Dubious Future of Languages in Kashmir

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The Jammu and Kashmir Official Language Bill, 2020 is set to mark yet another era in the history of dispensations juggling with the languages of J&k

Ahymon Ayoub

RECENTLY, the Union Cabinet dethroned Urdu as the official language of Jammu and Kashmir by introducing a Bill which is scheduled to appear in the upcoming monsoon session of the Parliament. With the overthrow of Urdu, yet another game of languages is set to start. Very likely, Urdu will join the ranks of other languages in the state like Kashmiri and Persian which have met and nearly lost challenges over the years.

Languages like many other fragments of collective social identity, do not follow a hierarchy per se. However, on intersecting with socio-cultural and political realities, languages too get riddled in hierarchies and manifest in a stratified order. This partially follows from the fact that languages being a primordial constituent of individual and collective identity, don’t have a privilege of staying apolitical. In fact, the relationship between lingual and other social and political variables is often reciprocal with the linguistic identities shaping political landscapes and vice versa.

It is no hidden truth that being an inalienable part of identity politics, languages have historically spurred many nationalistic and ethnic movements against alienation and ostrasization imposed by authoritarian regimes.  Present day Bangladesh which came into being on the tarmac of distinct linguistic identity, serves as a powerful example of how political negligence toward a particular language can fuel nationalistic movements based on identity politics. In India, bifurcation of Punjab and Haryana along the same lines and similar current tensions reiterate the momentum that linguistic identity harbours in drawing borders and birthing new geographies.

However, never in the history of rise and fall of civilizations has the political landscape been as unfavourable and abhorring to native tongues and by extension indigenous cultures as today. Globalisation coupled with overall rise of ethnocentric politics across the globe have ruptured prospectus for native tongues to flourish putting them at the threshold of extinction. No wonder, as per the statistics given by Endangered Languages Project, over 40% of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are at the risk of disappearing with many having already disappeared completely or partially.

In these circumstances, Kashmiri, which has faced neglect at many levels for decades together is anything but ready to face the onslaught of globalisation. Kashmir, given its strategic location and chequered history has assimilated the elements of various cultures including their languages too. With regime changes, the support to these languages came to be withdrawn too; the prime example being that of Persian. While Kashmiri has always been a staple language, Persian at one point of time served as a formal language, the remains of which are still alive in culture. Besides, Persian and Urdu continue to serve as a major reservoir of historical and religious literature for which it still invites learners and researchers albeit on a small level.

Kashmir seems to have embraced languages partially and more so, its native tongue Kashmiri. The language has so far largely survived through oral transmission and not as a consequence of deep engagement at formal and informal level as has the case been with Persian and Urdu. The production of Kashmiri literature too has almost come to a halt with only a few Kashmiri newspapers running in print.

The rich Sufi literature in Kashmiri which has had a marked influence in the region’s understanding of religion is decipherable only to a few today. Most of the studies being conducted on the literature largely depend on translations. In its meek verbal transmission too, the depth of lexicon is lost given the influx of English and Urdu vocabulary.

Even after Kashmiri’s inclusion to the local curriculum, new generations seem to have no affinity with their mother tongue, which as per UNESCO boosts children’s confidence if used as a medium of instruction. Kashmiri was forgone for Urdu as it enjoyed a level of preference as a status symbol, yet the engagement with it was more oral than written. Also, given its replacement as an official language in the recent ruling, it runs the risk of elimination in written form which has already happened with Kashmiri.

Although, the nature of implementation of New Educational policy (NEP 2020) announced recently will determine the future course of native language; yet the possibility of Kashmiri gaining a wholesome place which a mother tongue should have is too little. Given the paucity of literature being produced in Kashmiri and our raving preference for English emerging as a new force, the prospects of Kashmiri language seems abysmal.

While the undeniable and unprecedented advantage of English over other languages in the present era can hardly be denied, preservation of local languages can be ascertained too. The polyglottic proclivities of Kashmiris could be tapped in the favour of mother tongue. The many cognitive benefits of mastering several languages can be multiplied by the inclusion of mother-tongue in everyday conversations. Children could be encouraged to learn and engage with several languages right from the beginning. Further, exposure to classical and contemporary literature produced in native language could ensure the production and continuous flow of new local literature. Schools which are following strict lingual code should ease it for mother tongue to flourish. In the absence of favourable policy and institutional support, steps need to be initiated at individual level if native language is to be preserved.

  • Ahymon Ayoub has completed her Masters in Sociology from Kashmir University. She is also a freelance researcher interested in topics related to Islam and Women.

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