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Assam sheds British-era skin

Guwahati, Feb. 27: Nowgong became Nagaon long ago, Gauhati became Guwahati under the erstwhile Hiteswar Saikia regime and, more recently, Sibsagar became Sivasagar. Today, Assam became Asom, removing a British-era mismatch between the spelling and the local pronunciation of the name.

The Tarun Gogoi cabinet’s decision to “rename” Assam, however, caught everyone by surprise. Though nobody had anticipated it, most welcomed the change. Rival political parties were the exception, insinuating that the Congress government took the decision now because Assembly elections were round the corner.

The influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) declined to comment until it saw the government notification.

Government spokesperson Himanta Biswa Sarma broke the news to the media, saying that the cabinet decision was based on suggestions from several quarters, including former Asam Sahitya Sabha president Chandra Prasad Saikia. “The government has decided to revert back to the name used by the locals. ‘Assam’ was the corrupt version of ‘Asom’, left behind by the British. We have effected the change in deference to local sentiments.”

The minister said all procedural formalities would be completed to ensure that the state is henceforth referred to as Asom.

B.K. Gohain, commissioner of the political department, clarified that the Assembly’s approval was not necessary for the change to take effect. He said the general administration department would issue the relevant notification soon.

Assembly secretary G.P. Das confirmed that the House’s consent was not mandatory for the name of a place to be changed. “We do not have any role to play. Even when the spelling of Gauhati was changed to Guwahati in 1983, the decision was taken by the erstwhile Hiteswar Saikia cabinet,” he said.

The Asam Sahitya Sabha was among the first to welcome the Gogoi cabinet’s decision. Its president, Kanak Sen Deka, who had quit the organisation earlier this month but returned soon after, said it was a good move by the government to take the state “back to its roots”.

His predecessor in the literary organisation, Chandra Prasad Saikia, was the one who brought the issue to the fore through an article in the February issue of a magazine. The writer urged the government to ensure that the indigenous name replaced “Assam” everywhere.

Scholars believe the state’s indigenous name came from the Ahom dynasty, which ruled the state for six centuries, beginning 1228.

Saikia said the word “Asom” stood for “the unmatched” and contended that using Assam in its place was against the ethos and spirit of Assamese nationalism. “The British changed the original names of many places for their convenience and without any regard for history, culture and local sentiments.”

Poet Rajesh Joshi echoed him. “Besides reviving the sense of belonging, the new Asom will also be able to convey best the wishes, aspirations and sentiments of the people at the national level,” he said.

The AGP, the breakaway AGP (Progressive), the BJP and the Left parties welcomed Dispur’s decision in principle, but said the timing was inappropriate. The BJP asked why the government did not discuss such an important issue with the Opposition during the recent budget session.

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