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The Kashmiri Language: A Victim Of Linguistic Politics

13/06/2016 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Many factors continue to be hurdles in efforts towards the promotion and revitalization of the Kashmiri language, the biggest among them being the choice of script. A socio-historical account of the situation can help clarify some of the complexities in understanding the controversy around the question of the Kashmiri script, which has become the focus of intense debate between Muslim and Hindu Kashmiris recently following the HRD Ministry's proposal to introduce an "alternate" official (Nāgri-based) writing system for the language. Many Kashmir-based writers, language activists and critics are threatening to launch a protest in opposition of such a move.

Because of the dominance of languages other than Kashmiri and lack of institutional support... younger generations are rapidly shifting to other prestige languages.

Around 5.6 million people claim to speak Kashmiri as their native language. The language is spoken mainly in the Kashmir Valley of the Indian-administered state of Jammu & Kashmir, while a substantial number of speakers ( around 105,000) live in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Owing to continued political unrest, a significant number of native Kashmiris (approximately 100,000-300,000) have migrated to different places around the world. A majority of these are members of the Kashmiri Hindu (Pandit) community who left in 1990 and onwards owing to the armed conflict and rise of militancy. Children of the Kashmiri diaspora -- Hindus and Muslims -- have little or limited exposure to their heritage language, and speak languages other than Kashmiri as their primary medium of communication. Because of the dominance of languages other than Kashmiri and lack of institutional support (at least until recently when the language was added to the school curriculum in Kashmir), younger generations are rapidly shifting to other prestige languages. Native language literacy is dismally limited.

The earliest script in which Kashmiri has ever been written was Shāradā, an ancient character set based on the Brahmic family of scripts, which developed around the 10th century CE. The script, however, never gained popularity among the Kashmiri masses; its use was restricted to the Hindu priestly class for writing religious texts etc. primarily in Sanskrit. Writing being a specialized and often an occult art during the olden times, common people did not have access to literacy. For generations, the Shāradā script was guarded like a precious secret by the Hindu priests whose livelihood depended on the writing/reading of horoscopes and conducting religious rituals. When literacy was introduced, Shāradā was dead for all practical purposes, and replaced by Nāgri, a close derivative of the Gupta script (northern Brahmic, which also gave rise to Shāradā, Siddham and other cursive derivatives). Sadly, however, many people erroneously perceive the death of the ancient Shāradā script as a deliberate ploy alongside the spread of Islam. It is important to note that many modern Indo-Aryan languages use writing systems that are later developments of the Brahmic script. Kashmiri has also been written in other writing systems, such as Tākri and (more recently) Roman.

What is extremely unfortunate and ironic is that often the medium of instruction in the classrooms, even during a Kashmiri language class, is a language other than Kashmiri.

The literary traditions of Kashmir, which mainly developed during the medieval period (circa 1320-1586), have their origins in two strong cultural sources in terms of form and content -- an Indo-Aryan or Sanskritic tradition, identified with the Hindu community, and a Persio-Arabic tradition, associated with the Muslim community, which constitutes a majority of the population. Despite their separate origins, the two traditions existed simultaneously over a long period of time giving rise to a poetic and literary heritage that cut across communal lines. During the Mughal, Sikh and Dogra rules, however, there were significant shifts in the relationship between religious identities and community definitions. The shifts, which primarily resulted from socio-economic and political changes, acted directly on the expression of religious identities. In the post-Partition era a conflict was generated in the public discourse, which marked the beginning of a strong religious divide in the native Kashmiri population, culminating in a full-fledged "freedom" struggle spearheaded by Muslims. There is a strong influence of these changes and changing identities on the Kashmiri language vis-à-vis linguistic practices and written literature. Interestingly, it was during the Afghan rule that Kashmiri Pandits had become proficient in Persian, a close cousin of Sanskrit.

The Dogra rule (1846-1947) marked the beginning of a great political transition leading to a stark socio-political divide among the people. While Urdu, the language of the Muslim political elite of colonial India, had replaced Persian as the court language in 1889, the indigenous tradition had been allowed to continue in the context of education. Thus, basic religious and mathematical education was offered in Sanskrit and Persian/Arabic by Pandits and Molvis in pathshalas and madrasas -- institutions closely linked with temples and mosques (respectively). Pandits also ran other local schools in their houses where general education was still offered in Persian. By the early 20th century, the school curricula of the state were based on the model of the Punjab University. Thus, the Kashmiri language and its promotion took a backseat in the context of educational, administrative as well as political matters. As a consequence, Kashmiri lost its prestige among the educated and the elite class, acquiring the status of a second-class language.

It is hard to imagine how successful the attempts to revitalize the language will be unless effective measures to promote it are taken in time.

After Partition, Urdu not only became the national language and lingua franca of Pakistan, it was also to be the state official language of Jammu & Kashmir -- a measure understood as an attempt to appease the multi-ethnic Muslim population of the state. Besides the emergence of a strong language ideology where the Kashmiri language came to be perceived as less prestigious than the politically dominant (and non-native) Urdu (besides Hindi among Hindus), a closer look at the social and political developments in Kashmir reveals a strong influence on linguistic, ethnic, cultural, and religious identities and affiliations. Kashmiri language and literature suffered immensely at the hands of the social and political elites who were mainly from in and around Srinagar -- the centre for all socio-political activity. With globalization and the dominance of English all around the world, the status of Kashmiri was relegated to the bottom of the language hierarchy.

Today, when the Kashmiri language has been introduced into the school curriculum of Kashmir after efforts by various local non-government organizations, there has been an enormous dearth of qualified teachers trained to teach it. Many "teachers" have been assigned the job of teaching the language without a background check on their qualifications, eligibility and proficiency levels. In some cases, even non-native speakers who have very little proficiency in spoken and/or written Kashmiri are assigned to teach the language. What is extremely unfortunate and ironic is that often the medium of instruction in the classrooms, even during a Kashmiri language class, is a language other than Kashmiri. Under these circumstances it is hard to imagine how successful the attempts to revitalize the language will be unless effective measures to promote it are taken in time. Furthermore, given the disconnect between the diaspora Kashmiris and the residents on the one hand and the still unresolved issue of a writing system acceptable across community lines on the other, the challenges become manifold.

With input from Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity and the Making of Kashmir by Chitralekha Zutshi (London, Hurst & Co.)

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