Language, script and culture  


I’m writing this open letter with the intention of pay some overdue attention to our written language since it’s currently under the radar and with it, the controversy that’s currently striking The Seng Khasi apropos the article “Returning Home: My Reconversion Story” by Shimtihun Lyngwa (ST September 1, 2020).  Sections of The Seng Khasi are demanding for a separate alphabet entirely to be made official and to be taught exclusively and strictly to the followers of the Khasi indigenous faith or the Niam Khasi – Niam Tre.

Census data shows there are around 1.6 million native speakers of our Khasi language, and these speakers can be found in Assam, other states in India, some parts of Bangladesh but mostly in Meghalaya itself — home to about 1,037,964 (2011 census) of that overall total number. But despite such numbers, our Khasi language still has no script of its own. Between 1813 and 1838, William Carey, a British Christian missionary and founder of the Serampore College and the Serampore University, wrote our language with the Bengali script but it was not widely accepted. In 1841, a Welsh missionary, Thomas Jones, wrote our Khasi language in the Latin script which is still used to this day.

But what’s wrong with the previous scripts? Many argue that an alphabet’s aesthetic and functional aspects must reveal the culture of its creators. Its forms should naturally spring from the traits of the home culture. The Latin script comprising mainly of sturdy, masculine shapes, have a uniformity of size and economy of form that makes them seem almost engineered, rather than merely written. They are also solid, upright and efficient. Judging by this alphabet, one could imagine that it was created by a pragmatic, rigid culture that prized order, strength and structure. And actually, that’s not a half-bad description of the ancient Romans.

The Bengali script, on the other hand, lacks the frugality and symmetry of the Latin characters, and is much more complex, intricate, and floaty. One could suppose that the culture that created them was one that cherished sophistication, artisanship, and nuance. But what both the previous scripts lack is a reflection of our unique Khasi culture. Neither even came close to being a reflection of our culture and therefore, it must be changed.

The Latin Script:

A B K D E G Ng H I Ï J L M N Ñ O P R S T U W Y

The Bengali Script:

আ ব ক দ এ গ অং হ ই য়ি জ ল ম ন ঞ ও প র স ত উ ঊ ঈ

People have questioned as to why there is such a demand? A straight answer to this question is “cultural discrimination”. It’s a fact that cultural discrimination among the two groups of the Khasi tribe (the Khasi and the Kristan) has been a century long episode and is still running undisturbed. Khasis have been faced with a cultural crisis for more than 200 years – though this is not always recognized by the government. Members of The Seng Khasi defend their ideology as one that is tolerant, but they also insist that non-Khasis (the Kristan) respect the primacy of the wholly indigenous cultural tradition of the Khasis. As they put it, the Ri Khasi is not only the motherland of the Khasis, but also our holy land. Christian converts in the Ri Khasi have always viewed the Khasi religion and culture with disgust. This is the burden of cultural identity which followers of the Niam Khasi – Niam Tre carry on their shoulders and also the main reason why some segments of The Seng Khasi are shouting out “P for Pynkylla!”

Yours etc.,

Lariti Mawlong

Shillong – 8

Meghalaya should overcome the paranoia

I am simply stumped by the brazen defiance by the Meghalaya Government of the Central Government’s directive regarding unrestricted movement across the inter-state borders. You have reported for the past two weeks about Union Home Secretary’s DO letters to the state chief secretary with explicit direction to keep the borders open. The first letter of 22nd August on the subject was reiterated a week later along with announcement of Unlock.4. The instructions are clear, precise and binding. Under the National Disaster Management Act 2005, the Centre has the law on its side to impose its mind even on a state subject like Law and Order. Meghalaya Government would do well to remember that it has no constitutional authority to challenge that legal and constitutional position. While all States have already complied with the direction, Meghalaya has chosen not to follow suit. The flimsy ground mentioned in defence is that “we have to protect our people” from COVID-19 virus. The intent of the state government may be genuine but its refusal to advance any legal ground to trump over the Central Government’s directive has not been forwarded. If you ask me, regardless of what some legal experts may say, Meghalaya has no case. The obdurate stand of the State Government has no legal legs to stand on and is simply a political expediency. This may have serious repercussions, if other states were to behave in this childish manner.

I am all in agreement with the contention that the people of Meghalaya should be protected from the pandemic. All this while, since April to be precise, the State Government has gone for strict regulation for entry of outsiders. Already 32,000 people of the state have returned home during this period. Besides, a lot of people are entering on a daily basis for maintaining all essential services. These measures have yielded a mixed results. The armed forces who are an exempted lot, initially contributed to the bulk of the active cases. But that scenario has changed. The armed forces are showing declining incidents of infections, while the infection among the civilians is growing in numbers every single day. This surely proves that somewhere something is amiss. It is not the unregulated entries, but, to my mind, it is holes in the system which have led to the fear of community spread in Shillong.
Therefore, it stands to reason that restricted entry into the state has not helped the cause. Rather, such restrictions have outlived their purpose.

The prohibition of movement of persons and goods without e-permit has brought about a negative impact on the local economy. Let us not miss the point that at this time of pandemic which is yet to peak, and the nation is reporting nearly a lakh of new cases every day, few would be interested to visit Meghalaya putting their own lives at risk. Yes, vigilance is absolutely in order. But there is a case for re-think on the Central Directive.
I, for one, would like to suggest the following:

  1. Lift all restrictions on movement. 2. Do away with e-permit system. 3. Strengthen the health checking system at the entry points. 4. Make every entrant, including the armed forces, get themselves checked at the entry points. 5. Undertake more rapid tests in the community. 6. Open the normal economic activities with stricter enforcement of protocols.  7. Issue an official notification that wearing mask, gloves etc are a legal requirement.8. Resort to penal actions against all violators. 9. Empower Magistrates to take on the spot action.

Once law is enforced without let or hindrance, the public will also behave more responsibly. But let us not fool ourselves by thinking that by keeping the borders closed , the state will be able to get a grip over the virus. Time has come to realise that the world has to learn to live with the virus without having too many restrictions on the lives of the people. The pandemic is not going to make a hasty treat. As they say, we can’t say the direction of the wind, but we can change the direction of the sails. Let there be pragmatism and lets not try to be politically correct all the time. Hard times demand hard actions. This is the time for Meghalaya Government to think anew.

Yours etc.,

Ajit Prasad Singh,

Via email

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