Known for its unique morphology, the Koshur language, more commonly called Kashmiri, is spoken by more than five million people in some 14 dialects. It is the only Asiatic language that bears a resemblance to English in its structure of subject-object agreement. Yet while linguists continue to argue over its unique origin and script, successive state and central governments have directly contributed to the degeneration of Koshur. From a state of ‘language attrition’, there is now a situation of outright language loss. The market-driven primary-education system in the state is the main reason for this decline.
It was only after Maharaja Hari Singh’s rule in J & K ended during the late 1940s that the nearly 900-year-old Kashmiri language was finally introduced into schools at the primary level, not only as a subject but also as a medium of instruction. It was not to last. A handful of Hindu and Buddhist leaders resisted the move, and the decision was withdrawn almost immediately. Since then, the state government has several times announced moves to introduce Kashmiri as an optional subject in primary schools, but this plan has never been implemented.
The language had been similarly weakened over the centuries by Kashmir’s rulers, administrators and state government, all of which opted for Urdu as the official state language. While Kashmiri today remains restricted to spoken interactions, a slim majority (53 percent) of people in the multilingual state of J & K do still speak Kashmiri. While it was never declared a court language, even in its homeland, Koshur resolutely remains a people’s language amidst official indifference.
The Kashmir Valley elite have something of a history of adopting foreign languages, such as Persian, Sanskrit and Urdu. It was thus these languages that found their ways into the royal courts and corridors of state government. In this process, those voices urging official patronage for the native language were often suppressed in the wake of high-pitched arguments based on national or regional unity. Sixty years after the end of the Dogra monarchy, Kashmir’s middle and upper classes are again repeating history, and learning Urdu, English or Pahari. Rather than imbibing it naturally, the Koshur mother tongue is being consciously transferred to the young only as an afterthought, if at all. With this gradual alienation from the language, there now appears on the horizon a generation of Kashmiris who will speak their mother tongue only as a symbol – akin to the shikarawallas, the famed boatmen of Dal Lake, speaking fragments of French.
Contact between the Kashmir Valley and the Kashmiri-speaking people of Jammu – Poonch and Rajouri – was earlier maintained by several routes connecting the Kashmiri linguistic community. While the current National Highway route takes between one and two days to reach the Kashmir Valley from Jammu, the Mughal Road and the Haji Pir Road involved a travelling time of less than an hour between the Kashmir Valley and Poonch and Rajouri. This easy access helped the Kashmiris of Jammu to retain their culture over generations, and to resist the assimilation of cultural traits from the other communities in the immediate vicinity, such as the Gujjars, Paharis and Dogras.
The Mughal Road was relegated to the pages of history due to an absence of state patronage. In 1979, Chief Minister Sheikh Abdullah wanted to revive the road, but such work only began in 1996, and has yet to be completed. If and when the road does become serviceable, Kashmiris living in both Jammu and Kashmir might suddenly be able to interact with each other with the ease that they did in the past. Unfortunately, even the opening of the Mughal Road will not be able to undo the damage that its closure has done to the Kashmiri language.
Meanwhile, the Uri-Poonch road, commonly known as the Aliabad Road, was permanently closed for security reasons following the 1965 India-Pakistan war. After this, Pakistan regained the Haji Pir range. The closure of this road likewise permanently divided the linguistic group across the new international frontier. Forty-two years after this great divide, the younger generation of the Kashmiri community of Jammu is more comfortable in Pahari, Gojri, Hindi and Urdu than in its mother tongue.
In November 2000, the J & K government decided to introduce the state’s native languages as compulsory subjects in both government and private schools. Yet eight years after the official order was passed, the decision has yet to actually be implemented. Recently, the State Institute of Education (SIE) was asked to come up with a module for the training of teachers of Kashmiri. In its wisdom, the SIE has assigned the task to its cultural wing, which is unlikely to come up with a sufficiently pedagogical approach to the teaching of the language.
It can be said that at least the public schools are making some effort. In private schools, which make up around a fifth of all schools in Kashmir, compliance with the official order is negligible. At one of the oldest missionary schools in Srinagar, the Tyndale Biscoe School, Kashmiri is being taught in just a single class per week. Not only is this far from the time needed for the rigours of learning a language, but no special recruitment has been done to find teachers for the subject. Perhaps more to the point, the school continues to discourage the children from communicating in Kashmiri. Especially in the important missionary schools in urban areas, administrators enforce an informal code of conduct that bars pupils from speaking in Kashmiri – not only in the classrooms, but also during recess and other off-times.
No more Wanvun
Language is given a remarkably central role in schools in Kashmir. Srinagar draws its intelligentsia from five missionary and scores of other private schools, where the sole criterion for selecting candidates is language proficiency. Interviews are normally conducted by non-Kashmiris in English and other non-native languages; many schools even check the parent’s ability in Urdu and English. Failure to demonstrate proficiency in these non-native languages is likely to result in denial of admission. Many observers believe that the mushrooming private schools of Kashmir are actually nipping the Kashmiri language in the bud.
Take the case of Furqan, a fourth-grade student at Tyndale Biscoe. From his birth, Furqan’s parents decided that they would speak to him only in Urdu, in the hope of securing his admission to the prestigious school. Though a native Kashmiri, he started learning the tongue only when he was six, and today his Kashmiri is clearly coloured by Urdu. Furqan’s language confusion does not stop there, however. His classes at Tyndale Biscoe are in English, and every morning before class he attends a madrassa where he learns Arabic. As such, the 10-year-old Furqan is learning four languages – making him a classic ‘jack-of-all-languages’, but a master of none.
Likewise, the job market in the Valley has been manipulated in such a way as to leave little scope for candidates who have studied the Kashmiri language. In this professional category, those not proficient in English are automatically eliminated, despite the fact that the state language is Urdu. Policies also seem set to discriminate against potential Kashmiri-language teachers. The Jammu & Kashmir Public Service Commission (PSC)’s recent advertisement of 650 posts for lecturers did not include a single Kashmiri-language post. (Kashmiri-language positions were advertised for by the PSC in 2006, but interviews for the positions were suddenly halted for unknown reasons.) At the same time, the argument from Education Department officials has been that the public schools are teaching an insignificant level of Kashmiri because there are not enough teachers qualified to do so. Meanwhile, records of the University of Kashmir’s Department of Kashmiri show that there are some 7000 Kashmiri-language postgraduates who are currently unemployed, or are working merely as contractual lecturers in vacant posts.
Clearly, bureaucrats alone cannot be given the responsibility of preserving Kashmiri. Established in October 1958, the Jammu & Kashmir Academy of Art Culture and Languages is specifically mandated to preserve and promote the language. However, politicisation of the academy has completely changed its character from an institute dedicated to the promotion of Kashmiri culture to one that instead attempts to convert Kashmir into a hot tourist destination. Indeed, the fact that the post of chief minister is automatically an ex-officio chairman of the Academy speaks to its inherently political nature.
One direct ramification of falling Kashmiri usage has been on folklore, including dance, song and music. Wanvun, a well-known style of Kashmiri folksong, is now restricted to wedding ceremonies, despite the fact that for centuries Kashmiri women have sung these songs at nearly every social gathering. Even during wedding ceremonies where wanvun songs do still fill the air, it is difficult to find women who have memorised the entire set of Wanvun songs. Similarly, the traditional rouf and yikat dances, performed against a backdrop to Kashmiri songs, have faded almost completely from the tapestry of contemporary Kashmir. Indeed, there is now a generation of Kashmiris who have barely heard of wanvun, rouf or yikat, much less the history that is embedded in these traditional forms. For better or worse, young Kashmiris today are simply more comfortable listening to, and singing along with, Hindi, Punjabi and English songs.
~ Hilal Bhat is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist.
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