Language Politics and Policy in South Asia and the Himalaya

On September 19th, join the UBC Himalaya Program in welcoming Selma K. (“Sam”) Sonntag to UBC campus for a talk on Language Politics and Policy in South Asia and the Himalaya.

This event is Co-Sponsored by the UBC Himalaya Program, UBC Language Sciences, the Centre for India and South Asia Research, the Department of Anthropology, the Department of Asian Studies, the Department of Linguistics, the Department of Political Science and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.


In this retrospective of my research in Nepal, North India and Northeast India, I consider the relationship between language politics and language policy. My research in North India in the early 1990s contrasted the politics surrounding the status of Urdu in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. I argued that in the 1980s differences in the consolidation of political power between the two states explained why granting Urdu official status was less controversial in Bihar than in Uttar Pradesh. My focus was on the politics of language policy-making or what I call the politics of governing languages. I also conducted fieldwork in Nepal during the same research stint, in the aftermath of the people’s movement that ended absolute monarchy. I explored the impact of a new multilingual policy in education and broadcasting on the Tamang and the Tharu, arguing that the policy encouraged ethnic identity formation among the former and language creation among the latter. Language policy had spurred political activity on the part of both groups—what Partha Chatterjee calls the politics of the governed.

This relationship between language politics and language policy, i.e., analytically distinguishing the politics of governing languages from the language politics of the governed, can also be gleaned from my subsequent work on language politics in India’s northeast. I posited that the establishment of an autonomous council in 1988 in Darjeeling ensued from the interplay between the politics of the governed and the politics of governing: while the language demands of the Gorkha movement had been integrationist—for recognition of Nepali as an Indian language—the muddled politics of governing, which pitted the union government against the state government, led to an experimental policy instituting self-government. Most recently, I have focused on language politics in Assam. Employing a historical institutionalist approach, I discuss how the pre-colonial multilingual language regime began shifting to a monolingual policy of standardized Assamese as a result of the expansion of the political reach and make-up of the ruling power, setting the stage for the intense demotic politics that have characterized Assam ever since.

About the Speaker

Selma K. (“Sam”) Sonntag is Professor Emerita of Politics at Humboldt State University in California and Affiliate Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her extensive research and publications focus on the politics of language, primarily in South Asia, but also in the United States, Europe and South Africa.

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