A Classic Fight

Why it is important for Kashmiri to be awarded “classical language” status.

ByShujaat Bukhari
A Classic Fight
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In Jammu and Kashmir, a fight has been taking place to seek classical language status for Kashmiri. It is a tough challenge to convince the Government of India to grant it, though Kashmiri is undoubtedly an old language in the subcontinent. Historians have been in agreement that the language is over 2000 years old and its written script is 900 year old, surpassing many popular languages in South Asia, such as Urdu and Hindi. According to noted litterateur, Mohammad Yousuf Taing, the traces of Kashmiri language can be found way back in 400 BC and these can be found in even “Charak Smita” the book on medicines written by Kanishka’s Prime Minister in 1 AD.

Kashmiri words have been found in Kalhan’s Rajtrangni, the first comprehensive history of Kashmir written in 11th century AD. Moreover, Kashmiri is the dominant language of Jammu and Kashmir and is being spoken by over 1 crore people living in various parts of the erstwhile state as also in different parts of India and all over the globe. Its rich and quality literature makes it a distinct language in the region and it was among the first languages to be recognised by the Indian constitution.

Granting the classical language status to Kashmiri is not an out of place idea. Following a demand from the literary and cultural circles of Kashmir to put pressure on the government of India to grant this status, the state government formed a 10-member panel headed by Taing. This was done after a resolution was unanimously passed in the State Legislative Council in 2011. However, the irony is that the committee is not part of the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, which according to its members was designated as the co-coordinating agency. This has resulted in a severe setback to its efforts. Taing is confident though, that he can buoy onwards the members to make a strong case for classical status.

The onus lies on the state government though, to not only first see that the panel gives its report in time but also to pursue it vigorously with the government of India. Out of the many hundred languages in India, only five languages – Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Sanskrit and Malayalam – have been granted this status. The way the political leadership in Kerala fought for this cause is quite exemplary. Both the ruling and opposition parties were united in forcing GOI to concede their demand and early this year the Union Cabinet granted classical status to the language. The initial grant for promotion of language in wake of the status would be Rs 100 crore, besides Chairs for the Malayalam language would be set up in various Central universities.

How far the state government will succeed in pursuing the case remains to be seen. As of now, the challenges at the internal level are also worth looking at. Notwithstanding the fact that a positive forward movement has been witnessed in giving a rightful place to the Kashmiri language, the bigger threat comes from within the society. At the governmental level, successive regimes have not been as disappointing as one would expect a government to be. The last one decade has seen the language being re-introduced in school curricula. With some shortcomings, the language is taught as a compulsory subject up to the 8th standard in both government and private educational institutions. Many organisations and sections of society have also kept up the demand for making it compulsory till Class 9 and 10. The government has also recently formed a committee to look into the issue. All promising moves. The language is also taught as an elective subject from Class 11 onwards. And it is reported that hundreds of students chose Kashmiri as a subject at the undergraduate and post-graduate level besides many pursuing Doctorates in the subject.

This is indeed a significant development, given the prevalent atmosphere which had unfortunately been adverse to Kashmiri. This was owing to the faulty education system that would push parents to force their children to learn other languages, keeping in view the competition that is thrown up in getting admission even at the nursery level. Not being against learning any other language, but to ignore the mother tongue does not behove any society – including that in Kashmir. Unfortunately the language has been a victim of politics since Kashmir has been mired in political uncertainty for many decades now. The Kashmiri language has also borne the brunt of the onslaught on political identity in the state. After the deposition of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as Prime Minister in August 1953 and his subsequent arrest, the language has been the target of conspiracies that followed the political upheaval in Kashmir. Soon it was thrown out of schools and it took another 47 years to get it re-introduced by Farooq Abdullah in 2000 when he was Chief Minister.

However, the reality is that by the side of the challenge to strive for a classical status to Kashmiri by GOI and its complete integration in the school curriculum, it is confronted with the “threat” within. Society at large, particularly the urban middle class has of late shown, if not contempt, an apathetic attitude towards the mother tongue. The reason is also the growing perception of English as an international language that guarantees a bright future for a new generation. It has been observed that languages die due to lack of pride in our heritage and a dwindling number of speakers.

In its first and comprehensive database on endangered languages in the world, released at its Paris headquarters in 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) stirred an alarm about this issue. According to its team of specialists, there are around 2,500 languages at risk, including more than 500 considered “critically endangered” and 199 which have fewer than 10 native speakers. It is surprising to note that Ecuador’s Andoa, a language spoken fluently by only 10 people, has been recently revived by its local people. So far they have collected around 150 words and are on the hunt for more. Another startling revelation suggests that more than a dozen languages around the world have only one mother tongue speaker left. While some will die soon, others are the focus of efforts by younger generations keen to revive their languages.

Fortunately, Kashmiri has a huge number of speakers. But the threat of native speakers abandoning the language must be taken into account. Which is why the fight to save it falls on the shoulders of the society, government and language activists.

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