Whats in a name ~ Assam, Asom or
For weeks, Assam has been troubled by the state governments
decision to change the official name from Assam to Asom. It is an issue
that provokes political anger, irritation, suspicions, literary as well as
ethnic and linguistic concerns. We publish below two views on the issue.
By Rajen Barua
The Government of Assams hasty decision
to propose to change the name of the state to Asom on the basis that the
name Assam is not indigenous but is a word coined by the British during
the colonial rule for their own convenience shows that there are also some
serious misconceptions regarding the origins of the name.
that the British first spelt the place name as Asham in 1590 which was
later on changed to Asam and finally to Assam. They did not coin those
names for their own convenience but because the phonetic pronunciation
Assam was the name in vogue. Records in fact show that the phonetic
place name Assam is much older than Oxom, which I prefer. The facts are as
When the Shan (Syam) invaders first came to Assam from upper
Burma in the 13th century, they called themselves Tai. After settling in
Assam, they later on took the name of Ahom while the name of the country
became known as Oxom with the typical Assamese guttural X pronunciation.
It has puzzled scholars over the last 100 years as to how these two terms
actually came to be. We believe that the following may be offered as the
most logical, and phonetically acceptable, explanation of the derivatives
of these names.
First, when the Syam people conquered Kamrup, they
were initially given the name of Acham, Asam or Asyam by the local tribes
in Assam. This is possibly either because, as Dr Banikanta Kakoti puts it,
the hybrid terms (A+Sam) or (A+Cham) were coined to mean undefeated, and
the Syams were given this name because of their swift military success in
Kamrup; or as Mr Debanada Bharali explains, the term (A+Syam) is simply
the plural of the word Syam. According to Sao Noan Oo, the Shan author, on
the other hand, the term Shan, Siam and Asam all had been derived from the
word Sian (Hsian, Sein), which designates the Tai group of mountainous
people who originally migrated down from Yunnan province in the 6th
century AD to the Shan state. The name Acham or Asam was used for the
country itself, and that is how the country had been known since that time
by all people outside of Assam. It may be mentioned Assam has another
possible derivation from Bodo word Ha+Com, meaning low or level country
Inside Assam however, the development took some
twists. These terms when recorded in Assamese, were recorded as Axam or
Axom or Oxom and these were pronounced with a guttural X pronunciation of
the sibilants changing the S sound to X. Thus the Tai people eventually
came to be known as Oxom or Axom, transformed further to Ahom.
Assam however, the name of the country remained as Acham or Asam and the
British used the English phoneme SS as in issue or tissue to settle on
Assam. The dual names, Oxom and Assam, make perfect sense since they are
indigenous words. The proposal to change the existing state name does not
have any merit; not only is it phonetically wrong but, to eliminate the
original Tai phonetic name Asam, will be a grave historical error.
a democratic country, an important issue like the changing of the name of
a state cannot be taken so lightly without any discussion or debate. The
Government of Assam should immediately rescind its decision on the name
change. If it really wants a change, then let it be done through a
democratic process with open discussions with the people and public
(The author is an oil engineer based in Katy,
Is public opinion inconsequential?
We have cast off a hated Raj legacy. The opinion of a well
known author has come at the most opportune time for our government to
give another gift to the people of the state by putting its seal on it.
But had any public opinion been sought on the subject? Is public opinion
totally inconsequential in a democracy?
As on many earlier occasions,
many people seem to have lapped up this change without so much as an
argument. Perhaps we want to be different from the rest of the
Argumentative Indians! That three of our metros have changed their
names, is good enough argument to change the name of our state? Is it
indeed our topmost priority?
We have done precious little to pull our
society out of the abysmal depth of corruption and have, in effect, given
indirect approval to it by giving the corrupt undue importance in society.
Corruption and inefficiency has irretrievably damaged our educational
system which has ruined the future of countless young talents of the
state, forcing the few who can afford to go outside the state. And yet we
have not been able to build up a healthy systematic movement to reform the
structure, except perhaps occasional knee-jerk reactions.
Ours is a
state of a composite culture with a variety of languages and ethnic
heritage. Have we spared a thought as to how our various ethnic groups
will react to this change? We have, in the past, witnessed the horrendous
consequences of forcing things on others. History repeats itself because
we do not learn its lessons. After so many years of the Official Language
Act, we have not been able to implement it in government offices and
establishments. Let us ask ourselves, why?
People find it difficult to
tolerate any discordant note on a matter of public sentiment. And yet I
cannot help asking myself as to what are the pluses and minuses of this
decision. On the plus side, we shall have the satisfaction of feeling that
the true ethnic meaning of the name will be expressed by Asom, although
for all practical purposes we use the words Asom and Asomiya, at times
even in English. But nationally and internationally our state is known as
Assam with all its special virtues. After all, as Shakespeare said ~
whats in a name?
On the minus side, a great deal of controversies will
arise over the spelling of Asom (Axom) and Asomiya (Axomiya). Besides,
some non-Asomiya may pronounce these words in ridiculous ways and may make
a caricature of it. This will harm the well-established reputation of
things like Assam silk or Assam tea at the national and international
levels. A phenomenal amount will have to be expended in changing various
records, documents, bill boards, etc. in government, semi-government,
private offices and institutions leading to loss of valuable time,
precious government revenue and private resources. Of course, it is still
moot what the reactions of the various ethnic groups will be.
coming from an insignificant person like me, may not generate any public
debate. But it will certainly help in getting at least a part of the
frustration out of my system.
(The author is Vice-Chairman,
Bharatiya Cha Parishad, based in Dibrugarh,