How A Script Shift Could Disempower Most of The Languages Spoken In Jammu and Kashmir?

by TarushiAswani

While the promotion of Devanagri does not only imply demonetization of Nastaliq script but empowering Devanagri over the Nastaliq script stirs questions about the endangerment of several languages like Gojri, Pahari, Poshtu, Balti, Sheena, Urdu, that are written in the Persian script.

Urdu written in Persian scripts

The BJP government has completed a year fully dedicated to disempowering and disenfranchising Kashmiris since August 5, 2019. Seemingly, it is moving to the next level.

On September 2, 2020, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar announced the move to introduce a bill in the upcoming monsoon session of the parliament for the adoption of Hindi, Kashmiri, Dogri, Urdu and English as official languages in Jammu and Kashmir.

Devnagri Debate

Amid this shift in policy, there has been severe concern expressed by civil society in Kashmir over the promotion of the Devanagri script instead of the Nastaliq style for the digitization of data, and the fresh threat posed to Urdu due to the new Bill introduced in the Parliament.

A letter issued by Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT) to Jammu and Kashmir government (Director, Higher Education) stated that Government of India wants to digitize materials of Kashmiri language in Devnagri Script. This letter also included an emphasis on consultation with a particular professor for the furtherance of the same. Recently, the Group of Concerned Citizens raised this issue that while the Kashmiri language is included in the Common Locale Data Repository (CLDR), a project of Unicode Consortium, for preparation of required data, it regretted the use of Devanagri script instead of its own Persian script in the preparation and validation of the data.

The Group urged the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT) to take up with Unicode Consortium and relevant authority the matter of preparation of the afore-mentioned data and its subsequent validation in Persian script for its inclusion in CLDR.

Dr Rafeeq Masoodi, Secretary, GCC, expressed dismay over the same saying, “Why is there a sudden need for the imposition of Devanagri now? It hasn’t been done in the Southern states, why Kashmir then? It is important to understand that generations and generations read and write in the Persian script, it should not be used to digitize records as well, considering that it is the language used in lower courts as well as revenue records.”

Scripting A Shift

The retention of Devanagri script in the digitized official repository points to serious apprehensions about the devaluation of the Persian script. While the promotion of Devanagri does not only imply demonetization of Nastaliq script but empowering Devanagri over the Nastaliq script stirs questions about the endangerment of several languages like Gojri, Pahari, Poshtu, Balti, Sheena, Urdu, that are written in the Persian script.

Kashmiri, written in the Persian script, was the medium of instruction at school till the late 1950s when it was replaced by Urdu using Persian script.

At present, the Kashmiri language is taught as a compulsory subject from Class I to Class VIII in all schools of Kashmiri speaking areas. Persian script written in Nastaliq style is the standard system of writing this language and also holds ample historic repository currency of cultural heritage and identity of Kashmiris.

The Urdu Umpire

In 1889, Dogra ruler Pratap Singh adopted Urdu as the official language of the princely kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, replacing Persian which had enjoyed that status for more than three centuries. On October 21, 1940, Hari Singh’s Government issued an order regarding the introduction of, what it called, Simple Urdu, in Devnagri and Persian scripts instead of compulsory Urdu. The order stirred suspicion in the minds of the Muslim majority, who smelled conspiracy to impose Hindi on them. They felt that the Government was working on “a larger agenda of their cultural subjugation and, possibly, reconversion to Hinduism”.

While the Nastaliq styled Persian script has united all Kashmiris, whether Sikh, Muslim or Pandit communities over more than a century, since official records have always been maintained in the same script even in times, prior to the British, allotting all languages the status of an official language or State Language is also problematic as it tries to create a sense of consciousness of relegating scripts to religion, further problematizing Kashmir’s massively damaged cultural and ethnic capital that binds the multi-religious ethnic community together. Simply, this will create a sense of ‘we’ and ‘they’.

Prof  (Dr) Nazir Azad, a poet, critic and linguist, who specializes in Urdu and Kashmiri, feels that Devanagri should not be introduced at the cost of Nastaliq. He sees Nastaliq as a script that houses thousands of years of the Kashmiri Civilization. He said: “Our cultural, traditional, historical archives are all etched in Nastaliq. The problem is not with Devanagri, but with being ignorant to Nastaliq, scripts should not be employed to wage wars. Rather they should be complementing the understanding of each other.”

Azad also expressed that the idea of five official languages could lead to total confusion and a communication gap among the official class. Azad also added that Nastaliq being debased would lead to not only data inaccessibility among those who are literate in the script but also a heavy loss in rich cultural and historical traditions penned in languages such as Balti, Pahari, Sheena which continue to use the Persian script.

The argument is here not to oppose the digitization of records in Devanagari but to question the lack of attention paid to the Nastaliq script, while the government is practically obsessed with anything and everything Hindu, this obsession seems hell-bent at devaluing a whole section of people who are literate in languages that employ the Nastaliq script.

Numbers Speak

According to the Census 2011, 67,97,587 people recorded Kashmiri as their mother tongue. These statistics reinforce the need for digitization of records in the Persian Script. As and when records are digitized in Devanagri and not Persian script, this whole chunk of people who understand Kashmiri would be rendered helpless when the need to access records arises. This would be responsible for rendering those literate in the Persian script over generations as foreigners in their own land.

Governor N N Vohra releasing a book by Hindi Kashmiri Sangham, a body of writers in August 2016.

This onslaught is not just characterized by the marginalization of languages that inherit the Persian script; it also hugely underplays the importance of inclusion of languages like Gojri, Pahadi and Punjabi which are heavily spoken in Jammu and Kashmir as well. The 2011 Census recorded 12,27,901 speakers of the Gojri language, this language prevalent among tribal populations in both Jammu and Kashmir valley, it finds no recognition with the government of India’s parameter of inclusion. Punjabi, which also finds no mention in the official languages bill also finds its roots in the Nastaliq script in many hearts. Such trivial recognition makes people doubly vulnerable at a time when not only their language is unrecognized but they also suffer at the loss of their script.

Tarushi Aswani

Another apprehension that the valley would resound in the valley would be the imposition of Hindi. With the kind of repute, background and nice area that the BJP has carved for it over the years, official recognition of Hindi in J&K resonates with the larger project of Hinduising the valley with Step 1 of giving domicile rights to outsiders. For enabling more and more porosity and greater access of resources to outsiders in the valley, BJP has installed Hindi for their linguistic comfort.

What appears in the entire scheme of things is that as the Centre creates a language basket for Jammu and Kashmir the Hindutva ideology reflects in its preference of Devanagri over Nastaliq. The idea is clearly suggestive of a majoritarian imposition of a language on a minority that neither understands a language nor requires it. This is what disempowerment is all about.

(@tarushi_aswani is an independent journalist. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.)

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