Prior to Modi Sarkar’s controversial order involving imposing Hindi, a delegation of Kashmiri Pandits had met HRD minister Smriti Irani on June 26 seeking, among other things, introduction of Devnagri script for Kashmiri language. Poet and author Khalid Bashir Ahmad offers details of a marathon battle over the script issue well before Delhi extended its rule to Srinagar
On May 27, 2014, New Delhi issued a circular directing all ministries, departments and public sector undertakings to give prominence to Hindi language in official accounts on social media. The circular met with stiff opposition from non-Hindi speaking areas especially Tamil Nadu that had seen a bloody agitation against imposition of Hindi in 1960s bringing Karunanidhi’s DMK to power. The newly installed government in Delhi, only days in office, quickly came out with a clarification suggesting that Hindi would not be imposed on non-Hindi speaking states. The circular was also opposed by the J&K chief minister who hastened to add that his opposition should not be taken as slamming New Delhi.
The ‘imposition’ of Hindi is a reality in today’s Kashmir, thanks to the absence of an organized opposition and political and religious leadership whose fight for preservation of Kashmir’s cultural identity begins and ends with lip-service and photo-ops. Apart from schools, Hindi is vigorously being imposed on our daily lives through television and other means of ‘cultural assimilation’. Kashmiri language is slowly becoming a refugee in its own land and Urdu, the official and link language of the State, is facing no better future.
Compared to the present scenario, when the Dogra administration tried to impose Hindi through Devnagri script in Kashmir there was a strong opposition to the move. It was fought on political and religious fronts. Both National Conference and the Mirwaiz of Kashmir took stand against the government move till one time when, ironically the former declared that if the Indian National Congress decided for the Sanskrit script it would readily accept that.
It was during N Gopalaswami Ayyangar’s prime ministership when an attempt was made to impose Hindi through Devnagri script in J&K. In 1940, with seemingly an insignificant advertisement published in a newspaper, applications were invited, from Hindi-knowing candidates only, for a post of clerk in the translation section of the Maharaja’s office. At that moment, no hidden motive was seen in the advertisement till a few days later when a press release was issued by the government announcing renaming in Hindi of the state council of ministers and other institutions. The president of the assembly was renamed as Pramukh and the assembly as Praja Sabha.
The announcement created misgivings and suspicion in the minds of the people who saw in it government’s conspiracy to impose Hindi in governance. The fears came true soon when the government constituted a committee and asked it to consider introduction of Devnagri script in addition to the compulsory Persian script. Mercifully, the committee did not agree with this idea.
The real mischief came in October 1940 when the minister of education, Raja Mohammad Afzal Khan, who supported the committee’s view, was sent packing and an order was issued that the language of instruction would be a common one, intriguingly, termed as ‘Simple Urdu’ and to be written in both Persian and Devnagri scripts. Textbooks were ordered to be printed in the same language and in both scripts. The order enjoined upon the teachers to learn the other script within one year and future recruitment as teachers were banned for those who did not know both the scripts. The confirmation of the in-service teachers was subjected to learning the other script. The order caused serious apprehensions among the Muslim community, especially Muslim teachers who were by now about 40 per cent of the total strength of teachers, as none of them was acquainted with Devnagri script.
There was more to come. Ayyangar, a Tamil by birth whose brethren back home years later launched a bloody agitation against the imposition of Hindi, ordered replacement of the word ‘Simple Urdu’ by ‘Hindi Urdu’ which, however, was opposed, besides Muslims, by Director Education, Saiyidain and, accordingly, withdrawn.
The National Conference criticised and opposed the government move. On January 14, 1941, the party organized a state-wide protest day against the script order. Huge protest meeting was held at Shahi Masjid and a resolution demanding withdrawal of the Devnagri script order was adopted. The party members resigned en bloc from the Assembly when a motion seeking to reverse the script order was not allowed by the president of the assembly. However, the party turned out to be a divided house as Kashmiri Pandit leaders including Prem Nath Bazaz supported the government point of view on this issue.
On the religious front, Mirwaiz Moulvi Mohammad Yusuf Shah criticised the Devnagri script order and warned Maharaja Hari Singh that it “can cause problems for both the ruling and the ruled class, besides denting the good image of the ruler.” He addressed a large public meeting at Eidgah, met Prime Minister Ayyangar and conveyed to him the apprehensions of the Muslims against the order.
On January 6, 1941, he shot a 14-page memorandum to Hari Singh and, hinting at Prime Minister Ayyangar, accused “some young, less experienced and ignorant-of-the-local-history non-Muslims” for demanding the introduction of Hindi and Devnagri script. He termed the demand as carrying “evil motives and ill intentions” which have come to the fore only with the arrival of the present prime minister.
Mirwaiz blamed the “enemies of Urdu” of hatred, contempt and prejudice towards it for the “sole reason that its alphabets were Arabic and script Persian, both having a special relationship with Muslims.”
“Would not the overwhelming majority of your subjects then be justified in construing as anti-Islam the prejudiced attempts to throw this commonly understood language out”?, Mirwaiz asked the Maharaja, suggesting that if he looked at the issue from this angle he would find the attempts against Urdu as an “impure stain” with which he would not like to blemish his “holy robe of justice”. He alleged that the imposition of Hindi was an attempt to break the lingual and trade relationship of Kashmir with the Muslims of Punjab.
The memorandum accused, what it called, the “Mahasabhain, Ghandhian and Nehruvian mindset” for being behind the attempted change in script and language. This, it alleged, was aimed at destroying the qaumiyat [nationalism] of Muslims by denying to their future generations access to “religious knowledge, spiritual information, literary and knowledge resources, great achievements of their forefathers and their conquests, their civilization and culture.” According to the memorandum, Hindi was sought to be imposed by giving it a deceptive name of Simple Urdu but it was not difficult to see through this conspiracy. “We can see today what is to come day after”, the memorandum added and cautioned the Maharaja that the mindset at work in Kashmir and the situation sought to be created by duplicating the “Mahasabhaian policies”, was “drawing people here closer to the idea of Pakistan because in their minds it would be the only way to get rid of these troubles”.
Moulvi Mohammad Yusuf Shah identified ‘the root’ of the government decision to impose Devnagri to an article by an “Arya [Samaj] leader” suggesting various measure for making Muslims shudh [pure]. These included dislodging of Arabic, Persian and Urdu as languages of instruction, facilitating mass propagation of Hindi and Devnagri script, christening places, buildings, meetings and individuals in Hindi and Sanskrit and issuing titles and related documents in Hindi. He pointed out that “these directions have started being implemented and we see Islamabad changed to Anantnag, royal palaces were given Hindi names, General Samandar Khan named Thakur Samandar Khan and the names of the assembly and its members changed into Hindi.” He said that instead of imposing an “unfamiliar language” on the people, the prime minister should have been compelled to learn Urdu, the common language of the state.
While Mirwaiz was seen as expressing the “popular sentiment” of J&K’s Muslim majority on the issue of imposition of Hindi and Devnagri script, the National Conference appeared to be in a split mind. Its Hindu leaders clearly took the pro-government stand which was the same as taken by Jawaharlal Nehru on the subject of the national language for India. Prem Nath Bazaz openly supported the Nehruian line for Kashmir. He wrote a letter to Gandhi and claimed that in reply to the latter said that he did not see any flaw in the Kashmir Government order. However, when Bazaz was asked to place the letter before the working committee of the National Conference he refused to do so. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah took up the matter with Gandhi in a letter who wrote back that his opinion was not final as he had not seen the other side which was supplied to him by the National Conference but Gandhi did not risk his opinion. Bazaz opposed the resolution of the National Conference on the script issue and even walked out of the meeting while Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was still speaking.
The Hindu press of Punjab especially The Tribune came out with news stories castigating the National Conference’s Muslim leadership for agitating against the imposition of Devnagri script. In Jammu also, the press was motivated to do similar stories. Journalist B P Sharma “arranged to bring out a Special Supplement of The Chand and published a letter in his name in The Tribune in favour of the Devnagri Script Order. He forwarded to the publicity officer of Maharaja the free translation of “the talk on the script issue” with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah besides clippings of The Tribute and Karachi Daily. The Hindu organizations passed resolutions supporting the government order.
Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who was initially inclined towards the pro-Urdu stand and whose National Conference members in the assembly had resigned against the government order, later seemed wavering and declared that he was amenable to whatever the Indian National Congress would decide. Earlier, if Justice Mohammad Yusuf Saraf’s reference of Al Islah, June 1941, is correct, the Sheikh on May 25, 1941, had angrily reacted to a suggestion of a Pandit leader that the matter be referred to the Congress leaders for an opinion. He had allegedly spoken harshly about the Congress and Gandhiji.
By 1942, however, Sheikh appeared to have second thoughts about the controversy and aligned himself with whatever the Indian National Congress would decide. On January 19, he addressed a press conference at Jammu and declared that all that he wanted was an official resolution of the Congress on the subject, which alone could satisfy him of the wisdom of the position created in Kashmir. He said he would not object if the Congress wanted Sanskrit as the national language. “If the Congress today decides to make Sanskrit as the National Language of India, I will readily accept the decision, as I would accept it if the Congress decided to have Persian as National Language”, the Sheikh announced and said that some leading members of the Congress had expressed their individual opinion on the question of language and scripts but the Congress had not adopted an official resolution on the matter. The National Conference, he said, “was dragged into the controversy by the Government orders. The Conference desired that status quo should have been maintained till the Congress came to a final decision.”
In 1943, the State Council ordered the Simple Urdu to be the medium of instruction with a common vocabulary of Hindi and Urdu languages. The officially prepared vocabulary included at least a couple of thousand words which were not common with Urdu and were incomprehensible even for moderately educated Hindi speaking people. These had been deliberately drawn from orthodox Sanskrit language.