Assamese Entry in Unicode | What exactly went wrong in London…

Dipanjon Konwar

Information comes and goes, but emotions and feelings are for forever. Explaining the logic and reasoning behind a proposal and a decision can help reduce disagreement, create buy-in and commitment.

First, let us understand the standardization bodies involved in the process. International Organisation for Standardization or Organisation Internationale de Normalisation (ISO) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies from 161 countries, on basis of one member per country, including Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) representing Government of India. Established in 1947, the mission of ISO is to promote the development of standardization and related activities in the world with a view to facilitating the international exchange of goods and services, and to developing cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity. ISO’s work results in international agreements which are published in International Standards.
ISO and IEC (the International Electro-technical Commission) form the specialized system for worldwide standardization in the field of Information Technology. ISO and IEC have established a joint technical committee, ISO/IEC JTC 1.

Unicode Consortium is an US-based non-governmental organisation with membership of all the big shots of IT and Software Industry—Adobe, M.S., Google, IBM, Oracle, Apple, Xerox, etc.—developed the Unicode Standards since 1991 for multilingual text character encoding system, collation, rendering and interchange of the various languages of the world.

The International Standard ISO/IEC 10646:2017, Information Technology – Universal Coded Character Set (UCS) is developed aligned with the latest Unicode Standard. The committee responsible for this document is ISO/IEC JTC 1, Information technology, SC 2, Coded character sets. ISO/IEC 10646 is applicable to the representation, transmission, interchange, processing, storage, input and presentation of the written form of the languages of the world as well as additional symbols.

Script is set of graphic characters used for the written form of a language. Interchange is the transfer of character coded data from one user to another, using telecommunication means or interchangeable media. The code unit is the minimal bit combination that can represent a unit of encoded text for processing or interchange.

The Assamese welcomes the endeavour of the Assam Government to send a proposal to ISO through BIS for amendment of ISO/IEC 10646 and inclusion of a separate code chart for the Assamese script. Sharing the positive aspects with the public is easy. Yet years of deprivation and agitating for economic, socio-cultural rights make the public cynical and they instinctively look for the negatives, since every silver lining always includes a black cloud. To build trust, we need to share both the positives and negatives. The public of Assam will question what the scientists, bureaucrats and officials of the Assam Science Technology, Environment Council (ASTEC), the Department of Information Technology, Department of Cultural Affairs and the Axom Sahitya Sabha were doing in the last twenty years while IT, printing and publishing world developed by leaps and bounds.

Couple of beleaguered individuals, a pastor and a physician, were fighting a lonely battle with the biased system and officials of BIS to assert the right of Assamese script to have a separate code chart. Now, suddenly the Axom Sahitya Sabha under its new ambitious leadership got the Sabha embroiled in a new controversy.

We don’t understand what was the need for the delegation to include the President and the ex-President of Axom Sahitya Sabha, or the MD, Amtron to travel to London. ISO Technical Committee (TC), which may include invited representatives of BIS, only meet for technical reviews of various proposal and to amend the standards. There is no scope in the agenda for anyone else to have a meeting with the Working Group of a TC to make a representation or submit a memorandum. Other than the BIS representative Mr. Mani Kandan and the Technical expert Dr. S. Sarma, we think the other three members of the delegation have just gone to London for a pleasure trip wasting public money.

Having said that, Assam government should now engage specialists in Linguistics, Software, IT, ISO standards in preparing a revised proposal and other documented information about Assamese script. The first step should be to create a Cross-functional Team (CFT) of specialists. The CFT will prepare the revised proposal, to be submitted to BIS for onward transmission to ISO, for revision of the ISO/IEC 16064:2017, with the inclusion of a separate Assamese code chart. We should remember data is important and proper documentation of the ‘objective evidence’ as per the requirements of the standard in the proposal are more important for consideration by an ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee than any emotional appeal.

We in Assam already have the necessary documented information’ including the history of the evolution of Assamese language script since 4th -5th century A.D., unique characters and symbols. Objective evidence of which is available in stone inscriptions and preserved in Copper plates, Sanchipat puthis (scriptures), Buranjis available with the Assam’s Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies.

The 24 pages document “Proposal for the inclusion of Assamese Script in ISO10646” submitted by Assam Government to BIS in January 2016 lacked content, lacked proper documented information and was weak in presenting objective evidence for convincing the ISOIEC Joint Technical Committee to allocate a separate code chart for Assamese script.

Five pages of this so called “Proposal” were wasted in giving “Detailed note on the Preparation of the Proposal”, listing names of people participating in group discussion and a workshop held for the purpose of its preparation. Proper documentation of objective evidence will lead to the inescapable conclusion. ISO as the developer of technical standards, which add value to all types of organization operations, and safeguards users, its standard operating procedures are data-driven, based on logic and rational decision making. Lobbying does not work. If some people think that inviting Michael Everson of Unicode for the next special session of Axom Sahitya Sabha will influence him, they are not only fooling themselves but also the Assamese public.

The second step for the Cross Functional Team is to prepare a well-documented proposal for immediate amendment of the old ISO-15919: 2001, Information and documentation —Transliteration of Devanagari and related Indic scripts into Latin characters. Transliteration is the representation of the graphic characters of a source script by the graphic characters of a target script. This International Standard provides tables which enable the transliteration into Latin characters from text in Indic scripts which are largely specified in rows 09 to 0D of UCS (ISO/IEC 10646-1 and Unicode). The ISO-15919 tables provide for the Devanagari, Bengali, Gujarati, Gurmukhi, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Sinhala, Tamil, and Telugu scripts. But, in ISO-15919 only a couple of characters, Ref-240: ৰ -ra and Ref-241 ৱ (wa)-ba, used for writing Assamese are included in the Table-2 for Transliteration of Bengali. Along with the amendment of ISO-15919 with a separate table for Assamese, the proposal for the amendment of the ISO 10646:2017, Information Technology – Universal Coded Character Set (UCS) should be submitted to BIS and ISO for the separate Assamese Code Chart., a rectangular array showing the representation of coded characters, association between a character and a code point, allocated within a range of the UCS codespace.

Piecemeal approach by multiple parties working at cross purposes and that too in amending of International Standards will never be successful. It is hoped lessons have been learned and next time around a well planned, scientific approach would be adopted by Assam government, engaging a cross-functional team of specialists and including all interested parties in preparing the revised proposals backed with documented information and objective evidence.

The writer teaches Human Resource Management at post-graduate level in Gauhati University, a visiting faculty at Assam Administrative Staff College and also works independently as a Quality Management consultant and has implemented ISO Quality Management System, Environmental Management System and Occupational Health and Safety Management System in scores of service and manufacturing organizations