85). They claimed that the Ka mr™p…ya speech was ‘greatly influenced by Kamatabihari or Koch Behari language’. ¯ ¯ See Sarkar (1907a: 129). 129 Since the intervention of the Baptist Mission Press, there were two visual differences between the ‘Bengali’ and the ‘Assamese’ scripts (typefaces). One, the Assamese script contained a specific sign (letter) for the sound ‘Wa’, for which there was no corresponding letter in the Bengali script. Two, for the sound ‘R[a]’ the Assamese script used a letter of triangular shape which had a dash
126 125

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owing to the typesetting constraints in its Calcutta press—Mau remarked with a certain degree of causticity, ‘There’s no disgrace in imitating the English, but all loss of dignity consists in imitating the Bengalis! Insert a dash to write ‘R’ and that is patriotism.’ The editor, Bolinarayan Bora, well known in Assam history for his undeviating conservatism and untiring invectives against the coolie rights activists, further argued, It is indeed true that the Assamese language is different from the Bengali language. But this is a sad, rather than happy, thing for the Assamese. If the two languages were one, the Bengalis could not have advanced alone on the road of civilization leaving the Assamese so far behind.130 Nothing could have been more demeaning to the self-confidence of the Englisheducated middle-class activists in Calcutta. If Bengali had indeed advanced ‘on the road of civilization’, they argued, it was precisely because Calcutta was the seat of imperial power in British India. With the change in the government’s policy, it was possible to create a similar future for Assam.131 However, their intentions were complicated by the difficulties of their location. It is difficult to sidestep the fact that the three most influential Assamese periodicals of the time—Jona ¯k…, Ba (in 1909, Bezbaroa, no more a student, started this periodical to continue his ¯h… literary and other campaigns) and Bijul… (Gohain Barooah was the chief force behind this periodical, 1890–93)—were published from and based in Calcutta. The short-lived periodicals published from Tezpur and Dibrugarh did not dominate the discussions of language and literature.132 Bezbaroa often signed his addresses to the imaginary reader in Assam as ‘your hapless Assamese friend trapped in Calcutta’. Such stylization of the metropolis as an incarceration, as a walled and unfamiliar space, helped him and his colleagues to imagine Assam as an uncontaminated outside. But this exilic agony, this pain of distance, was further displaced by their simultaneous, anguished and rather reluctant recognition that the pure Assam was not awaiting them a few hundred miles away, that contamination continued to happen, that speeches were a great deal less tidy than they should have been. The urge for reform and improvement gained strength from this fractured fact of location. In the district-towns of Assam proper slowly emerged a new educated elite, connected

running inside, while the corresponding Bengali letter put a dot below the triangle (without a dash). In many of the late nineteenth-century publications, however, these differences were not consistently maintained. 130 Bora (1887: 43). 131 Bezbaroa, asam…ya bhasha, pp. 699–703. ¯ ¯ ¯ 132 For a list of other local Assamese periodicals in the early twentieth century, see presidential address of Padmanath Gohain Barooah, in Hazarika (1955: 18).

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to Calcutta through a definite network of periodicals, educational requirements, and the ties fostered by the government service. In 1895, a branch of the Asam…ya ¯ Bha sha Unnati Sa dhin… Sabha was established in Dibrugarh.133 A few years later, ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ another branch was opened at Tezpur. Nevertheless, Calcutta seems to have remained the major locus of agitation. By 1898, Assamese replaced Bengali in the Normal and Entrance Schools of Assam, and after twelve more years of lobbying, it received the long-desired status of ‘vernacular’ in the B.A. and F.A. examinations of the University of Calcutta, which necessitated an interesting academic project to publish a voluminous ‘Selection of the Assamese Literature’. Assamese versions of the forms of the Calcutta High Court were also made available around the same time.134 In 1900, reportedly after a bitter controversy over its orthographic conventions,135 the Jona k… group’s lexicographical canon Hemkosh, compiled by ¯ Hem Chandra Barua, was published from Calcutta at government expense. The disjuncture with the missionary orthography was complete: the task was no more to record whatever ‘dropped from the lips of the people’, but instead to reform and reshape the popular speech. The air was heavy with nationalism. In 1903, Durgadhar Barkatoki, a zealous Calcutta-educated Assamese language activist who had become the Sub-Inspector of Schools in the Eastern Circle of Nagaon, pointed out that there was a huge difference between the orthographies of Hemkosh and those of the Assamese textbooks in the Assam schools. ‘The orthography adopted in Hemkosh has been approved and accepted generally’, claimed Barkatoki and complained that most of the writers of the Assamese primers, with the exception of Panindra Nath Gagai (who, incidentally, was also a regular contributor to Jona ¯k…), showed a tendency to follow the ‘obsolete’, Bengali-like spelling conventions. Debendra Sen Barua’s Sahaj Dha ¯pa for instance, uses ‘a rha i’ ¯ra ¯t, ¯ ¯ (two and a half) instead of ‘a rhei’ and ‘chhiya nabbai’ (ninety-six) instead of ¯ ¯ ‘chhaya nabbai’.136 Madhab Ram Das, the writer of Dha ¯pa ‘seems unaware of ¯ ¯ra ¯t, the existence of the letter <<-v->> corresponding to the sound of W in English for he uses <<-b->> instead of <<-v->> throughout.’ But the most serious offender
Nath (2001: 143). Presidential address of Padmanatha Bhattacharyya, in uttarbañga sahitya sammilan: Proceed¯ ings of the Third Conference: First Part, Rangpur, 1910, p. 28. 135 Sharma (1972: 59). 136 A European officer was similarly ‘struck’ by the fact ‘that here [in Guwahati] and in Nowgong the boys use the Bengali numerals and say ‘tetalis’ instead of ‘tealis’, ‘ekshati’, etc, instead of ‘ekshasti’, etc and ‘ekanno’ etc instead of ‘ekuan’, etc.’ McSwiney suggested that this was ‘due to the fact that there was a long succession of Bengali sub-inspectors in both places.’ He was evidently disgusted with such overlaps: ‘If the boys are supposed to be taught Assamese, one would think that they should be taught pure Assamese.’ ‘Extract from Mr. McSwiney’s Memorandum, dated the 19th January 1904, on the working of the Lower Primary Schools in Gauhati (south bank)’ (Diary No. 97 P. I.), in ‘Lower Primary School Curriculum’, Assam Secretariat, General Department (Home-A), July 1904, Nos. 24–76, ASA.
134 133

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was Joy Chandra Chuckravarti, a Bengali resident in Lower Assam who had composed Lara Pa the Assamese primer prescribed for the lower classes. Chuckravarti ¯ ¯˜h, not only spelled words differently than Hemkosh, but also employed ‘many expressions which are quite inappropriate’ (‘megh a hichhe’, as one would say in ¯ a certain Bengali, instead of the Hemkosh-sanctioned ‘megh na michhe’).137 ¯ That Barkatoki’s recommendation to withdraw Lara Pa was not one of those ¯ ¯˜h usual stray official proposals for updating the syllabus became evident within a few months’ time as Madhab Chandra Bardalai, another Calcutta-educated Assamese civil servant, wrote a separate letter to the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup stating that Chuckravarti’s Lara Pa ‘should be omitted, as it is a Bengali ¯ ¯˜h book, with the idioms of the Bengali language in the garb of Assamese.’138 A respected, Calcutta-educated gentleman Manick Chandra Barooah led a number of middle-class petitioners from Kamrup to urge the Deputy Commissioner to drop Lara Pa from the syllabus along with Sitanath Tattvabhushan’s Child’s Own ¯ ¯˜h Grammar (‘This book is written in Bengali, and the young Assamese boys will find it almost as difficult as a book written wholly in English’).139 The Secretary to the Chief Commissioner however shelved the proposal saying, ‘Exceptions have been taken to the method of spelling of the Assamese primer Lorapath, but as Assamese spelling is still very much a matter of task, Lorapath may, I think, stand as an alternative reader.’140 Alternatives, according to the protestors, created confusions. Stricter control over pronunciative variations, effective curtailment of orthographic freedom (‘anarchy’) and promotion of a distinctly ‘Assamese’ lexicon to replace the more Bengali-ish words and idioms emerged as the major agenda of the early twentiethcentury campaigners. But the programme was always complicated by the contradictory demands on the new orthography to simultaneously reveal its closeness

137 Durgadhar Barkatoki, Sub-Inspector of Schools, Eastern Circle, Nowgong to the Deputy Commissioner, Nowgong, dated 21 September 1903 (Ibid.). For a very similar account, see Bujarbarua (1955: 77). 138 Madhab Chandra Bardalai, Extra Assistant Commissioner, Gauhati to the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup, dated 1 December 1903, in ‘Curriculum and Text-books for High, Middle, and Upper Primary Schools and the Proposed Introduction of the Vernacular in the Upper Classes of High Schools’, Assam Secretariat, General Department (Home-A), August 1904, Nos. 37–120, ASA. 139 Manick Chandra Barua and others to the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup, dated 26 November 1903 (Ibid.). 140 F.J. Monahan, Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Assam to [J.B. Fuller] the Chief Commissioner, Assam, dated 6 April 1904, in ‘Lower Primary School Curriculum’, Assam Secretariat, General Department, Home-A, July 1904, Nos. 24–76, ASA. It may be of relevance to mention here that between 1909 and 1914, the same Durgadhar Barkatoki, by then the Assistant Inspector of Schools, was very active and chiefly instrumental in making Assamese the official medium of instruction in the Goalpara schools. Excerpts of his correspondences with Hemchandra Goswami regarding this issue are available in Sharma (1972: 68–73).

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to Sanskrit and its distance from Bengali.141 There were lively and intense debates among the activists.142 Various alternatives were generated in the process of eliminating alternatives, and we stand to learn much from a thorough study of this fascinating process. In the remaining pages of this article, however, we confine ourselves to a broad appraisal of the process. As more and more Calcutta-educated middle-class Assamese youths began to be employed in the Assam districts by the government at the turn of the century, the coherence of the social appeared increasingly attainable to the activists in the mess-houses. Although always posited as a pre-existent outside to ‘the State’, the autonomy of the social could be brought into being and reproduced only through the practices of disciplining and governance. It was not an accident that the principal focus of the agitation was the education department.143 Nothing illustrates our point better than the well-known ‘conspiracy theory’— a particular construal of the past that became popular among many Assamese language activists in the early twentieth century. The origin of this theory is usually ascribed to a widely influential essay of Hemchandra Goswami, ‘Asam…ya Bhasha ’, ¯ ¯ ¯ published serially in Jona (1891–92).144 According to this sensational account, ¯k… a handful of unscrupulous Bengali clerks had ‘misled’ the early nineteenth-century British authorities to believe that Assamese was not a distinct language but a corrupt patois of Bengali. The ‘banishment’ of Assamese from Assam between 1836 and 1873 was a direct result of this conspiracy. Goswami, however, was only one among his contemporaries who defined the continuing struggle for a sovereign status of Assamese in terms of an early nineteenth-century conspiracy. In 1892, Benudhar Rakjkhowa also tellingly sensitized his readers to the long history of treachery and infidelity of those ‘Bengalis resident in Assam [who] eat Assamese rice and speak ill of the Assamese.’145 The presidential address of Phanidhar Chaliha

Cf. ‘asam…ya bha sha r barnabinya s’, Jonak…, 6:11, 1895, pp. 202–04 by a resident of Sibsagar; ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ Chaliha (1906); Sarma (1993: 21). Even Satyanath Bora’s Bahal Byakaran, widely believed to have ¯ been a less Sanskritized grammar, was evidently modelled on Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar’s Sanskrit Vyakarana Kaumud…. Bora retained a chapter entry on ‘sama sa’ in the contents only to declare in the ¯ ¯ specified page that in Assamese there could be no ‘sama sa’! Cf. Medhi (1936: v). ¯ 142 Bezbaroa, for instance, was often criticized for his disregard of the Hemkosh rules. Cf. Sharma (1909b). In his defence, Bezbaroa often argued that ‘creative literature’ rather than grammars and dictionaries should become the standard for the new language. Cf. Bezbaroa, asam…ya bhasha. ¯ ¯ ¯ 143 ‘J. Wilson is the Director of the Education Department of Assam. His counselors and courtiers are all Bengalis. His office is filled with the Bengalis. There is not a single Assamese Head Master in the High Schools. Excepting one, all the Deputy Inspectors are Bengalis. Even most of the SubInspectors are Bengalis. Every Assamese should know that the Bengalis pose obstacle to the teaching of Assamese. As long as the Bengalis will dominate the Education Department, there is no hope for improvement of the teaching of Assamese.’ Gupta (1892: 266). 144 See particularly Goswami (1891: 266–70). 145 Rakjkhowa (1892: 94).

141

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in the 1909 Tezpur Asam…ya Bha sha Unnati Sa dhin… Sabha ,146 and the speech of ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ Deveshwar Chaliha in the 1911 North Bengal Literary Conference147 passionately and explicitly reiterated this argument. But we owe the most popular version to the famous presidential address of Padmanath Gohain Barooah in the first con¯ ¯ ference of the Asa m Sa hitya Sabha (Sibsagar, 1917): ¯ ¯ A group of self-seeking Assam-resident Bengalis blocked the path of progress of the Assamese language and literature [in the early nineteenth century]. They were aspirants of government jobs. [They feared that] if Assamese continued as the official language, their interest would be hampered and their future would be bleak. Therefore, they spread such untruths as Assamese had no independent literature and it was just a corruption of Bengali et cetera, so as to mislead the contemporary British officials and ensure the substitution of Assamese by Bengali as the official language as well as the introduction of Bengali literature in the schools. As a consequence, after receiving British patronage barely for ten years, the Assamese language became banished in 1836.148 Much has been written in the last few years to prove these accounts as inaccurate, instrumentalist, naïve, and chauvinistic.149 A ‘progressive’ historian has even classified such explanations as ‘an invention of colonial-cum-communal historiography’.150 As our previous discussion clarifies, the archive does not keep any trace of the ‘self-seeking Assam-resident Bengalis’ influencing Jenkins’s decision. Moreover, contrary to Gohain Barooah’s claim, it was not ‘Assamese’ which received ‘British patronage ... for ten years’ (1826–36), it was Persian, ‘the language best known to [the Agent] Robertson.’151 Nevertheless, the defence of the professional fact has proved to be too weak in front of popular fictions, and this particular
146 ‘Initially a few self-seeking men tried to convince the authorities and others that Assamese is not a separate language—it was just a corruption of Bengali. But lies have small lives. It became satisfactorily proved that there was no truth in debate raised by those self-seeking men.’ Chaliha (1908: 620). 147 Chaliha (1911: 222–24). 148 Presidential address of Padmanath Gohain Barooah in Hazarika (1955: 15). 149 Barpujari (1983); Barman and Chowdhury (1986); Guha (1979); Gohain (1980); Roychoudhury (1998); Saikia (2001). A recent defence of the conspiracy theory is available in Bhuyan (1990). 150 Chowdhury (1994: 52). 151 F. Jenkins, Commissioner of Revenue, Assam to W. Grey, Secretary to the Government of Bengal, dated Gowhatty, 7 December 1854, No. 236, in ‘Correspondence’. As this letter testifies, Jenkins clearly thought that in making ‘pure Bengallee’ the language of the courts in Lower Assam he was not only bridging the gap between the civil and appellate courts but also completing the process which Scott had begun. As a matter of fact, unlike Scott, who was accompanied by ‘Bengalis ... from Rungpore, ... Mahomedans of Burdwan or the North-West provinces, Bengalis of Rungpore and Mymensing, or Brahmins of Santipore, connected with the Gossains of the Kamikha Temple at Gowhatty’, Jenkins claimed to have ‘prevailed on the Government to allow of several Assamese lads

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construal continues to hold an enormous power over the imagination of many non-specialists in Assam. What truths can such a version address which the historians cannot? The truths of proximity, one can say with a little irony. Into the figure of the conspiring clerk was forced the recognition that ‘the social’ could never be too far from ‘the State’, that its autonomy was too precarious, too tenuous to stand on its own, that a stroke of ‘banishment’ from the surface of government documents could violently destabilize its claims to a bottomless depth. As Suryya Kumar Bhuyan, the famous historian, recounted a few years later: You can say that even if the Assamese language was debarred from the schools and the courts, there was no need to worry. Hundreds and thousands of men and women in the villages of Assam, by simply speaking the language, would have kept supplying manure and water to the roots of its life-tree. But that is a wrong impression. The students of the schools and the clerks of the courts, in becoming semi-experts in Bengali, would have turned the language into a medley. The villagers, in imitating the language of the educated, would have also gradually forgotten their own untainted indigenous language, because the language disease is extremely contagious; the uneducated hastily imitate the language of the educated.152 For Bhuyan, the indefatigable champion of ‘professional history’, expertise was the antidote to every ‘contagious’ disease, and in the state he saw the highest and most complex form of expertise. At the same time, it was expertise that rescued the social from being an aggregate of the ‘hundreds and thousands of men and women in the villages of Assam’, and made it into a clearly distinct, logically coherent, evenly distributed and rationally reformable entity. The annual conferences ¯ ¯ of the Asa m Sa hitya Sabha (Assam Literature Society), in one of which Bhuyan ¯ ¯ voiced his concerns, were indeed designed as the precise site where the science of expertise, the sentiments of nationalism and the assertions of proprietary rights

being appointed as apprentices to each Court in the Province, to learn the business of the courts and to perfect themselves in the Bengali language’. In the early years of his administration, his most trusted ‘native clerks’ were Sadar Amin Kafaitoolla, Sherishtadar Harakanta and Bar Kataki Jagnyadatta, all local men with some literary skill and a remarkable adeptness at operating on the multiple registers of the bhasha conventions and the new ‘pure Bengallee’. (For an interesting account ¯ ¯ of how these three intervened, mediated and settled a serious disagreement between Jenkins and Rowlatt, see Sharma Majundar Barua (1991: 115–19.) Kefayatullah’s krishi darpan, ‘an adaptation of Frenwick’s book on gardening in Urdu’ was catalogued as a Bengali work by James Long. See Guha (1991: 217). He also wrote articles in the Baptist Assamese in Orunodoi. Harakanta’s autobiography, written at the end of the 1880s, captures his command over both ‘Ka mrup…ya ’ and the ‘Ujani’ ¯ ¯ ¯ speeches. 152 Bhuyan (1926: 101–2).

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could converge to shore up the spatial fantasies of interiority and depth. The journey from Unnati Sa dhin… Sabha to Sa hitya Sabha was unmistakably shaped by these ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ particular inflections and by the various forms of opposition that the campaigners had to encounter from an equally zealous group of Bengali language activists. At this point it is important to remind the readers that far from pursuing one unanimous agenda, the Bengali language activists, like their Assamese detractors, stood for remarkably heterogeneous positions. Padmanatha Bhattacharyya, for example, was a Bengali antiquarian resident in Assam who had earned much applause from the Assamese intellectuals for his enthusiastic campaign for the establishment of a Ka marupa Anusandha na Samiti and his scathing critique of ¯ ¯ ¯ the contemporary Bengali encyclopedia (Visvakosh) for the Calcutta intellectuals’ ´ ‘crass ignorance of a neighbouring people’.153 This did not mean, however, that he was open to the idea of an independent Assamese language. In his presidential address to the North Bengal Literary Conference in Gauripur (1910), Bhattacharyya surmised, Had Assamese merged itself into Bengali, the ancient literatures of Assam would have been considered as a property of the Bengali language. In that case, the Bengali littérateurs would have searched for, discovered, discussed and published the manuscripts of the burañj…s and other texts from Assam in the same manner as they would do for their own property—just as the Bañg…ya Sa hitya ¯ Parishat [Bengali Literary Society] is at present engaged in retrieving the manuscripts from different places. Now, as they judge the Assamese language as a separate language, the Bengali scholars are not even casting a glance at it. Until now the Assamese of Assam have taken no independent initiative to search for these manuscripts; there is no indication that any such effort will be undertaken in the near future. Even if the manuscripts are published, there is hardly any possibility of profit from the sales. Actually there are very few people among the Assamese who may appreciate the value of these books. According to the census, only 1,350,000 people speak the Assamese language; how wide can the extent of the literary culture be within such a small number? Almost 50,000,000 people speak the Bengali language. If there was a union of Assamese and Bengali, these fifty million people would have also come to know of the genius of ®ankaradeva et al. It needs to be calculated whether Assam has lost or gained by the present arrangements.154 Let us look at the excerpt a little closely. It invokes two forces—the power of statistical abstraction and the law of the property regime. Literatures were now deeply inscribed in a proprietorial scheme, where the boundaries of ownership
153 154

Bhattacharyya (1908: 1–1A). Presidential address of Padmanatha Bhattacharyya in ‘uttarbañga sahitya sammilan’, pp. 33–34. ¯

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were expected to be clear, distinct and ever-present. Trespasses were to be registered and resisted. As long as ‘the ancient literatures of Assam’ were considered a property of the Assamese language, according to Bhattacharyya, the law-abiding Bengali scholars would not even ‘cast a glance’ at other’s belongings. When Lakshminath Bezbaroa strongly reacted to Bhattacharyya’s suggestion saying that it was absolutely unethical to appropriate somebody else’s property under the pretext of saving it,155 he was effectively reinforcing the founding dogma of the new regime: ancient literatures were objects of ownership, and ownership implied the right to prevent others from using them. It is interesting to see how the logics of public right and private bequest cut across each other to shape the strange and enduring career of the proprietorial reason in this field. Texts written variously between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries—a time when the broad range of bha ¯ conventions was shaping up in multilinear directions—had to be ¯sha slotted into the mutually exclusive defined poles of the twentieth-century categories. Even extensively shared oral traditions (like the stories of Lakhindar and Behula), proverbs and riddles (‘da bacan’) and narrative motifs (‘the mosquito ¯ker king’ and ‘the country of the one-legged’) had to be knifed into calculable and inheritable pieces.156 The Bengali public should not infringe on ‘the public property of all Assamese’, and vice versa. It was a post-Berne Convention world. Bhattacharyya, however, overestimated the Bengali scholars’ respect for law. Dineshchandra Sen’s Bañgabha ¯ O Sa ¯sha ¯hitya, a historical account of Bengali language and literature that fuelled much of the nationalist-expansionist fantasy of a ‘Greater Bengali’ identity in the first decades of the twentieth century, catalogued not only Kab…ndra’s Maha ¯rat or Na ra yaŠadeva’s Padmapura as in¯bha ¯ ¯ ¯Š stances of ancient Bengali literature, but also the Anantara ¯ yaŠ or the Ra ma yaŠa ¯ma ¯ ¯ of Ananta Kandal…, a claim which Bhattacharyya found a little embarrassing. Bhattacharyya wrote a letter to Sen in 1909 pointing out that even in the syllabus of the Calcutta University entrance examination, excerpts from Anantara ¯yaŠ ¯ma were classified as ‘Assamese’, and hence Sen would be well advised to remove this particular reference from his long litany of ‘Bengali’ tradition in the next edition. ‘But I am writing the history of language and literature of a time, when the Assamese language was not separate from the Bengali language,’ replied Sen.157 More than five centuries after his death, poor Kandal… was forced to shuttle between the over-eager passport offices of Sibsagar and Calcutta for quite some time. ‘We do not recognize Assamese as an independent language distinct from a provincial variation of Bengali.’ Sen was emphatic in maintaining that he was not
Bezbaroa (1909d). Cf. Bezbaroa (1909d: 305–18); Bezbaroa (1910b); Chaliha (1911); Sharma (1909a). All these pieces allude to the particular texts of the Bengali language activists which made counter-claims to these traditions. 157 Quoted in Bezbaroa (1909d: 314, 1909f: 294).
156 155

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infringing on other people’s property.158 Jogesh Chandra Ray Vidya nidhi, another ¯ prominent Bengali language activist, in fact went one step further and claimed that what was under attack in Assam and Orissa was the rightful claim of the Bengalis to their ancestors’ work. The proposal to ‘restore’ Bengali in the schools and courts of these two provinces was explicitly termed as a plea for upholding the inviolable property rights.159 Indeed, the language of inheritance and ownership became increasingly sharper in both camps. In 1884, Goonabhiram Barooa had opined that it was ‘not the case that the books composed by ®ankaradeva and Ma dhavadeva ¯ belong only to us; these are properties of Bengal, Orissa, North-Western Province and Assam. Everybody can understand the languages of their books with little effort.’160 For Bezbaroa and his associates in the early twentieth century, the very names of these saints became distinctive proof of the eternal Assamese-ness of Bha ti. The Bengalis must keep their ‘hands off ’ Goalpara, wrote Bezbaroa, his ¯ most passionate evidence deriving from his conviction that ‘®ankar-Ma dhav¯ Da modar’s Goalpara can never be Bengali’.161 ¯ Fifteen years before he became the first non-European Nobel laureate in literature, Rabindranath Tagore had written a brief and bitter article called ‘Partition of Language’ emphatically stating that Assamese and Oriya were ‘mere dialects’ of Bengali and that ‘there can be no literature in a dialect’.162 More than Bezbaroa’s spirited protest to this article, which reportedly cost him Tagore’s personal friendship for life,163 we are interested in the constant deployment of the expressions ‘separation’ and ‘partition’ in the literature produced by the Bengali language activists. In presenting the claims of an ever-present Bengali which had been putatively one and unitary until the misguided and malevolent decision of an alien government detached the dialects of Assamese and Oriya away from it, the distressed lexis of partition unmistakably invoked a territorial image: the outlying provinces were being unjustly taken away from the cultural custody of Calcutta. Patois, after all, was primarily an expression of distance—a specific deviation from the standard and the dominant. The distance could be expressed geographically (‘provincial differences’) as well as temporally (‘primitive speech’). The authority of the standard thrived on the routine performance of this distance, and yet the distance had to be simultaneously revealed as proximity: the deviant could never be so far from the standard as to cease functioning as a variant. Patois was simultaneously the condition of possibility of the standard language and the condition of its impossibility.
158 159

Sen (1896), preface to the third edition. Bezbaroa (1910a). 160 Barooa (2001: 146). 161 Bezbaroa (1911: 91–92). Emphasized section is in English in the original text. 162 Tagore (1961: 79–82). 163 See Anonymous (1938: 1043).

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Forced to give up its claims of placelessness, the standard or metropolitan Bengali more acutely clung to its claims of temporal priority. For most of the Bengali language activists, their language was a direct and natural descendant of the original language Sanskrit, while the connection between Assamese and Sanskrit was dubious, secondary and inevitably mediated by Bengali. The Assamese language activists—much like the historians of Ka maru ¯ ¯pa—countered this contention by asserting that Assamese was in fact older than Bengali (‘When there was no existence of the language which is now called Bengali, Assamese reached a great height at that time’164) and that Assamese had derived directly from Sanskrit, independent of Bengali.165 The provincially popular theory of an Aryan migration through the northeast frontier, as discussed elsewhere,166 reinforced this line of argument. The intriguing details of the ensuing debates remain largely scattered in the pages of the contemporary Bengali and Assamese periodicals and hopefully future research will be able to address their complexities. In a nutshell, Grierson’s famous Linguistic Survey, which decided that the difference between Assamese and Bengali was to be sought more along the axis of ‘literature’ than that of ‘grammar’,167 was energetically opened up to various interpretations and supplementary theorizations. As the early twentieth-century surveys struggled to shape the eighteenth-century notion of resemblances into the nascent model of language families, the place of Assamese in the family of Sanskrit became an issue of great significance. The growing invocation of a certain kind of familialism in the early twentiethcentury linguistic discourses seemed to offer a particularly comfortable compromise between the contending claims of difference and sameness. ‘Bengali and Assamese are both descendents of Sanskrit as French and Italian are of Latin,’ said the European Principal of Cotton College. According to F.W. Sudmerson, who was assigned by the Chief Commissioner Bampfylde Fuller to submit a ‘Note on the Assamese Language’ in connection with the growing debate about making Assamese a subject in the graduate programme of University of Calcutta, ‘common parentage’ was the key to the mysteries of resemblance between Assamese and Bengali. He certainly reflected, by his own admission, the opinion of a considerable section of the Assamese language activists when he said, But it is above all necessary that Assamese writers should avoid the error of their Bengalee brethren and make a larger use of the vigorous material at their
Bezbaroa (1909b: 28). See also Bezbaroa (1909e: 172, 1910a: 475–92). This was one of the major reasons of popularity of the small grammar published by George Frederick Nicholl in 1885 among the Assamese language activists. Nicholl argues that for Assamese, ‘Its Sanskrit did not come to it from Bengal, but from the upper province of India.’ Nicholl (1885: 72). 166 Kar (2004). 167 Cf. Grierson (1903: 393–94).
165 164

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own disposal. They should avoid the constant incorporation of Sanskrit, which resulted in modern Bengali language differing so widely from that of the 18th Century. The effect of this in Bengal has been a fatal dissociation of Language from literature, so that it can even be said that grammar of colloquial Bengali actually differs from the grammar of its literature.168 This was also Grierson’s argument. The printing press in Calcutta ‘ha[d] done much to reduce Bengali literature from being national to becoming the mental pabulum of a specially educated class.’ But ‘Assamese, under the wise conduct of the local missionaries, has escaped the fate of its sister language. Assamese literature is essentially a national product. It has always been national and it is so still.’169 To the opposite direction ran the argument of the Indian nationalists. ‘I think it is the ultimate dream of every patriot to have only one language in entire India,’ said Padmanatha Bhattacharyya. ‘If the Sanskritic words are [extensively] used in a language, then the speakers of other languages will only need to know the difference of the case endings and the declensions in order to understand the language without any or little difficulty.’170 The famous Bengali scientist Prafulla Chandra Ray similarly explained to his audience in the fourth conference of the Assam Students’ Association that both the Assamese and the Bengalis ought to imagine themselves as ‘branches’ of the great Indian nation. Sanskrit, for him, became the linguistic cipher of this original Indian nation. The nation was not an agglomeration of the ‘regional’ identities; rather the ‘regional’ identities were derivative of this foundational fact of origin. There were new takers for the Halhedian fantasies. Strangely echoing Bezbaroa’s address to ‘the Bha ti people’, Ray assured the young ¯ students of Assam saying ‘Had I been an Assamese, I would have certainly tried to improve the condition of my mother tongue.’ But this is also true that as you always stay in proximity with the strong Bengali people, it is bound to leave some mark on you and your language. Whether you like it or not, you cannot stay outside the streams of Bengali life and aspiration.

168 Quoted in Gohain Barooah (1908: 583). ‘After all, I have only been a spokesperson,’ Sudmerson reportedly remarked after submitting the Note. Padmanath Gohain Barooah and Hemchandra Goswami were his major advisors in this case. Sharma (1972: 61–63). 169 Further delighting the language activists of Assam, Grierson assured the government that Robinson’s calculations were wrong: only 543,500 people in Kamrup and Goalpara spoke ‘Western Assamese’ while 859,950 people in Darrang, Nagaon, Sibsagar and Lakhimpur used the ®ibsa gar…ya ¯ ¯ or the ‘standard Assamese’. See Grierson (1903: 394–95). 170 Presidential address of Padmanatha Bhattacharyya, in ‘uttarbañga sa hitya sammilan’, pp. 38–39. ¯

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The Bengali language fashioned by Ishvarchandra [Vidyasagar], Bankim [Chandra Chatterjee], and Rabindranath [Tagore] has reached the international literary standard. Since you remain in close proximity with Calcutta, your society, economy and polity will inevitably be shaped by the Bengali society, economy and polity. I believe that your connection to a metropolis like Calcutta is very advantageous to your improvement. For various reasons, Calcutta has become a major center for learning and scholarship.171 Insofar as improvement remained conceivable only in the shadow of the metropolis, the logic of the national remained inevitably condemned to the relentless reproduction of distance between a ‘centre’ and its ‘peripheries’. This structural dynamic was by no means peculiar to the Indian or Bengali nationalist discourses. It was equally unmistakable in the emergent idioms of the Assamese nationalism gathering around an assertive discourse of linguistic sovereignty. By the end of the 1910s, many Assamese language activists acutely sensed the need for a broad inter-district network in the province, as opposed to the prevailing Calcutta-centric network,172 which would not only make a conversation possible among the conflicting conceptions of ‘Assamese’ but also define, once and for all, a common language agenda to be pursued by coordinated teams of committed volunteers.173 The formation of ¯ ¯ the Asa m Sa hitya Sabha in 1917 was a response to this demand. Want of space ¯ ¯ does not allow us to go into details, but it can be safely said that the Sa hitya ¯ Sabha , committed as it was to reduce the gap between the speeches of Na mani ¯ ¯ and Ujani, somewhat modulated the anti-Bha ti rhetoric of the Jona k… group and ¯ ¯ opted for a more inclusive definition of ‘Assamese’. After years of debates and discussions, it finally published an ‘authorized’ dictionary, Chandraka ¯nta Abhidha in 1932 to substitute Hemkosh.174 A happy Bhuvanchandra Datta noted ¯n, ‘the delightful fact’ in his presidential address to the Bijn… Sa hitya Sabha in 1927: ¯ ¯ Currently a number of authors are using old Ka mru ¯ words in the written ¯ ¯p…ya language. The author of the new Assamese dictionary which is currently being

Ray (1919: 9–11). Kanak Lal Baruah obliquely referred to this detail when he quipped in his presidential address ¯ ¯ in the Dibrugarh conference of the Asa m Sa hitya Sabha (1924) that unlike the Unnati Sa dhin… Sabha , ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ the Sa hitya Sabha ‘was born in its native country’. See the Presidential address of Kanak Lal Baruah ¯ ¯ in Hazarika (1955: 97). 173 The seventh conference of the Sa hitya Sabha (Guwahati, 1924) decided to appoint twenty ¯ ¯ pracharaks (‘preachers’) in several districts of Assam to organize the movement. Apart from Benudhar ¯ Sharma, who travelled extensively for six months and managed to put a network in place, most of the ¯ ¯ pracharaks were reported to have been inactive. See ‘a sa m sa hitya sabha r ka rjya bibaraŠ…’, Asam ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ Sahitya Sabha Patrika, Vol. 1:1, pp. 10–11. ¯ ¯ ¯ 174 See Chaliha (1906: 92) for an early statement of discomfort with Hemkosh.
172

171

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composed is a person from Kamrup and several Ka mru ¯ words have found ¯ ¯p…ya an entry in that dictionary. Therefore, the people of Goalpara cannot anymore say that Assamese is a monopoly of the Ujani people.175 In 1925, Assamese textbooks were introduced in Goalpara.176 In the same year, ¯ ¯ the Asa m Sa hitya Sabha resolved in its eighth conference at Nagaon that the gov¯ ¯ ernment should now be pressurized to make Assamese the language of the lower courts in Dhubri, Mechpara and Bijni.177 In the ninth conference at Dhubri (1926), it was resolved that the ‘sectarian words or words current in particular districts’ should be kept out of lower primary school textbooks.178 In order to ‘avoid ... wounding susceptibilities’, Grierson had already suggested the substitution of the term ‘Dhekeri’ with ‘Western Assamese’.179 It was now common to hear among the leaders of the agitation that the term ‘dhekeri’ should be dropped from use, as it had taken a ‘pejorative’ turn.180 However, even amidst such vigorous display of unity and fraternity it was not difficult to find the new peripheries. ‘By language we understand the verbal communication of humans only, and to be specific, of only a higher class of humans’, clarified Dimbeshwar Neog in 1929. ‘We do not honor the tongues of the undeveloped hill people and the lower classes by the name of language [bha ¯], we ¯sha 181 call it dialect [dowa ¯n].’ Bezbaroa had already declared, ‘The languages of the Nagas, Miris, Mishmis and similar savage people are poor, because their ideas are poor.’ In these speeches, said he, there was hardly any word which could ‘express the abstract ideas’ like patience, care, devotion, religion or soul. Quoting a contemporary British thinker, Bezbaroa asserted that ‘acquiring an abstract phrase like Natural Selection is a greater achievement than all the conquests of Julius Caesar.’182 It is important to remember in this context that throughout the nineteenth century this was the most dominant characterization of ‘the tribal tongues’ in the imperial ethnography. In the Dafla language, said William Robinson in 1851, ‘[v]erbs expressive of possession ... appear to be wholly wanting!’ He also noted that ‘[i]ndeclinable particles, so necessary in most civilized languages for connecting sentences together and giving precision to other parts of speech, are almost unknown in the language of the Dophlas.’ Again, ‘[t]here are but three recognized relations of time: the absolute present, the absolute past, and the simple future,’
175 176

Datta (1927: 224). Das (1927: 135). 177 ¯ ¯ ‘ashtam sa hitya sanmilanar’, Asam Sahitya Sabha Patrika, Vol. 1:1, 1926, p. 26. ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ 178 ¯ ¯ ‘navam sanmilanat’, Asam Sahitya Sabha Patrika, Vol. 1:2, 1926, p. 114. ¯ ¯ ¯ 179 Grierson (1903: 414). 180 Cf. Barua (1912: 373–76). 181 Neog (1929: 6). 182 Bezbaroa (1893b: 109). The italicized section was in English in the original text.

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which for the ethnographer signified an utter lack of precision in ‘relations of time’. Robinson’s entire report was in fact a meticulous directory of inadequacies: there was ‘no grammatical form to express a plural number’, no distinction between the second person and the third person, no verb to express the sense of ‘being’. After all, concluded the ethnographer, it was illogical to expect a mature language in a society where ‘very little is grown beyond what is necessary for household consumption’.183 Similarly, ‘[t]he language spoken by the Singphos is a very poor one: for instance, there is no word for bad; it is rendered ‘ng’guja ’, not good. A ¯ coward is ‘Singpho k…ta ’; a brave man is ‘Singpho ng’k…ta .’184 ¯ ¯ Within half a century of Danforth’s insistence on the difficulty of promoting ‘abstract studies’ among ‘an ignorant, stupid and bigotted people like the Assamese’, Bezbaroa and other Assamese language activists began to shower the same terms on the ‘neighbouring hill tribes’. Introducing Assamese in the hills districts of Assam was understood as a logical component of the improvement of these communities. The eighth resolution of the ninth conference of the Sa hitya Sabha (Dhubri, ¯ ¯ 1926) specified that ‘those Boro, Rabha and Garo students residing in Goalpara and Garo Hills who are willing to take instruction in the Assamese language should have the opportunity.’185 Reaffirming this resolution, the next conference (Goalpara, 1927) also decided that special measures would be taken by the Sa hitya Sabha for ¯ ¯ introducing Assamese among the ‘adjacent hill tribes’.186 In the areas adjacent to Assam there are many groups (ja who have inde¯ti) pendent rustic languages (‘gra ¯mya bha ¯’), but it is not feasible or practical ¯sha to have any other language apart from Assamese as the written form. The major task of the Sa hitya Sabha is to introduce Assamese in these places.187 ¯ ¯ The twelfth conference (Golaghat, 1930) sanctioned two hundred rupees for this purpose.188 In the fifteenth conference (Mangaldai, 1934), a permanent committee of seven members was formed to ‘introduce the Assamese language among the non-Assamese like the adjacent hill tribes of Assam, the immigrant settlers from Mymensingh and Sylhet, and the time-expired coolies of the tea gardens who have chosen to
183 ‘Mr. Robinson’s Note on the Dafflas and Peculiarities of their Language’, File No. 420, Papers of the Assam Commissioner, 1851, ASA. 184 Macgregor (1887: 61). 185 ¯ ¯ ‘navam sanmilanat’, Asam Sahitya Sabha Patrika, Vol. 1:2, 1926, p. 114. ¯ ¯ ¯ 186 ¯ ¯ ‘dasam sanmilanat’, Asam Sahitya Sabha Patrika, Vol. 2:1, 1927, pp. 36–38. ´ ¯ ¯ ¯ 187 ¯ ¯ ‘a sa m sa hitya sabha r dasam bacharar ka rjya-bibaraŠ…’, Asam Sahitya Sabha Patrika, Vol. 2: 1, ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ´ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ 1927, p. 43. 188 ¯ ¯ ‘a sa m sa hitya sabha r dwa das adhibesanat’, Asam Sahitya Sabha Patrika, Vol. 3:1, 1930, ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ´ ´ ¯ ¯ ¯ pp. 81–82.

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settle permanently in Assam.’189 Teams of volunteers (pracha ¯raks) were sent to these settlements. The Baptist missionaries who, since the shift of their constituencies in the late 1860s, had been working for gathering various speech practices in the hills into distinct ‘hill languages’ were routinely chastised for their ‘antiAssamese’ predilection.190 In his presidential address to the seventeenth conference (Guwahati, 1937), Krishnakanta Handiqui declared that the time has arrived when arrangements have to be made to open the Sabha not ¯ only to the Assamese Hindus, Muslims and Christians but also to the adjacent hill tribes of Assam. It should be considered a major responsibility of Assam Sa hitya Sabha to preach the Assamese language among these tribes.191 ¯ ¯ From the end of the 1930s, a campaign for ‘Greater Assam’ (bahal asam)—too distinctly reminiscent of the preceding campaign for ‘Greater Bengal’ (br hat . bañga)—began to gain force in the middle-class circuit of the Brahmaputra Valley.192 In 1938 a jubilant Assamese language activist reported that the proposal ‘to create a greater Assamese nation including the Assamese and the Manipuri people’ mooted in the conference of the Manipuri Hills Students’ Association had received great support. The appeal of a certain Mr. Luke, ‘a Naga leader’ in the Kohima Hill Students’ Companion, to the educated Naga youths for adopting ‘the Assamese script’ as the common script was particularly highlighted.193 In an unsigned article titled ‘Our Duties in the Coming Census’ published in the leading ¯ ¯han, the Assamese readers were urged to form teams of volunteers periodical Ava to assist the 1941 census officials in a particular way: Although a great number of Oriyas, Nepalese, Boros and similar people who reside in Assam have accepted or desire to accept Assamese as their mother tongue, they cannot openly express it owing to the lack of education. The main task of the propaganda would be to encourage and educate them to express this opinion.194 This process, which certainly needs a more detailed and thorough examination, has gone almost absolutely unaddressed in the available histories. We submit that
189 The members were Nagendranarayan Chadhuri, Sharatchandra Goswami, Purnananda Sharma, Kirttinath Bardalai, Kuladhar Chaliha, Chandradhar Barua, and the Secretary of the Sabha . See ¯ ¯ ¯ ‘pañchadas sa hitya sanmilanat gr h…ta prasta vsamuha a ru puraska r-ghoshana prasta vsamuha’, Asam ´ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ . Sahitya Sabha Patrika, Vol. 6:1, 1935, pp. 60–64. ¯ ¯ ¯ 190 ¯ ¯ See editorial, Avahan, 9:2, 1937, p. 247. 191 Handiqui (1937: 17). 192 ¯ ¯ The editor of Asam Hitaish… suggestively calculated that 75 five per cent of the Koch Bihar speech was Assamese. See Bhattacharya (1925: 195–201). 193 Bezbarua (1938: 108–15). 194 Shri- (1939).

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the question is not as much about the ‘oppression’ and inferiorization of Assamese by Bengali, or of Boro by Assamese, or of ‘hill tongues’ by Boro,195 as the potentially infinite reproducibility of the improvement template. The histories of scalar distribution of speeches (improved language and inferior dialects) are inextricable from the histories of polar distribution (through which speeches are gathered into mutually exclusive languages). The language and the dialects, the standard and the deviants, the mainstream and the margins, are neither prehistorical residues nor technical aberrations but constitutive conditions of development and metropolitan knowledge. References/Select Bibliography∗ Unpublished Sources
Government Proceedings ‘Correspondence relating to the Question whether Assamese or Bengali Language should be taught in the Assam Schools’, Selections from the Records of the Bengal Government, Micro-film No. V/23/95/22d, OIOC Papers of the Assam Commissioner, Pre-1874 files, ASA. Proceedings of Foreign Department (Political), 1830–1890, NAI. Proceedings of Home Department, 1874–1910, ASA. Private Papers Jenkins, F., Private Journal, 1832, in Private papers of Francis Jenkins, Mss Eur F 257/3, OIOC. Wade, J. P., Account of Asam, Part II (1800), in Private papers of George Bogle, Mss Eur D532, OIOC. Transcripts and Manuscripts Bhuyan, S.K., ‘Report on the Old Assamese Manuscripts in possession of the American Baptist Mission at Gauhati’, June 1925, Transcript No. 59, Transcript Volume No. 50, DHAS. ‘Conditions for Grants of Land in Assam, Enclosed in Letter to Mr. Prideaux’, Ms. 9934 of Papers of Assam Company, Guildhall Library, London. Goswami, C., ‘Remarks on the Assamese Language and the propriety of introducing it into the courts and schools in Assam’, undated, Transcript No. 17, Transcript Volume No. 59, DHAS. ‘sañskrita, a sa mi o ka mrup… bha sha r sabdasañgraha: Comparative Vocabularies of Sanskrit, Assamese ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ´ and Kamarupi languages,’ MSS. Assam. C.1 (101 f. 28 x 23 cm.), OIOC. ‘Vocabularies of the Ashami and Camarupa languages from Ruchinath Camarupi, 1810’, copied by Mohendra Nath Phookun, 22 November 1932, Transcript No. 91, Transcript Volume No. 5, DHAS. ∗Most of the following vernacular texts print their publication dates according to various local calendars. While we have taken care in rendering these dates into their Common Era equivalents, some of them may be regarded as approximate.
195 In his presidential address to the first Great Boro Conference, the Boro language activist Jadunath Das claimed that the speeches of the Boro Dimasas, Hajongs, Lalung Tipras, Rabhas and Koches and Chutiyas were all dialects of the Boro language. Das took great pains to distinguish the Great Boros from ‘the adjacent hill tribes like Nagas, Akas, Daflas, Abors and Mishmis’. He strongly resented the fact that the educated Assamese made no such distinction. Das (1925). See also Khaglari (1927).

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