Odisha's language limbo: How Naveen Patnaik foiled a 300-day old agitation for use of Odia in official business

Bhubaneswar: It is a protest that has few parallels in India – maybe even the world. For over 300 days now, members and supporters of Bhasha Andolan, an organisation working for the cause of the Odia language, has been staging a protest march every single day — come sun or rain — in Bhubaneswar demanding full implementation of the Official Language Act passed way back in 1954 and incorporation of penal provisions for its violation.

Founding members of the Bhasha Andolan doing a black flag march on 6 February, 2017, the day  the agitation completed 300 days. Image courtesy Sagar Satpathy

Founding members of the Bhasha Andolan doing a black flag march on 6 February, 2017, the day the agitation completed 300 days. Image courtesy Sagar Satpathy

As the clock strikes 5 pm, four eminent people drawn from various walks of life, begin their march from in front of the statue of Nabakrushna Choudhury, the then chief minister of Odisha and the architect of the Official Language Act, in the state Assembly premises, with black flags and placards in hand, and march silently to the statue of Madhsudan Das, who played a pivotal role in the formation of the Odisha state on linguistic basis, in front of the Raj Bhavan – a distance of 1.5 km. The four marchers are felicitated by members of the Bhasha Andolan, slogans raised in support of the demands of the organisation and speeches made by the organisers and marchers of the day.

It all started with a fast-unto-death started by Titlagarh based poet and activist Gajanan Mishra and some others demanding ‘official language’ status for Odia on 1 July 2015. Rattled by the impact of the agitation — especially the extent of coverage it was receiving in the local media — a worried state government did what it knows best: forming a committee to look into the demand.

Based on the recommendations of the committee, 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 12 August, 2016 and an announcement was made that Odia would become the ‘official’ language of the state from 16 August, 2016, a day after Independence Day.

But nearly five months after the grandiose announcement, English continues to be the language in almost all official communication with a determined bureaucracy doing everything it can to resist the ‘foisting’ of Odia on them. It has been helped in no small measure by the fact that even 17 years after he became Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik cannot speak, read or write Odia nor has he shown any inclination to do so.

But there are other reasons too for the Odia-unfriendly bureaucracy succeeding in its design. In a classic case of ‘divide and rule’, the state government has requisitioned the services of other organisations to dilute the impact of Bhasha Andolan by raising other extraneous issues. One such organisation is the Institute of Odia Studies and Research (IOSR), headed by eminent linguist and former head of Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) Padmashri Debi Prasanna Pattanaik. ISOR has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Centre for Modernising of Government Initiative (CMGI) of the General Administration (GA) department of the Odisha government “to provide necessary assistance and expertise in the field of usage of Odia Language in the State administration” and has been clamouring for the setting up a university for research in Odia. Thus, despite the fact that there are already a host of organisations like Odia Bhasha Pratisthan, Odisha Sahitya Akademi and Utkal University of Culture that have the same mandate as that of the university proposed by Pattnaik.

For over a year now, DP Pattnaik and his cohorts have been engaged in a bitter war of words with the Bhasha Andolan, headed by veteran journalist Subhas Chandra Pattanayak with each side calling the other names. A third dimension has been by former Rajya Sabha member Baishnab Charan Parida, who heads an organisation named Bhasha Suraksha Samiti, which also works for the propagation of the Odia language in official business. The Bhasha Andolan chief has no love lost for the head of the Samiti, calling him a BJD stooge roped in by Naveen Patnaik to foil the agitation by his organisation.

This tug-of-water among multiple players has suited the Naveen Patnaik government just fine. Even as the Bhasha Andolan has completed 300 days of its unique agitation, it can afford to look the other way and carry on with its business – in English – without losing any sleep over it. Nothing can be more ironical than the fact that an organisation has to fight for the implementation of an Act passed 63 years ago in a state that was the first to be formed on linguistic basis: on 1 April, 1936, 11 years before independence.

Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Feb 10, 2017 17:21:52 IST

Also See