More than 130 years of being the official language of Jammu and Kashmir, Urdu’s fate hangs in balance as the downgraded state inches towards becoming the Union Territory. In anticipation of UT’s new assembly deciding about the new official language, Masood Hussain details the fascinating story of Urdu’s emergence and importance in Kashmir


The law that will govern the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir from November 1, empowers the yet to be constituted assembly to decide the language of the new territory. The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, 2019, reads: “47. (1) The Legislative Assembly may by law 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 of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.”

This opens a window for the introduction of a new official language, which could even mean burying Urdu as the official language of the Jammu and Kashmir state that will cease to exist on October 31, 2019. “The Reorganisation Act is very clear that the new official language or languages will be chosen by the new Assembly,” Farooq Khan, one of the advisers of the governor Satya Pal Malik was quoted saying by The Indian Express. “Hindi is the national language so it would be an official language of the Union Territory of J&K. Urdu will also be given its due place. English will also be used as it is being used currently.”

Home Minister Amit Shah’s insistence that a nation must have one national language has already triggered a sort of a storm in south Indian states that have strong local languages. They see Shah’s idea as an imposition of Hindi on the non-cow belt. How those states will respond to the idea will take time. But Jammu and Kashmir that has been stripped of its special position and downgraded to a UT may not be in a position to oppose the language shift given the crisis it is passing through.

The Urdu has already been facing a peculiar situation after the rise of English and the mass computer dependence. “In the Chief Minister’s secretariat, we once used to have a number of top-notch calligraphists who would write official letters of the Chief Minister to dignitaries in Urdu,” one former officer, who served the Chief Ministers secretariat for a long time, said. “As the letters were being sent in Urdu, the people whom they would be addressed would also keep the people in the staff who could read and write. But the section was closed and all letters are now being written in English.”

The nameplates of the officials, offices, streets and other public utilities were routinely being done in Urdu and English (in Kashmir) and in Hindi (in Jammu). Though some of them are still being done, the glaring mistakes make the official language a laughing stock.

In the 2011 census, Urdu was the mother tongue of  50772631 people in India. In Jammu and Kashmir, however, only 13,351 people (in 12.5 million) mentioned Urdu as their mother tongue. Seemingly, they are the children of the parents, one of whom belongs to the Indian or Pakistan plains. The small number is also because in Jammu and Kashmir, a number of languages are being spoken and people have a huge diversity in the mother-tongues. The people in the state speak eight languages. In Jammu and Kashmir, 6797587 people have Kashmiri as their mother tongue and 2596767 speak Dogri. These are the two of 22 languages falling in the eighth schedule of the Constitution of India.

But that does not neutralise the significance of Urdu in Jammu and Kashmir. This is the only language that is the sole communication of the entire diversity that lives in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. It is being spoken and understood by different linguistic groups of Jammu and Kashmir. Scripts apart, Urdu and Hindi have a huge common vocabulary. Even Bollywood sustain Urdu as its lingua franca but barely mentions the film is in Hindi! Bollywood’s most popular numbers are Urdu poetry.

Evolution of Urdu is interesting. It is one of the youngest languages in the world that spread far and wide in less than half a millennium. It owes its genesis to the Mughal era when Persian was the most predominant court language. It took its own time in moving from Khadi Boli to Hindavi to Dahlavi to Raikhta to Hindustani and finally to the Urdu. Its beauty lies in its capacity to absorb other languages. A lot of its vocabulary is rooted in Arabic, Hindi, Persian, Turkish, English, Latin, and even Sanskrit. Awadh and Deccan apart, for most of its history, Urdu evolved mostly in undivided north India. When the East India Company finally took over India from the dying Mughals, they used Urdu as their communicating language.

In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, Urdu has a slightly different story. For most of the post-Buddhist period, Sanskrit was the main language of literature, history and the court. It witnessed its decline with the weakening of the Hindu kingdom. When the Shahmirs’ took over and established the Sultanate, the Persian took over. Despite Persian being the court language, the entire Rajatarangni series continued to be written in Sanskrit. During the Mughal occupation of Kashmir, Persian was at its zenith. Afghan tyrants continued with the same language. But the decline started with the Sikh tyranny. Lahore Durbar had Persian as its court language but Urdu was much in use and popular in mainland India.

In 1846, when East India Company sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh, the master of Jammu, for Rs 75 lakh (Nanakshahi), the Treaty of Amritsar was drafted in Persian. After Gulab Singh took over, the new master of Kashmir attempted pushing the Dogri but this small language lacked the capacity to replace highly evolved Persian. By then, however, Urdu was evolving fast in mainland India. During the great mutiny in 1857, when the East India Company required help from a bed-ridden Gulab Singh, the request came in a letter written in Urdu, according to Nishat Ansari, who says Dr Karan Singh still retains the original letter. A few thousand soldiers who helped the British cull the freedom seekers in 1857, stayed back in Delhi for many months. They were the first major group from Jammu and Kashmir who returned home with basic Urdu skills.

Language historians insist that Christian missionaries played a vital part in the spread of Urdu. The first batch of evangelical missionaries reached Jammu as early as 1862. They were speaking Urdu and distributing literature in Urdu. By 1888, they set up the first Church in Jammu.

Habib Kaifvi in his Kashmir Mein Urdu has written that the first prose in Urdu in Kashmir was a travelogue penned by Choudhary Sher Singh, a resident of Poonch, in 1865. He was deployed by Gulab Singh to study the trade in Bukhara. On his return, he submitted a 150-page travelogue, which, the writer says is part of the Jammu and Kashmir’s archival records. Even prior to that Bhut Mal, a Jammu resident who was deployed to supervise tea plantation in Jammu, submitted his report to the Durbar in Urdu in 1856.

After the demise of Ranbir Singh in 1885, a situation emerged that East India Company appointed a Resident formally who would manage the state of Jammu and Kashmir through a State Council. This was a decision dictated partly by palace intrigues and partly by the Great Games of which Kashmir has historically remained a principal victim till date. Though the idea was that the British would rule the state indirectly to ensure the end of Dogra tyranny, it, however, ended in restoration of the full ruling rights to Ranbir Singh.

With the British in Srinagar formally part of the ruling systems, Urdu became a mode of communication. Eventually, in 1889, Ranbir Singh declared Urdu as an official language of the state. While it helped the British to communicate better, it helped the sovereign to use Urdu as a better communication within the linguistic diversity that existed in Jammu and Kashmir.

“We tried our best but could not trace the order,” Mohammad Ashraf Tak, the Urdu editor in the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Culture and Languages, said. “It is a major milestone in the evolution of the Urdu story in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Soon after, Maharaja set up a translation cell at Jammu where key books were rendered into Urdu. Later, he set up a printing press named Bidya Bilas and also permitted the first Urdu newspaper with the same name. Edited by Pandit Gopi Nath Gurtoo, the newspaper was up and running till 1938.

There were efforts from various sides to help Urdu grow. “During the period some Parsi Theatrical Companies of Bombay got an opportunity to stage played called Nataks,” Ansari wrote in an essay on Urdu. “Besides, the professional Urdu signers from Punjab rushed to Kashmir and under their influence, all the streets, bazaars and lanes of Jammu and Srinagar echoed with their melodious songs in Urdu. All these agencies combined to make the J&K State a platform for popularising Urdu.”

Urdu led to certain changes quickly. “With the formation of the council in 1899, the first order dispensed was the alteration of the official language from Persian to Urdu,” scholar Dr Nitin Chandel wrote in Kashmiri PanditsIn The Political History of Jammu and Kashmir (1846-1947). “With this change, the Pandits who with their masterly of Persian dominating the administrative services, were thrown out of their jobs and these jobs were soon captured by the Punjabis people coming from the neighbouring province of Punjab, waves of office hunters from outsides moved towards Kashmir. They got employment in every office. All the important positions came to be occupied by the Punjabi Hindus, and even in subordinate offices they found a place in large number.”

This change was fundamental to a mass movement that Kashmiri Pandits and the Jammu Dogras launched for the state subject rights. These rights were eventually given by the Maharaja Ranbir Singh in 1927 by defining the state subjects of Jammu and Kashmir. By then, however, Kashmiri Pandits had successfully managed to reclaim part of the administration by picking up Urdu in private academies that the migrant Pandits had set up in Allahabad and other places. After centuries of investment to pick up the best of Persian and excelling in it, Pandits embraced Urdu finally.

Mumtaz Sadiq Khan, a scholar of the University of Sindh in his Kashmir Mein Urdu Nasr Ka Tehqiqui Mutala 1877-1996 asserts that Kashmir’s two Urdu poets Shiv Naraian Bhan Aajiz and Dinna Nath Chiken Mast emerged well before the Urdu was declared the official language of the state. But the language was adopted by Jammu quicker and earlier than Kashmir. Jammu had a flourishing Urdu Bazaar that became Rajinder Bazaar post-partition when mass rioting changed the demographic composition of the city. Mumtaz has established the first Mushaira, poetic gathering, in Jammu and Kashmir took place in 1924 at Jammu that Kaifi Dehalvi presided and Rachpal Singh Shaida conducted.

“During the linguistic re-organisation of the Indian states in 1956, Urdu continued to be the state official language of Kashmir, ironically, the only state in India where a non-native language is the official language,” scholar Mohammad Ashraf Bhat wrote in his paper Emergence of the Urdu in Jammu and Kashmir. Unlike the rest of India where Urdu is the language of Madrassa, Bhat asserts that in Kashmir “Urdu is being associated with social prestige, and is perceived as means of upward economic and social mobility.” The cumulative print order of Urdu newspapers in Kashmir is much bigger than in English, even today.

In the last 130 years, Urdu has evolved into a huge movement in Jammu and Kashmir. “In J&K, Urdu is the language of land and revenue records, courts (especially lower judiciary) and police (FIRs etc are all written in Urdu),” journalist Muzamil Jaleel wrote in The Indian Express. “With different languages spoken in J&K — Kashmiri, Dogri, Gojri, Ladakhi, Pahari and Balti – Urdu emerged as a link language during Dogra rule, especially because it wasn’t the mother tongue of any substantial group.” Even the Pashto-speaking linguistic minority is using Urdu as the only language of interaction with all others around.

Most of the Islamic religious literature that was written in last 150 years is in Urdu. That is perhaps why Urdu is the only selling language in Jammu and Kashmir and will continue to remain so.

The decline, according to Jaleel, started with the introduction of All India Services (IAS) in J&K in 1962. This was because the majority of IAS, IPS officers being non-locals preferred English over Urdu. But the decline in the higher echelons of power did not impact the growth of Urdu in the state or the governance systems.

But the patronage was reduced to a large extent because post-partition, a section of political class linked Urdu to Muslims. They sought the vindication of their bias in Pakistan adopting Urdu as the country’s official language. This is despite the fact that Urdu progressed more in India than in Pakistan. Most Indian Prime Ministers were voracious Urdu readers. Former J&K Governor N N Vohra would start his day by studying the local Urdu newspapers.

Urdu remained neutral to populations across the faiths and the linguistic groups in Jammu and Kashmir. But part of the neglect was rooted in other actions of the society. In the last four decades, the identity assertion in Jammu and Kashmir linked the campaign to the language. A movement in Srinagar launched by language -enthusiasts forced the government twice to make Kashmiri compulsory in the schools up to the middle level. This created similar campaigns in Ladakh and Jammu for Ladakhi and Dogri. This movement ate the larger lingual pie from Urdu. Right now, in most of the urban Srinagar, students, mostly from private schools, are unable to manage Urdu (the problem is writing and not speaking) unless they fell in love and require the hypnotic Urdu poetry. Many love Urdu for the revolutionary appeal that the language offers.

This situation has led to a language load on the students. They require English as the sole language of knowledge. They have to study Kashmiri because it is compulsory and their mother tongue. They have to pick up the basics of Arabic because this is the language of God’s word. They cannot avoid Urdu because this is the language that retains their history, culture, faith and all basics that make them what they are. Urdu, Kashmiri, Dogri are recognized languages in the eighth schedule of the constitution of India.

Right now, the fate of Urdu hangs in balance in Jammu and Kashmir. As the Ministry of Home Affairs – now the new master of the UT of Jammu and Kashmir is planning the UT roll-out, nobody knows the fate of the language. The law says that the new assembly will decide. But who knows when the new assembly will be constituted and in what form.

Regardless of the decision-making, one thing is sure: Urdu is unlikely to follow Sanskrit or Persian and get into oblivion.


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