It was a perfect choice of venue and timing. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik laid the foundation stone for the proposed Odia University at the exact spot in Puri district’s Satyabadi village, where Gopabandhu Das, pivot of the ‘panchasakha’ (five friends), had set up the Bakula Bana Vidyalaya in 1909 to promote education in the Odia language in the ancient gurukul mode—something similar to what Rabindranath Tagore would initiate a few years later at Santiniketan in Bengal. Being touted as an example of the government’s commitment to the preservation and promotion of the Odia language, the stone-laying ceremony for the proposed university was scheduled to coincide with Gopabandhu’s birth anniversary on October 9.
Naveen sounded all the right notes, although he is often derided for his lack of knowledge of Odia, one of the six Indian languages granted ‘classical’ status. “I hope the proposed university will bring back the glorious days of the past when the people of Odisha excelled in every field,” he said. Critics say the university would achieve precious little in promoting Odia, given that the language and literature departments of all three major universities in Odisha have been headless for quite a while and Odia departments are shutting down in college after college due to lack of takers.
In fact, by the evening of October 9, a meme in which Gopabandhu is shown asking Naveen why the Odia language chair at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, remained closed was making waves on social media. Litterateurs and language warriors are sceptical about whether the university would ever see the light of day. “I can’t see it happening anytime soon,” says journalist and literary critic Asit Mohanty, quickly adding that no one would be happier than him if the university indeed comes up. Work on it hasn’t even started. An OSD (officer on special duty) was appointed, and then removed after sexual harassment allegations surfaced against him. The stone-laying ceremony is just a pre-election stunt.”
Sixty-four years after the Odisha assembly passed the Official Languages Act and more than two years after Naveen made the grandiose announcement at his 2016 Independence Day address that the law would be implemented in letter and spirit, and that Odia would become the ‘official language’ from the next day, i.e. August 16, 2016, almost all official communication in the state government takes place in English.
The announcement on August 15, 2016, had, in fact, come only after the government’s hands were forced by the Bhasha Andolan—in which four language activists have been marching, black flags in hand, from near the statue of Nabakrushna Choudhury, the first chief minister of Odisha under whom the Official Language Act was passed, just outside the Assembly, to the statue of Madhusudan at Raj Bhavan, every day for nearly three years now. Dash was a stalwart of the movement that saw Odisha’s formation in 1936 as the first state carved out on a linguistic basis.
The Bhasha Andolan forced the government to appoint a committee of officials to frame rules under the Official Language Act six decades after it was passed. When the campaigners rejected the draft as it didn’t have any penal provisions for violations, the government had to pass an amendment. But it left enough room for bureaucrats wary of conducting their business in Odia to escape unscathed.
With the Bhasha Andolan now split down the middle, with charges and counter-charges flying thick and fast between the factions led by veteran journalist Subhas Chandra Pattanayak and Pradyumna Satpathy, the government can afford to breathe a little easier.
Reluctance to enforce the use of Odia has been evident in other ways too. The government had initially decreed that Odia must figure prominently in signage and signboards in commercial establishments. But nearly a year later, the decision that was to be implemented “in 15 days” remains only on paper.
“No government has done more for the cause of Odia,” says the ruling Biju Janata Dal’s spokesperson Samir Kumar Dash. “It was during the Naveen government that Odia got classical status, a Bhasha Pratisthan was set up and now the Odia university. The criticism is politically motivated.” Meanwhile, Naveen continues to converse in English.
- The stone-laying ceremony was held on October 9, birth anniversary of Gopabandhu Das.
- Naveen Patnaik is often derided for his lack of knowledge of Odia, one of the six ‘classical’ Indian languages.
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar