By Sandeep Sahu
The irony of it! Odisha, which became the first state in India to be formed on linguistic basis way back on April 1, 1936 - 11 years before independence and nearly two decades before the second linguistic state was formed in the country - is witnessing an agitation for the use of Odia in all official business and communication in September, 2016 - 80 years after the formation of the state on linguistic basis and 62 years after the Official Language Act mandating the use of Odia in all official work was passed by the Odisha Assembly under the visionary leadership of the state’s first Chief Minister Nabakrushna Choudhury!!
Even more surprising is the fact that the state government is using all its cunning and obfuscation to make sure Odia remains what it is now: a language that no one in officialdom cares to learn or communicate in. The government has been helped in no small measure by a group led by eminent linguist Dr Debi Prasanna Pattnaik, which has done (and is doing) everything that it can to discredit the Bhasha Andolan, the informal, loosely-bound organization led by veteran journalist Subhash Chandra Pattnaik, which is spearheading the agitation for use of Odia in all official work.
On the face of it, there is no reason why anyone who loves the language should have a problem with an agitation that is fighting for the cause of Odia. After all, all that Bhasha Andolan is demanding is the inclusion of penal provisions in the rules framed by the government, which would make failure to use Odia in official work a punishable offence. But not only is it being opposed tooth and nail; the vitriol being poured out by Dr Pattnaik and his camp followers against the Bhasha Andolan movement that has now entered its 149th day (in two phases) in the vernacular and social media has to be seen to be believed.
It all started with a fast-unto-death started by Patnagarh based poet and activist Gajanan Mishra and some others demanding ‘official language’ status for Odia on July 1, 2015. As the agitation gathered momentum, a worried state government did what it knows best: formed a committee to look into the demand.
Based on the recommendations of the committee, which had some of the leading lights of the movement (including the two Pattaniks now at war) , the government formulated a set of rules for the implementation of the Act passed in 1954. But in a clever sleight of hand, it ignored two of the key recommendations of the committee – the inclusion of penal provisions for violators and formation of a statutory body to monitor the actual implementation of the Act – and entrusted the task of monitoring to a five-member committee headed by the chief secretary instead. The rules were approved by the cabinet on August 12, 2016 and a grandiose announcement was made that Odia would become the ‘official’ language of the state from August 16, 2016, a day after Independence Day.
That the government had no intention of enforcing the mandatory use of Odia in official work and had made the rules and announcement only as an exercise in damage control has become abundantly clear in the three weeks since Odia supposedly became the ‘official’ language of the state. Forget official files being written in Odia, even the statement read out by the Chief Minister during the special, one-day session of the Assembly convened on September 1 to ratify the GST Bill was written in English! Taking a cue from him, bureaucrats have merrily continued using the Queen’s language in everything they write, knowing fully well that the rules they have framed are not worth the paper they are written on.
Meanwhile, the war of words between the two Pattnaiks (Debi Prasanna and Subhash) on either side of the divide has become shriller. In a piece written in Samaj on August 22, the former came out with the preposterous claim that 84% of people in the state are ‘happy’ with the rules framed by the government. No one really knows who conducted the survey that he based his assertion on and when.
It was quite clearly an attempt by the renowned linguist to ingratiate himself with the government of the day. In a series of hard-hitting articles in the vernacular media and posts on Facebook, Subhash Pattnaik laid bare the twin reasons for this honeymoon. First, an agreement signed by the Institute of Odia studies and Research, the organization headed by Dr Pattanaik, with a trust floated by the state government in March, 2015 for propagation of the Odia language, is due for renewal in the next seven months. Second, in a letter to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) at the Centre on August 31, the Higher Education department of the state government has recommended the name of Dr Pattnaik for a Presidential of Award of Certificate of Honour for the year 2106.
On the face of it, there was nothing wrong with the recommendation. After all, even his sworn detractors have never questioned his contribution to research in Odia language. But there is a catch: the award for 2016 had already been announced by MHRD a full fortnight before, on August 15 to be precise! In any case, the award is given for meritorious work in five ancient languages - Sanskrit, Prakruta, Pali, Persian and Arabic – and hence there was no way it could have been given for work on Odia or any other language, for that matter.
With the two eminent Pattnaiks fighting it out in every conceivable forum, the third Patnaik, the most powerful man in the state, is sitting pretty – secure in the knowledge that his condescending concession of occasionally reading out Odia speeches written in the Roman script in his labored, halting way would keep Odias in good humour!