A few weeks ago, Jammu & Kashmir government’s education department issued a historic order by which Kashmiri, Dogri and Bodhi languages will be taught as compulsory subjects in classes 9 and 10. With this, a long-pending demand of language activists has been met and teaching Kashmiri language comes full circle.
Despite being the most spoken language in the state, in 1953 Kashmiri received a setback with the decision to remove it from the curriculum soon after Kashmir’s tallest leader and then prime minister of the state, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, was illegally dismissed and jailed. For a long time Kashmiri activists held a grudge: “Sheikh saheb was released but Kashmiri language continued to be kept behind bars,” they said.
The decision to bring it back is based on the recommendations of a committee set up by the previous government in 2013. It comes at a time when battles over languages are being waged elsewhere in India as well. The recent turmoil in West Bengal’s Darjeeling was triggered after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee introduced Bengali as a compulsory subject in order to keep her vote bank intact amid a threat from the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. The demand for Gorkhaland (a proposed state by the people of the Darjeeling Hills) has been revived as they don’t want to be forced to adopt a language. It is a throwback to the agitation that the area has witnessed since 1980s.
Similarly, resistance to the imposition of Hindi in Southern Indian states is deeply rooted as the identity of different communities is linked to language. South India vehemently rejected even the whiff of the suggestion that the BJP government had on cards, which is making Hindi the national language. And there is no denying the fact that language became one of the reasons for the partition of Pakistan among other factors.
With Kashmiri being introduced as a compulsory subject, a major gap has been filled in the curriculum. Kashmiri was compulsory from primary to class 8 and was an elective after class 10 like all other subjects. Getting over not only the technical issues that came in the way of this ambitious struggle but also the bureaucratic wrangles and resistance – is something that been rolled over by the current education minister Altaf Bukhari.
For a long time though, bureaucratic bias has come in way of giving Kashmiri its rightful place as a language. Kashmir’s oldest, biggest cultural and literary organization Adbee Markaz Kamraz spearheaded a long struggle after which it was reintroduced in schools by the then Farooq Abdullah government in 2000. It took over a decade to get language back in government and private school classrooms but it was absent in the crucial classes 9 and 10.
Kashmiri is the most spoken language in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, and is the mother tongue of majority of the population. It is spoken in 18 out of 22 districts. It is also spoken in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. According to a survey conducted by Dr Mohsin Shakil, a faculty member at AJK Medical College in Muzaffarabad with an interest in languages and literature, Kashmiri has the largest number of active speakers in the state that existed before August 14, 1947. Dr Shakil wanted to gauge indigenous language speakers at the district level in Jammu & Kashmir given the changes in the region’s linguistic demography since 1947. According to the study, people of the erstwhile state of Jammu Kashmir relate to many indigenous languages by virtue of being a multiethnic society.
The study, the first of its kind on the subject and made public in June 2014, reveals that Kashmiri is spoken by nearly 35 per cent of the people, followed by Pahari/Pothwari (24 per cent) and Dogri (18 per cent). The survey suggests that there has been a decline in the number of speakers of regional languages, possibly due to the influence of English and other languages in the region. More than 80 per cent of the population could not read or write Kashmiri, and as many other indigenous languages have experienced across the globe, English was making inroads.
These trends are being reversed with Kashmiri being taught up to class 8. Ironically, the children are found struggling with a language that is actually their mother tongue. Their parents worry about their English and Urdu skills, labouring under the belief that they are essential to compete in the world and get admission to elite schools.
The real challenge for Kashmiri thus comes from society itself. It has to be accepted as a symbol of identity. The children should not be blamed. It is the system which does not allow them to embrace their own language. Inferiority complexes and demands of a changing education system which do not conform to traditional cultural values are some factors responsible for the degeneration of this language. This is discrepant given the Kashmiri struggle for identity. Those who have been in the forefront of the push to bring the mother tongue back have repeatedly clarified that this should not come at the cost of learning any other language and vice versa.
Kashmiri, one of the oldest and richest languages in the region, is considered a sister language of Persian and Sanskrit. The 14th-century Kashmiri saint and mystic poet Lal Ded was the first to use the written word for her poetry, followed by Kashmiri mystic and patron saint Sheikh-ul-Alam, but Kashmiri existed much before that as a language. Historians agree that it is over 2000 years old and its script is 900 years old, thus making it older than many popular languages in South Asia (Urdu, Hindi). According to noted littérateur Mohammad Yousuf Taing, traces of Kashmiri can be found as far back as 400 BC and even in Charaka-samhita, a comprehensive text on ancient Indian medicine credited to Charaka, a practitioner of Ayurveda.
In our own history books, Kashmiri words have been found in Rajatarangini, (Sanskrit: “River of Kings”), a historical chronicle of early India, written in Sanskrit verse by the Kashmiri Brahman Kalhana in 1148, that is rightly considered to be the best and most authentic work of its kind. It covers the entire span of history in the Kashmir region from the earliest times to the date of its composition, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
It is important to understand the threat that looms large over 2500 languages. In its first and comprehensive database on world’s endangered languages, released at its Paris headquarters in 2009 the UNESCO stirred an alarm about the issue. According to its team of specialists, there are around 2,500 languages at risk, including more than 500 considered "critically endangered" and 199, which have fewer than 10 native speakers. It is surprising to note that Ecuador's Andoa, a language spoken fluently by only 10 people, has been recently revived by its local people. So far they have collected around 150 words and are on the hunt for more. Another startling revelation suggests that more than a dozen languages around the world have only one mother tongue speaker left. While some will die soon, others have become the focus of the efforts by younger generations keen to revive their forebears' traditions.
With the introduction of the language in 9th and 10th it is expected that Kashmiri will get a larger room for promotion. Though challenge remains within, this step will go a long way to restore it to its pristine glory.