A few days back Syed Ali Geelani sent out an ‘SOS’- a distress signal not to the United Nations or Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), imploring for preventing human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir or sending succor for victims of violence but asking his own people to rise against systematic killing of Urdu – the official language of the state.
His concern has been genuine. Even average person has started seeing a sinister design in publishing of forms for ration cards in English instead in Urdu by the Department of Consumers and Public Distribution Department. This department is one of very few departments were most of the official business is largely transacted in the state language- a language read and understood by overwhelming population across the state. Changing language of the form for ration cards from Urdu to English on the face of it seems to be an innocuous decision that might have been taken by a minister without understanding its political connotation and ramifications. Nevertheless, it makes on to doubt the intentions; the decision might have been taken on the orders of some senior bureaucrat who sees the official state language as an impediment in the way of total integration of the state. It might be intended to test the waters.
Geelani’s concern about future of Urdu language in the State cannot be denounced as rhetoric. There are sufficient indicators subscribing to the apprehensions that the state language is in peril in one of its major sanctuaries. For understanding why and how this language is in danger, there is need for looking at these questions in a historical perspective.
In the late tenth or early eleventh century, Persian language was introduced to the Sub-Continent. ‘From that period until change of the official language to English in nineteenth century, many Persian language centers sprang up in different parts of the sub-continent- Kashmir topped the list of these centers. By the time, Persian arrived in Kashmir, “the fountains of Sanskrit poetry had dried up” as Dr. G.L. Tiku has says it “in broader sense the period immediately preceding the contact with Persia was barren in literature.” Persian remained language of literature, religion and official language for over six hundred years, it so immensely influenced the Kashmiri literature in content and form that it came to be recognized as its sister literature of Persian.
Persian language remained official language of Jammu and Kashmir up to end of the Sikh Rule in 1846. The Dogra rulers, after taking over Kashmir adopted Urdu as the official language of the state. Urdu was not adopted only as the court language or as language for carrying out official business but was also introduced as medium of instructions in schools across of Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, over a period most of the official records including land and revenue records were translated into this language.
There can be no denying that Persian language enriched literary landscape of Kashmir, vastly contributed to the spread of Islam, and strengthening faith of people of the state but introduction of Urdu, as official language was a great blessing in as much as in binding together five different regions with diverse cultures and languages. In fact before introduction of Urdu language as official language there was no link language that could connect people in as distant places as Nobra and Zanskar with people in other parts of the state. This language in fact became the lingua franca- a strong bond of integration for this ethnically and linguistically diverse state.
Seeing the Urdu language as a cementing force the feudal rulers fought back all machinations of religious zealots. That for its Persian-Arabic script saw this as the language of Muslims. Literature published in this language played important role in making people of the state politically conscious. Ironically, the first conspiracy against this language was hatched immediately after the conversion of the Muslim Conference into the National Conference by a section of the National Conference leaders. Some leaders in the National Conference objected to writing proceedings of the party meetings in Urdu. Moreover, demanded changing the script of Urdu into Devnagari. Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas has written that four Kashmiri Pandit leaders out of five who were against Urdu were agents of Gopalaswami Ayangar then Prime Minister of Maharaja Hari Singh and were acting on his behalf within the National Conference. The difference over changing script of Urdu at the 1939 N.C. Working Committee meeting at Mirpur had caused division in the NC. Chaudhary Abbas had boycotted the meeting and revived the Muslim Conference.
After the end of the feudal rule and installation of Sheikh Abdullah as Prime Minister, some important members of the group donned themselves as ‘progressive’ and mounted pressure against retaining Urdu as official language of the state and denounced it as last legacy of the Dogra rulers. This time instead of projecting Urdu as language of the Muslim, they played chauvinistic card and demanded introduction of Kashmiri language in Devnagari script as official language of the state. Realizing the that Urdu was the link language that bound different ethnic groups and regions together the then government refused to buckle down under the pressure of a group supposedly professing “progressive” political ideology and recognized it as official language in the state constitution.
More out of compulsion than love for the language, Urdu was retained as official language after 1947, but unabated machinations against this language continued. True, some of the leaders within the ruling party were supporters of this language but clouds of uncertainty looming large on it since 1939 started getting darker after All India Services were introduced in the state in 1956.
Most of the members of these services had an aversion towards the official state language. For some of them, it was good an anathema as the state flag or Article 370 or the idea of the state subject. A brazen manifestation of conspiring against the state subject was launching of the Rajatarangi?i Housing Society in early eighties.
Having suffered total apathy from top echelons of power, the Urdu language now exists as official state language just in the State Constitution. In fact this language has now ceased to be even as language of munshis in thanas for writing ‘roz-namcha’ or ‘patwari’ making entries in the revenue records…I see no hope for survival of this language in given circumstances.