21.2.08

[Farhad Mazhar] Language, ecology and knowledge practice.

There are a lot of distraction tactics and power games concerning language in Bangladesh. It was a potent symbol around which a lot of people were mobilised in the past. In their overzealousness and thickness some planners arranged it so the standard of english dropped significantly in the immediate post independance phase and multiliguality.. i think needs to be researched far more. I'm not sure there has been a 'renaissance' amongst the bengali muslim qaum since. I think folks would like some form of blossoming period but judgeing from the bad points of the three educational streams, the sheer and crass lack of elite interest fusing the streams....it is hard to imagine.

Many Bangladeshis consider it a sign of their cultural virility that the UN administration system considers today international mother language day. I suppose its quite neat for those who died for it and those who nearly worship those who died for it. Personally I'm more interested in the generation and refinement of ideas and mojo to address the needs of the people. That is there Farhad Mazhar comes in.

This article was in todays NewAge paper and is coming from one of the few deshi people with some mojo left and prowess in experimental discovery. From what ive been able to tell, he walks his talk. Though the whole bio-diverse agriculture thing really isnt my scene i'm really glad that issues of knowledge culture, practice and the limits of crass language nationalism are being raised when many will be getting drunk on state ideology. I have summarised (though probably misunderstood) his argument below.
  1. My mother tongue is not the language of calcutta, how dare you try that one on me you crass nationalist.
  2. Ive spent time studying the nuances of the noakhali dialect and theres a local practical knowledge system embedded that would be lost by the imposition of 'shodho'.
  3. I work in ecological agriculture, in the ganj, we need to develop our local knowledge practices to acheive food sovereignty.
  4. The current governmental paradigm of agricultural research is destroying us. Our science and technology practice needes an authentic foundation. these caretakers are nuts (possibly a rift wrt CS Karim there)
  5. Development is an ugly lie and oh you development partners, the Caretaker government will make fools of you.
  6. The imporsition of uniform bengali, chaste bengal for calcutta, developed from colonial commerce culture is eroding the rural oral culture fo knowledge. Textbooks are rubbish and not useful for innovating in practice.
  7. I have learnt heeps from my teachers, the farmers. Check out Nayakrishi Andolon (New Farmer's Movement).
  8. We need to realise the rich depository of knowledge in the local dialects, and that language is live, not a pre-recorded phenomena.

Language, ecology and knowledge practice

The cultural and knowledge practices of a community who have been historically feeding us and maintaining ecology and environment for the future generations have done all their innovations, thinking and memorisation in a dialect that is specific and experiential. It is crucial that we turn our interest to this issue before it is too late, writes Farhad Mazhar

OUR matribhasha (mother tongue) is Bangla. The literal meaning of matribhasha is the dialect my mother uses to communicate; the oral or vocal sign system she uses to represent her ideas or command others to performative tasks. The Bangla I learned from my mother is not the Bangla of urban elite, not bhadroloker bhasha; such verbal behaviours were known to us in the childhood as the kolkaityawalader bhasha – language of the class engaged in commerce with the colonial city of Kolkata. A language that is considered not authentic, not from the linguistic sensuousness that reveals the world around us in signs and metaphors, but a language developed for a very specific or particular purpose: commerce.

My mother used to speak in pure Noakhailya language, the language of the people of Noakhali, full of wit, humour and subtle metaphor. This is my matribhasha, my mother tongue. While she used to express her love in Noakhailya language for her children she could articulate the words and sentences in such a way that I still claim with my Noakhailya chauvinism that none could express motherly affection except in sweet Noakhailya language. I grew up loving this beautiful language and soon noticed that every dialect has certain unique quality that is intricately connected with social formation, ecology, and history and above all cultural and knowledge practices. Knowing this fact did not hurt my Noakhailya pride; rather, over the years, the more I studied language the more I had to accept this truth with humility and profound interest to other dialects. Without being told by anthropologists or cultural historians, one can easily notice that language or speech acts are different by different communities as well as by status, class, and gender or by other determining factors. These facts are more or less known to social linguistics, however, the connection between language, ecology and knowledge practice is an area that has only recently come to attract attention.

I now work very closely on a day-to-day basis with farming communities engaged in biodiversity-based ecological agriculture. Bio-diverse agrarian practices are rich historical traditions of this deltaic country. The wealth, richness and global significance of such practices are only recently revealed because of advance in biological and molecular science. More these connections are studied and brought to the mainstream more they open up possibility of ensuring new advance in science and technology based on farmer-led research. Such research is able to ensure food sovereignty of Bangladesh, but perhaps also the other countries at the same time since creating bio-diverse ecological environment for the maximisation of the productivity potential of nature is not dependent on ‘gene’ but to the total environment where traits are expressed.

Bangladesh is rich in biodiversity and the potentiality of nature is simply phenomenal, if we learn how to unleash her power. However, that is not possible by industrial food production system, it implies we must move away from the environmentally-destructive chemicals including fertilisers, pesticides or biocides and it is criminal to waste our water resources in the aquifer polluting environment and health with arsenic contamination. This is what the present military-backed regime is doing, an insane path that sooner or later will permanently destroy our agriculture, while there are ample evidence that advance bio-diverse agrarian practices are possible to grow more food, fibre, medicines, fuel wood and construction materials. This will require that we ground our science and technology practice on the authentic foundation of a knowledge system developed within the ecological paradigm of Bengal, and not on industrial food production controlled by few trans-national corporations of the world.

Bangladesh is already bleeding because of the piracy of the rich biological resources and now the present ‘caretakers’ are rapidly engaged in destruction of the agrarian foundation by violently transforming rural areas into plundering grounds for seed companies, technology vendors and NGOs who are selling proprietary seeds and forcing farmers to accept those on (micro)-credit. With the support of the anti-people regime, not accountable to the people, they are powerfully manipulating the media claiming that commercial hybrid seeds are the solution of our food problem. These seeds need massive chemicals, pesticides and groundwater and totally destroying the existing seed system of the farmer upon which the agrarian production and economy has historically been dependent. The destruction the present policy of the ‘caretakers’ will eventually be a nightmare for Bangladesh, as well as for the ‘development partners’. These are issues that need to be addressed more in detail separately, but I raised the issue to highlight a point that we hardly can see: the connection between ecology, environment, culture and agrarian civilisation.

The dominance of the so called ‘promit’ Bangla also signifies erosion of our knowledge depositories that are embedded in our rural oral culture. What I would like to argue is that the idea of ‘language’ as a homogenous standard system that one learns from schools reading textbooks and the implicit notion of ‘education’ that implies unlearning the oral linguistic practices or local dialects is a dangerous notion indeed. The cultural and knowledge practices of a community who have been historically feeding us and maintaining ecology and environment for the future generations have done all their innovations, thinking and memorisation in a dialect that is specific and experiential. It is crucial that we turn our interest to this issue before it is too late.

When I need words to express or articulate agrarian practices or ecological or environmental terms, the literary Bangla is poor compared to the language that the farmers use. I wonder whether the dominance of the language of a particular class also creates conditions for environmental and ecological erosion. Local language and the knowledge practices of a community are crucial for survival. Once we realise the security and survival issues we could also understand why literary Bangla, or as it is called ‘promit” or standard Bangla, which grew within the commercial milieu of colonial Calcutta, is termed ‘commercial Bangla’ by agrarian communities I know very intimately. It is a form of cultural resistance against the processes of erosion and decay of knowledge practice embedded in oral communicative dynamics and stands in opposition to printing or standard texts.

To provide a simple glimpse of what we are talking about, we can simply take note of the various names of rice varieties used by farming communities; they surprise anyone because of linguistic innovation, taxonomic classification and metaphoric implication. Naming seed varieties is simply a phenomenal and brilliant act and scientifically could also be used as ecological descriptor in contrast to the breeders descriptors used by scientists trained in industrial food production. As a genuine student of the farmers the farming community awarded me with immense learning appropriate for agriculture, ecology and environment. Imagine, we had, as scientists claimed, nearly 15,000 varieties of rice.

However, some scientists argue that genetically speaking they are much less, since the same variety is named differently in different areas. It does not mean that such farmers’ lot, co-evolved with other species and varieties in farming practices are ‘same’. What these scientists are totally missing is the multiplicity in varietals or gene expression of a variety in a particular environment, ecology and farming practices – a knowledge that are extremely vital to develop agrarian planning, production, knowledge practices and culture. So the farmers’ name does not suggest so-called ‘pure line’ or pure variety – but knowledge of a variety that expresses differently in different environments.

This is the reason why ecological scientists in contrast to the industrial food producers and the trans-national corporations make scientific distinction between ‘breeders’ descriptor and ecological descriptor. The former is integral to industrial food production systems while ecological ‘descriptors’ are related to bio-diverse farming practices. These are names or categories used to capture the nuances of ecological, environmental and biological richness and wealth of our agriculture. The latter captures the ‘whole’ in unique environment while the former manipulates part – ‘genes’. The farmer’s movement that I am now involved with, known as Nayakrshi Andolon, cultivates nearly 2000 varieties of rice. Imagine, all these varieties has ‘name’ – all in Bangla, implying sharp or subtle nuances that could be used as ecological descriptor and key to the understanding of biodiversity-based ecological farming practices.

If language is part and parcel of diverse knowledge and cultural practices and product of social interactions where ‘commerce’ is only one of the socialising contexts or specific form of interaction – the overemphasis on the ‘standard Bangla’ or promit Bangla is to be seen as question related to class and power. Rightly, standard or promit bangla came into being as the product of colonialisation, capitalism and urbanisation that also produced a particular class and their literatures, imaginations, knowledge practices and class power. The historically specific form such interaction obtained is also directly linked with Gutenberg’s invention, i.e. printing technology. Communities imagining them as belonging to a ‘nation’ composed of ‘people’ or ‘population’ conceptualised in abstract, is very recent indeed. Nationalism or imagining ourselves belonging to an identity determined by language, homogenised culture or ‘nation’ directly contradicts the experiential perception of rural communities where people do not exist in abstract, not as number or population, but with specific names with parental link and places. Such imagining a population as ‘abstract’ nation is determined by the rise of the market and the printing technology.

If we understand differences as historically or contextually determined, we hardly need to argue. My argument here is not that whether we should not be imagining ‘nation’ and remain eternally bound to rural consciousness. My point is much more simpler: (a) from such historical understanding one cannot conclude imagining ourselves as ‘nation’ in any way proves a ‘progressive’ consciousness or in other words place-bound and experiential consciousness of farming communities are ‘backward; (b) that idea of language as a homogeneous phenomenon is problematical.

Having said this I do not conclude that ‘promit’ Bangla is something ‘bad’ that we should avoid, rather what we should do is activate a dynamic relation between the rich depository of knowledge in the our local dialects and weight of standardisation and homogenisation. Dr Shahidullah is the only person I know is determined to highlight the importance of local dialects. He was right, simply because he insisted that language is a living phenomenon and not a static affair. His dictionary on local language is a phenomenal step in exploring knowledge inscribed in local terms and notions. The critique of promit Bangla is not to argue that we should write and communicate only in local dialect. These are sterile logic and facile arguments. Language by nature belongs to our creative faculty and we must keep on exploring the language in many different ways since human communities are immensely creative.

My idea of matribhasha has nothing to do with the politics of identity. I am a nationalist only to the extent it contributes to the diversity of communities, nations, languages, cultures in order to constitute a global community. My interest in living local dialects is dictated by my interest in ecology, experiential knowledge and innovative knowledge practices that can invent, reproduce and maintain and thousands species and varieties in our ecosystems. I will not deny that I have some elements of chauvinism for such a rich bio-diverse agrarian culture and indeed I am proud of our farming communities since they are the one who understand from an immediate and experiential stance what does it mean by ‘matribhasha’.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

grazias for the summary at the top!

Anonymous said...

Sweet... from matribhasha andolon to nayakrishi andolon. Reminds me of the "Ekushey February" song, was it not a movement for the desire to speak our own language, and not one that was imposed upon? :-) S

fug said...

There's people who prey on symbols, fear and injustice for power, and there people who want to solve the problems of the day.

then theres bystanders who cant tell the difference, but get drawn in by circumstance and emotion.