Language without a Nation

Mir Hilal

A year ago, when my son was 18 months old, he began to speak in chaste Kashmiri, and instantly became an oddity.

He would draw a blank when people tried to charm him in Urdu spoken with a distinctly Kashmiri flavour. And when I would say he speaks only Kashmiri, I would get strange looks or mild contempt: children don’t talk in Kashmiri in crèche or schools; he will be left behind; when will he learn to communicate with others?

At his preparatory school, he has picked up a smattering of what passes for Urdu. At times, he giggles and face-palms when he says something in Urdu and then quickly switches back to Kashmiri to hide his embarrassment. Six or seven months from now he will be facing school admission interviews. If he doesn’t makes it to one of the handful of good-schools in the Valley, we already know what the conclusion will be: his first language is his mother tongue, a disadvantage; you have only yourself to blame.

Parents in other parts of the world, especially in the post-colonial societies where English means upward mobility, might be faced with a similar dilemma. In Kashmir, however, the problem is a bit more complicated.

Until a few years ago, Kashmiri, spoken by about 8 million people, was not taught in schools. While a majority of the population speaks the language, it cannot read or write in it. Urdu is still a class marker: the upper and middle classes converse with their children in it.

There is a saving grace, however, in the fact that the Kashmiri script is similar to the Urdu script (Nastaliq) and the Hindi (Devanagari). So those familiar with Urdu or Hindi can read Kashmiri, if they are willing to put in the effort. (Muslims prefer Nastaliq and Kashmiri Pandits, Devanagari. There is a tussle over which of these should be the official script of the language.) But barring the post-graduate students of Kashmiri and those who love Kashmiri literature, few seem interested in it any more.

Spotting a Kashmiri novel in a bookshop is like sighting a rare comet. Of the three Kashmiri dailies — Meeraas, Kahwaet and Sangarmal — only the last is prominent and publishes about 1,000 copies daily, according to its circulation department.

The little cultural production that happens in this language can be found only at a bookshop run by the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, seen by many as an instrument to check the raging political rebellion from seeping into cultural spaces.

Now, Urdu is the official language of J&K. It is the medium of instruction in even the most elite schools. Kashmiri politicians of all hues make speeches in it, probably for its rich poetic legacy and sweetness, and it is the dissenters’ language of choice for slogans.

Children, soon after they enter crèche, are therefore confronted with a linguistic dissonance of sorts. Three languages are effectively competing in their sensitive brains.

“Kashmiri is closer to the Germanic, particularly the Slavic, languages, than the south Asian ones, in terms of syntax and phonetics,” says Shafi Shauq, a Sahitya Academy-award-winning Kashmiri poet and former head of the department of Kashmiri at Kashmir University.

Urdu, he believes, was imposed in the hope that it would function as homogenising glue in a heterogeneous region of Kashmiri-, Pahari-, Dogri-, Ladakhi-, Gojri- and Punjabi-speaking populations. The project was doomed to fail because of sharp regional, political and ethnic divisions set in motion by a political dispute now 68 years old.

Commoners and the intelligentsia alike often talk of ‘the treatment being meted out to Kashmiri’, as if a pressing national issue regarding race or sectarian rift were being debated.

The ’problem’ is being explained in a myriad ways. Self-deprecation is one. Which people aspiring to have a nation of their own treat their own mother tongue so shabbily, is the most common refrain. And the state, blamed for most ills facing Kashmiri society, is not considered blameless either.

Abir Bazaz, who specialises in medieval Kashmiri thought at the University of Minnesota in the US, believes a bigger threat to Kashmiri has emerged because of the way Kashmiri language has been treated over the decades. The fact that state-sponsored institutions control the work being carried out in the language is a big problem, he says.

“Many otherwise well-intentioned, and brilliant, writers are allowing the state to instrumentalise the language to supplement its larger counterinsurgency effort. There is no real independence… it is either silence and neglect on one end or Academy-sponsored or similar vulgarity on the other,” Bazaz says.

This articulates the point of view that the Kashmiri language will never flourish because the people fundamentally lack the freedoms necessary for cultural development. A Kashmiri mushaira organised by the Academy and duly broadcast on state media, for example, can be read both ways, as a purely literary event or a state-sponsored effort to appropriate and modulate culture in a bitterly contested land.

“The point is not that one prescribe a politics in Kashmiri writing but that the space of writing be free of an overdetermined cultural patronage. In the field of Kashmiri writing, how many writers hope to survive after articulating a stand that Kashmiris should be allowed to freely choose their fate (regardless of their particular political inclinations)?” Bazaz says.

The late Akhtar Mohiuddin is probably the only Kashmiri writer the younger generation is interested in reading, probably because his small oeuvre of short stories written in the early 1990s boldly broaches anti-state sentiment.

All appointments to the highest post of the J&K Academy are seen as politically motivated. Two former secretaries, Zafar Manhas and MY Taing, became members of the state legislative assembly after retirement, owing allegiance to the PDP and National Conference respectively.

Writer Maroof Shah says it can be safely concluded that 95% of literate Kashmiris can’t write Kashmiri and less than 5% can read it fluently. And fewer still are comfortable with the highly Sanskritised or Persianised language of Kashmiri poetry.

This translates, Shah says, into “great cultural illiteracy of Kashmiris”.

“About 30% of Kashmiri vocabulary is derived from Persian and 25% from Arabic, implying that Kashmiri language and culture can’t be entered into with the current state of affairs in culture and education where Arabic and Persian are divorced from the linguistic and cultural spaces of Kashmir. The dwindling influence of Urdu has hastened the decline of Kashmiri,” he says.

Before Persian and Arabic influences, Shauq says, Sanskrit informed Kashmiri the most. In fact, 90% of the ‘word fund’ came from Sanskrit.

“To find out what that means, talk to the grandchildren of any great Kashmiri writer or poet or those who are running ‘Save Kashmiri’ campaigns. See how many of them speak Kashmiri and how much they are informed about their own cultural roots,” Maroof adds.

This sentiment echoes in Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s statement on International Mother Tongue Day in February. After reminding people, parents, teachers and writers of their duty of “taking every step to keeping the mother tongue alive”, he asked the government to refrain from “taking such steps which become reasons for turning our mother tongue less important and a reason for separating our mother tongue from our tradition and culture”.

Where exactly lies the problem? According to Shauq, everything appears to be contributing to the decline of Kashmiri, from the indifference of its speakers to government’s misdirected and wasteful efforts.

“Look at the pedagogy. Rather than drawing experts from various disciplines to formulate texts for better teaching of this language, what we are essentially seeing is the propagation of ignorance. And what is happening in other fields is not helping either. Look at the quality of Kashmiri serials on Doordarshan, the quality of poetry and prose produced, the quality of literary debates,” says Shauq, who helped found the Kashmiri department at Kashmir University in 1978.

He draws attention to the fabled indifference of the masses towards Kashmiri literature by citing his own example.

“I have written about 50 books but I am yet to find a reader even though I have got recognition and awards. Even writers don’t read other writers,” he says.

Kashmiri finds no mention in manifestos of Kashmir-centric political parties, whether pro-India or pro-Independence. The Naya Kashmir Document of National Conference, says Shauq, then widely hailed for its revolutionary socialist vision for the region, had recommended it as the medium of instruction in schools. It was a compulsory subject in schools up to Class 6 from 1947 to 1953. But after 1953, which Kashmiris of all hues believe was the year the state’s semi-sovereign character was obliterated by New Delhi, the enthusiasm for Kashmiri petered out.

Now, in the age of the Internet and supremacy of English, the future of Kashmiri looks bleak to intellectuals like Shauq, Shah and Bazaz.

According to Bazaz, “nothing less than the future of Kashmir is at stake” in the question of the Kashmiri language.

“The great Kashmiri poet Amin Kamil put it aptly. He said Kaeshir-i saet Kashir saeri / Nate waeraan-ik haeraan kaav (We are Kashmiris only because of Kashmiri / Without it, crows lost in wilderness). It is not the loss of a system of spoken or written communication only but the loss of the singularity of Kashmiri experience,” he says.

At the same time, he warns against fetishising ’Save Kashmiri’ efforts in nationalistic idioms or in opposition to other languages.

“Kashmiri should be liberated from the institutionalised intervention which has turned the language into a site of empty chauvinism and collaborationist opportunism,” he says.

Many non-state institutions that have stepped in to ‘save Kashmiri’ have become part of the problem because, Bazaz notes, they end up as “mediators and brokers between the government’s culture industry and practitioners of the language”.

“Such saviours are actually stifling the talent in many rural areas of Kashmir, especially the north,” he adds.

In fact, Shauq asks those at the forefront of ‘save Kashmiri’ campaigns, to show a single volume that matches the scholarship of the ‘Standard Manual of the Kashmiri Language’ and ‘A Dictionary of the Kashmiri Language’, both written by British civil servant and linguist George Abraham Grierson in the first half of the twentieth century.

There is a genuine reason why the younger generation finds it difficult to make a connect with Kashmiri, says Shahnaz Bashir, a writer who won accolades for his debut novel, The Half Mother. “An overwhelming quantity of literature produced by previous generations, like insipid programmes on the DD Kashmir channel, find no resonance with our contemporary situation. Rather than writing our own stories in English, we should have been translating the works of older generations first. I would never have written in English if I knew how to write in Kashmiri. Still, I feel closer to my mother tongue. It is good to be universal in the literary art but you can’t be indifferent to your immediate concerns,” he says.

Many years ago, the legendary Kashmiri poet Rahman Rahi told an interviewer that the way Israelis used Hebrew as an instrument to forge a national identity, make it a viable medium of expression and education and other intellectual pursuits demonstrates the possibilities a language holds for a people.

Shad Ramzan, head of the department of Kashmiri at Kashmir University, says that while concerns about the state of the language are genuine, there is no need for alarmist pessimism because “as long as Kashmiri is spoken by the masses, the man on the street and workers in farms, it will be an organic entity of our culture”.

This piece was first published in the Hindustan Times.

Mir Hilal is a writer based in Kashmir. He can be reached at [email protected]

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