How linguistic choices affect Rohingya children -The Asian Age

Language has undeniable tacit importance, but it is its politicized nature that imbibes it with strategic importance, especially in conflict.

Take for example, the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. One of the most important factors of the conflict was the imposition of Sinhala Only Act to discourage Sri Lanka's Tamil population from engaging in public services. What followed is no secret.

In contrast, Tibetan refugees in India have enjoyed the liberty to protect their language and culture while integrating with the Indian population. Language, like a double-edged sword, can integrate communities, but can also be used to alienate people.

Coined by Gertrude Stein, the "lost generation" once represented young Americans disillusioned after World War I. Now, the term has resurfaced to identify the deplorable situation of Rohingya children. Rohingyas, a religious minority community in Mynamar's Rakhine region, have been ostracised and rendered stateless.

Humanitarian and historical experiential grounds may have compelled Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government in Bangladesh to open its borders to Rohingyas, forcing a young nation to manage nearly 1.1 million refugees. A significant number of these refugees are children, raising the important concern of their education. Bangladesh is in a fix, as a lack of engagement will make camp sites breeding grounds for anti-social activities, while standardised conditions might naturalise them with the Bangladeshi population, thus, making their repatriation difficult.

The Hasina administration has mandated education for the refugees in Burmese, English or Rohingya language. The rationale is to keep them separated from the Bangladeshi population and ensure smooth repatriation when they return. A survey conducted within the camps by an international group, Translators Without Borders, revealed that the refugees preferred Rohingya language as the spoken language. However, they understood spoken Bengali better than spoken Burmese and English.

Visiting one camp, I witnessed the children studying in a learning centre, interacting in English. In the camps, children have two options of education - a learning centre or a madrasa. In the absence of any formal education, and no acknowledgement of studying in the learning centres, the only feasible option available to the refugees is to enrol in Qawmi Madrasas, where a theological curriculum is used and the degrees are recognised by the Bangladesh government, with limited supervision of its functioning.

In such a scenario, it is interesting to investigate if formal education in English can be a safety valve for the children, giving them hope for a future without concerns of integrating or disintegrating them with the host community.

History stands witness to the tales of linguistic and cultural borders transcending political ones. One of the more influential factors behind Bangladesh's secessionist movement was the language factor. Thus, the prohibition on teaching in Bengali to stop the possibility of any integration is obvious.

Language isolation may be a strategic political tool, but with the lack of a constructive approach on behalf of Myanmar to rehabilitate the refugees in the Rakhine state, one can't help but wonder if there is a future for the lost generation of Rohingyas who are a collateral damage in this geopolitical disaster.

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow, India Foundation
The article appeared in Hindustan Times