It seems fairly straightforward to state that language is one of the forms in which the identity of a people speaking the same language is represented. Thus, we have linguistic identifiers like ‘the English-speaking world’, the ‘Hindi Belt / Heartland’, etc. It follows that language constitutes a tribal glue through which a people, their internal diversity notwithstanding, identify and express themselves.
Kashmiri is one such language, spoken by around six million people in the valley of Kashmir in India, and a significantly large Kashmiri diaspora in rest of India and around the world.
Unfortunately, this ancient language, with a huge body of literary work, faces several challenges for survival, one of which is an identity crisis reflecting a similar crisis faced by its speakers. A manifestation of this fractured identity is that, in its written form, the Kashmiri language does not have a universally shared script.
Dr Hajime Nakamura, in his landmark comparative study “Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan”, analysed the characteristic thought patterns of different Asian peoples as these are revealed in their language, their logic, and their cultural products, and the role religion played in moulding their worldviews. In the preface of the same book, Yale's Arthur F Wright described Nakamura's project:
It can be said with a fair degree of certainty that language is one of the key governing factors. As a simple example of language influencing ideology, take a Kashmiri living in the 1940s, who would have not been influenced by Marxism had some of the Russian communist literature not been translated into Urdu or Kashmiri.
Another obvious factor is religion. Using the same example, a devoutly religious Kashmiri, be it a Hindu or a Muslim, is likely to reject the Marxist ideology because of its ‘godlessness’. Thus, a variety of demographic factors, mainly the religio-linguistic, exert their centripetal and centrifugal forces, thereby transforming the ideology of people, while also giving rise to religious and ideological conflicts.
Vice versa may happen when it comes to Hindi. This sort of prestige associated with language in only one communal group is enough to cause a reciprocal communal response in the other community.
Alternatively, those Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits (and there are many), who see Urdu or Hindi as a common cultural heritage beyond the gyrations of religion, would also tend be secular, moderate and tolerant in their ideology.
It also follows that people with an exclusive linguistic identity, arising out of religious identity, will tend to block out much of the ideology of the ‘other’, resulting in what one may call a ‘cultural ghettoisation’.
Over time, this hermetic linguistic and religious identity gives rise to a feeling of alienation and isolation, which becomes the basis for religious and regional fault lines, incompatibility and conflicts.
The practical uses of learning Hindi are obvious for those who step out of Kashmir, like being able to read signboards. However, it is important to note that the status of Urdu as the official language of the J&K State is the main reason for its dominance in Kashmir.
But then again, the official status of Urdu does not dissuade the people of Jammu and Ladakh divisions of the state from learning Hindi. Thus, despite the state’s sponsorship of one particular language, an underlying regional and religious identity based dynamic does exist.
It is interesting to note that Jammu and Ladakh do identify themselves as Indian citizens, while as secessionism is mainly confined to the Kashmir valley, secessionism that sees itself as disparate from a ‘Hindu India’ or ‘Hindu-sthan’. One cannot help but wonder how much secessionism is fueled by a ghettoised religio-linguistic identity and how much the latter gives rise to the former. It is most likely that both go together and are part of the same ‘otherness’ complex.
This also goes for pre-Islamic history of Kashmir, which is disowned by secessionists because it is ‘Hindu’ history. The unverified claim that the legendary saint Lalleshwari or Lal Ded converted to Islam in her later life, and came to be known as ‘Lalla Arifa’ can be seen as an early attempt of religious one-upmanship and assertion of a Muslim prestige.
It is exactly this religion-based ghettoisation of language identities and one-upmanship between writers of Urdu and Hindi that the Kashmiri language is being written in both Nastaliq scripts and Devanagari scripts—the choice of script being guided by communal principles, rather than one of readability and comprehensiveness of character set suitable to reproduce all Kashmiri sounds, and other linguistic considerations. The Pandits (Hindus) and Muslims of Kashmir also have words peculiar to their community for spoken Kashmiri.
Having said that, selection of script stops being a communal choice when there is no choice; when a script is not being taught in schools, one does not have a choice not to learn it.
The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir cobbled together by the Dogras was a linguistically and culturally diverse region, with people speaking Kashmiri, Dogri, Ladakhi, Gojri, Balti, etc.
For the sake of continuity, and to lend the people of this state a common identity, Urdu was continued as the official language of the J&K state, even after independence in 1947.
In a bid to promote Urdu as the lingua franca, the vernacular languages like Kashmiri, Dogri, Ladakhi, etc. were treated as second-class by the state, as a result of which the local languages suffered.
Then there is the new trend of parents preferring that their children speak in Urdu, Hindi, or English primarily, with Kashmiri language having no public or vocational advantage or market. This process of people preferring upwardly mobile and dominant languages over their mother tongue is similar to that of Sanskritisation.
While there are many examples of individual families who uphold Kashmiri language and culture even while living away from the valley, there is no denying the slow demise of the language in the diaspora.
Thankfully, after decades of neglect and discriminatory treatment, the educational department of the state woke up and made Kashmiri language a compulsory subject till class 8 in 2008.
Better still, a recent order has now extended the mandate to classes 9 and 10. This ushers in a new dawn in the revival of Kashmiri (and that of Dogri and Ladakhi language, which had also been neglected). And though the Kashmiri that is now being taught in Kashmiri schools will continue to be written in the Nastaliq script, with Urdu being the official language, the survival of the Kashmiri language has been assured.
Many writers are also busy translating the rich Kashmiri literature into English and other languages to make it accessible to a broader audience and to reintroduce the new generation of Kashmiris to their linguistic heritage. Then there is the new content being shared on social media, including Kashmiri jokes, proverbs, humourous videos, memes, etc. It is only a matter of time for the literary scene of this rich and ancient language to flourish.
Who knows, the identity politics over the choice of Kashmiri script may end, the multiple and therefore superfluous scriptural systems may be discarded, and Kashmiri script get orthographically standardised, once for all.
Despite the existential crises faced by almost all vernacular languages in an increasingly globalized world, the future for Kashmiri language, as of now, looks more secure than it looked a few years ago.
(Sualeh Keen is a writer and cultural critic. He can be reached at @sualehkeen. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(We all love to express ourselves, but how often do we do it in our mother tongue. Here's your chance! This Independence Day, khul ke bol with BOL – Love your Bhasha. Sing, write, perform, spew poetry – whatever you like – in your mother tongue. Send us your BOL at firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp it to 9910181818.)