The People's Voice

How Kashmiris are resisting linguistic exclusion

01 June 2019
Kashmiri was made compulsory in schools up to the eighth standard only in 2008.
masrat zahra for the caravan
Kashmiri was made compulsory in schools up to the eighth standard only in 2008.
masrat zahra for the caravan

Half a decade ago, when I was in school, I faced a penalty of five rupees every time I spoke in my mother tongue—Kashmiri. The principal reprimanded us if her ears detected a syllable of the Kashmiri language.

I never paid the fine. Neither did any of my classmates. In spite of this regular admonishment, we believed that speaking our own language was neither a mistake worthy of punishment, nor a mark of humiliation. The school must still be following the same policies, but today, I see hope and resistance. Kashmiri, the only Dardic language—a branch of Indo-Aryan languages spoken across Pakistan and Afghanistan—that has a literature, is fighting its extermination.

“The story of the resistance of the Kashmiri language is not a recent one,” Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a Kashmiri poet renowned for his satire and humour, told me on the telephone. “It’s been resisting right from the day Mughals invaded the valley. They implemented Persian here, and it was used for official and trade purposes. After the Mughals came the Afghans, after them the Sikhs, later on the Dogras, and now India is ruling over it. Yet the Kashmiri language never succumbed to this foreign duress. All the outside rulers forced their own language upon the people, but the values, traditions, its literature, and the richness of its history became its pillars of support, and it has strived to maintain its existence for more than four hundred years since then. In its struggle for survival, the language has seen tough times, but it never gave up.”

It is a universally acknowledged fact that the occupation of a country by a powerful nation begins with control over peoples’ culture and language—the core elements of their identity. In Kashmir, India has left the people bereft of their own language, but natives of the occupied land are indifferent and a cultural uprising seems far away. When I asked Zareef where he sees the language today, he said, “In recent years, we have seen our youth abandoning the Kashmiri language. Kashmiri was properly taught in schools until 1953, the year Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, who worked in favour of the Indian government in Delhi, became prime minister of the state.” The reason behind the language’s disappearance, he added, “was that Master Tara Singh was demanding a separate state based on the Punjabi-speaking population, and the Congress government was scared that if the language blooms in a state stitched to India against the will of its people, a similar demand for freedom rooted in cultural sentiments and a common language would take birth there.”

In schools, Kashmiri was made compulsory up to the eighth standard, in 2008, after much struggle. At the university level, it was only in 1979 that, with the efforts of writers and intellectuals, a postgraduate course in Kashmiri language was started at Kashmir University, despite the recommendations of the Kothari commission fifteen years before. The custodians of the language have been demanding classical-language status for Kashmiri, as its history dates back to over a thousand years. However, in a recent development, India’s ministry of human-resource development has removed Kashmiri from its Bhasha Sangam portal, after Kashmiri Pandits—who use a slightly different form of Kashmiri—objected to the version of the language used.

Mehdi Khawaja is from Srinagar, Kashmir and studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.