Rajesh Verma

    Language is not only a tool of communication but it also has ethnic, socio-cultural and political implications. Various ethnic groups in the North-East have their own dialects. These are often seen by those who use them as languages in their own right.

    In the North-Eastern part of India the diverse ethnic groups use several languages . But the dominant language of the larger community has a pre-eminent place.

    The North-East has remarkable linguistic diversity. Bilingualism and sometimes trilingualism is common in both rural and urban areas even among the unlettered. This is because when a family, a kin group or a community moves from one region to another, its members acquire the language of their new place of domicile without giving up their native dialect. Settlement of outsiders has also helped in spreading bilingualism or trilingualism in the region.

    The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India recognised 18 Indian languages. There is no provision to protect the minor languages, especially the tribal languages of the North-East. Such minor languages could lose their identity vis-a-vis the dominant language. Any language signifies a vocal system by which members of a social group interact with one another. It has immense social and political implications. Coercion by the dominant community to impose its language could invite political turmoil. Indeed, language assimilation at various interaction levels has been a characteristic feature of a multi-ethnic region that the North-East is. But the advocacy of a single language for homogeneity or cohesiveness classification has been challenged.


    Indian languages are classified in four broad categories - Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austric and Sino-Tibetan. The geographical distribution of the major languages in India neatly fits into a scheme of linguistic regions. Hence the linguistic re-organisation of States that took place in 1956. But for the North-East, State re-organisation is based neither on linguistic nor on ethnic factors. It is based on administrative convenience. This is why the contiguous Naga habitations fall into four States -. Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.


    The North-East presents striking socio-cultural features in terms of ethnicity, linguistic and socio-cultural practices. The hill ranges of the region like the Naga Hills, Patkai Hills, Lushai Hills and Shillong Plateau are inhabited by numerous indigenous tribal communities.Each ethnic group has its own distinctive socio-cultural identity. According to Indian language classification, the region has people of Mongoloid stock, speaking Sino-Tibetan and Austric languages or dialects. The linguistic matrix of the North-East is made up of a number of polyglots. It is not only different languages of a single family but also languages of different families which are spoken in different States of this region as each state in the region is multilingual complex rather than a linguistically homogenous unit.

    A linguistic matrix is the Naga group of languages such as Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Khiamniungan, Lotha, Konyak, Phom, Rengma, Sumi, Sangtam, Yimchunger, Zeliang, Kuki and Pochury in Nagaland; Maiteis in Manipur Valley (and the dialects of Nagas in Manipur and Kuki-chin (Zomi) groups); Lushai in Mizoram; Bengali dialects in the Brahmaputra Valley; Assamese, Kachari, Bodo, Karbi in Assam; Khasi, Jaintia and Garo in Meghalaya, and Mongpa, Adi, Apatani, Nishi, Nocte in Arunachal Pradesh.

    There has been ethnic assertion in every group of its socio-cultural and political aspirations. In the process a language becomes a vital tool to subjugate a buffer minor ethnic group by larger and stronger dominant groups. This is apparently observed in the non-tribal dominant States like Assam, Tripura and Manipur. In these States the tribal languages have little scope for growth. The dominant languages of the geographical areas are compulsory like Assamese in Assam, Bengali in Tripura and Meiteilon or Manipuri in Manipur . Both Assamese and Manipuri use the Bengali script with some slight modifications. The Assam tribals like Bodos, Karbis, Kacharis, invariably study Assamese in schools and colleges. The Tripura tribals such as Tripuris and Reang study Bengali; the Manipur tribals such as the Nagas and Kuki-Chin (Zomi) have to study Meiteilon.

    The dominant language in any State or region eventually develops its ‘lingua franca’. This is true of Manipur, Assam and Tripura where Meiteiolon or Manipuri, Assamese and Bengali are commonly used to communicate between the various ethnic groups. But most tribals cannot write in these languages because of the unfamiliar script.


    The tribals of Manipur are divided into 29 groups recognised as scheduled tribes and have their own distinct dialects and culture. The recognised tribes are- Aimol, Anal, Angami, Chiru, Chothe, Gangte, Hmar, Kabui, Kacha Naga, Vaiphei, Koirao, Koireng, Kom, Lamkang, Mao, Maram, Maring, Mizo (Lushai), Monsang, Moyon, Suhte, Tangkhul and Thadou. Inter-action within and between the different groups has been limited. There has never been any scope for the development of a common language. This is exemplified by the fact that even among the various Naga groups from different hill villages, there are considerable differences in dialects.

    More or less, the same situation exists in other States of this region. The North-East often witnesses a tug-of-war among the multiple tribal languages and the dominant one. Recently, the UPSC tried to introduce the Manipuri language as a compulsory subject in civil service (mains) examination for the candidates from Manipur . But the Guwahati High Court in its interim order exempted the tribals from appearing in Manipuri language. The irony is that while Manipuri is not taught in the schools, it is a compulsory subject at higher levels, especially in competitive examinations.

    The linguistic diversity in the North-East creates or worsens ethnic tensions in the region. Under the prevailing situation the tribal communities are encouraged to speak the dominant language with the result that fewer people are using their tribal languages or dialects.