‘Hungama Hai Kyun Barpa?’ The Case Of Urdu And Official Languages

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The recent draft bill proposed by the union government to expand the official languages of Jammu and Kashmir is an attempt to reduce and alter the capacity of people to imagine and articulate their own narratives

LORD Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

The Bible says first in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Theologians and Bible Scholars will argue that the word means more than the literal meaning conveys. But I evoke the sentence to stress the immense importance of the word – the spoken and the written word.

The famous Kashmiri adage goes – lyekheth gouv ti hakyeth gouv (Once it is written, it can’t be rubbed off). The word, especially, the written one has the power to change and transform the perceptions of how a people conceive of themselves, both individually and collectively. Nowhere is this power more apparent than in turmoil ridden geographies, where people oppose subjugation by trying to wrest control from the subjugator by writing alternate histories and chronicles of their trauma and grief. The subjugator responds in turn by writing new scriptures of power by either delegitimizing the alternate histories, outlawing them or at a more fundamental level disrupting the capacity of people to create them.

The recent draft bill proposed by the union government to expand the official languages of Jammu and Kashmir from Urdu to include Kashmiri, Urdu, Dogri, Hindi and English as official languages of J&K, is an attempt to reduce and alter the capacity of people to imagine and articulate narratives that run counter to those acceptable to the state, and articulate lived realities.

However, this formulation presents a peculiar paradox. It might be argued that the downgrading of Urdu ought to be a cause of celebration, for it is the language which is employed especially by the repressive state apparatus of the state – the police say to lodge FIRs against a dissident population. As the official language of a people who speak Kashmiri, a different language, Urdu might be viewed as an instrument of silencing the marginalized, and preventing expression. The widespread concern at the downgrading of Urdu, and lack of enthusiasm at Kashmiri being elevated demands one to examine the issue more closely. It could also be argued that Kashmiri – texts and utterances offer a more privileged and unmediated access to Kashmiri perceptions of self – both as an individual and as a community. So what explains then the widespread concern, and the suspicions the decision has raised?

This paradox needs first to be examined in a historical context. Even as Urdu is not the first tongue of either of the three regions of the erstwhile state, it emerged as a compromise on an official language, but found acceptance only in Kashmir, as Dogri and Bodhi (or Balti) are the languages of communication, and culture in Jammu and Ladakh respectively.

Why is Urdu largely accepted in Kashmir then? M Ashraf Bhat, a Kashmiri Urdu scholar opines that Urdu, “occupies the central space in print and broadcast media; education, religious and political discourses, the legislature and the judiciary, and can even boast of an indigenous literary tradition. Attitudes to Urdu across the community reflect accommodation and acceptance. In the context of the self-determination movement, Urdu has acquired another dimension: it is perceived as the symbol of the subcontinental Pan-Islamic identity.”

The earliest support for Urdu in the public domain came from the reformist minded Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah who founded Anjuman Nusrat-ul-Islam (Society for victory of Islam), precursor to Jamat-e-Islami the popular religo-social organization, to be the first to take up the cause of education of Kashmiri Muslims, which provided the early impetus for the evolution of a political consciousness in Kashmir. He set up the first press in Kashmir, the Muslim Printing Press, launching two weeklies, Al-Islam and Rahnuma to broadcast the views of the Deobandis and to combat what were seen as the un-Islamic practices of the Kashmiri Muslims. Besides, Sheikh Abdullah — arguably the tallest leader of Kashmiri Nationalist movement, and a beneficiary of the rising political consciousness, employed Urdu for cementing anti-colonial consciousness; his moniker- Sher-e-Kashmir (Lion of Kashmir) itself being an Urdu title.

Similarly, the Urdu daily Hamdard edited by Prem Nath Bazaz, a close confidant of Sheikh Abdullah, emerged “as the strongest voice of dissent in Kashmir”, according to Zutshi. Even as most Islamic literature in Kashmir is written in Kashmiri, the literature produced by Jamat-e-Islami bears special mention, especially Tafheem-ul-Quran, an influential commentary of the Quran, and other voluminous literature like Musalman Aur Maujuda Siyasi Kashmasksh (‘Muslims and The Present Political Turmoil’) all written in Urdu by Maulana Sayyed ‘Ala Maudud.

The Jamat’s contribution to the political and social consciousness of Kashmir has been immense, and exceeds the tacit support to the militant organisation – Hizbul Mujahideen in 90’s. Indeed, its network of Falah-e-Islam schools and libraries rival that of the missionary schools in zeal and contribution.

A hybrid of Urdu – Hindustani (a mixture of Urdu and Hindi) also emerges as the transactional language between the ubiquitous Hindi speaking security forces, usually from India, and the local population. Articulations of dissent or compliance must necessarily be transacted in this hybrid, and so Urdu presents a valid vehicle for expression and exploration of Kashmiri routines of lived life. Urdu then emerges paradoxically as both, a language of state as well as of resistance and routine.

The Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation act, 2019 which erased the last remnants of symbolic autonomy of Kashmir, seeks to replace Urdu with Hindi and other languages as the official languages. Indian Express reported that “Section 47 of the J&K Reorganisation Act empowers the new Legislative Assembly of the Union Territory of J&K to “adopt any one or more of the languages in use in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir or Hindi as the official language or languages to be used for all or any of the official purposes.” (Jaleel 2019) The imposition of Hindi especially derives from the desire of ‘Hinduisation’ of ‘Muslim Kashmir’ since Urdu is invariably associated with a ‘muslimness’ dating from colonial days.

Under the present political dispensation, the insistence on Urdu and its preservation is not only a gesture of solidarity with Indian Muslims but is also an attestation of a shared identity — highlighting our common marginality and a reclamation of threatened minority identities. It affirms that we are joined not just by religion but by a greater sense of complicated grief and community bonds forged from the trauma of being silenced and excluded from deciding our destinies.

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Huzaifa Pandit

Huzaifa Pandit is the author of the recently published ‘Green is the Colour of Memory’, which won the first edition of Rhythm Divine Poets Chapbook Contest 2017. He holds a PhD on poetry of resistance from the University of Kashmir.

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