The Statesman dated 17th April, Monday
North East Page - by Sanjoy Hazarika

Open Forum

What’s in a name ~ Assam, Asom or Oxom?

For weeks, Assam has been troubled by the state government’s 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 Assam’s 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.
Records show 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 follows.
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 (Baden Powell).
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.
Outside 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.
In 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 organisations.

(The author is an oil engineer based in Katy, Texas.)

Is public opinion inconsequential?

By Robin Borthakur
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 ~ what’s 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.
All this, 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, Assam.)

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