The Government of India’s recent decision to introduce five official languages in Jammu and Kashmir — ending Urdu’s 131-year supremacy as the only official language of the erstwhile state — has stirred up a political hornet’s nest.
Major political parties, civil society coalitions, linguists and minority groups are upset for a variety of reasons.
Majority of Unionists in the restive region see the Centre’s latest decision as part of the alleged “cultural assault” to hit at the “Muslim character” of Jammu and Kashmir while leaders of the minority community are saddened over the exclusion of languages such as Punjabi, Pahari and Gojri from the new list.
On September 2, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Keshav Javadekar told reporters in New Delhi that the decision to introduce English, Urdu, Kashmiri, Hindi, and Dogri as official languages of Jammu and Kashmir was taken “on public demand”.
Naeem Akhtar, former chief spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government, is of the view that the introduction of four additional languages is “part of the package to de-Muslimize the state of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Speaking to The Federal, Akhtar voiced concern that “Our culture, identity, Muslim character is in the line of fire.” “Urdu is deeply rooted into our lives. Creating artificial competition for it is to dilute its importance so that people start distancing from it. All our religious resources, most of our literature and cultural corpus is packed in this language. Diluting it would mean taking the soul out of our body,” Akhtar said in an emotional tone.
It was during the reign of Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh, the third ruler of the Hindu Dogra dynasty, that Urdu was introduced as the court language replacing Persian. Until 1889, Persian was the court language. In the undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir, various ethnicities spoke Kashmiri, Pahari, Gojri, Ladakhi, Dogri, Balti and Punjabi as their mother tongues. Urdu was one language that bridged the gap and became the leading language and a means for inter-community communication.
After the Partition in 1947, Urdu continued as the official state language in divided Jammu and Kashmir. It is used in the courts, revenue records and police stations as the authorized representative language.
The Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) is also upset for a different reason. The region’s oldest political formation argued that the exclusion of languages such as Gojri, Pahari and Punjabi from J&K Official Languages Bill 2020 is downright “discriminatory”. The party said that the proposed bill was not only prejudiced but also unmindful of the region’s linguistic diversity.
“The measure (to exclude Gojri, Pahari and Punjabi) is discriminatory and hurtful towards the major linguistic groups of Jammu and Kashmir,” NC’s Treasurer Shammi Oberoi said. According to Oberoi, “The speakers of Gojri, Pahari, and Punjabi languages are numerous. If we go by the yardstick of strength of respective speakers of these languages, then these languages too should have been in the proposed bill. Unfortunately, the GOI has chosen contrarily to it sidelining all yardsticks including the strength of the respective speakers of these languages.”
The party said that these languages are not only rich but also an important part of the region’s linguistic landscape. In defence of Urdu, Oberoi asserted that “Urdu was the sole official language of Jammu and Kashmir for around 131 years. It had a harmonizing effect on account of its universal acceptance in all regions and by all major linguistic groups.” In his opinion, “the GoI has chosen to add few more languages while undermining the Gojri, Pahari, and Punjabi languages.”
The minority Sikh community in Jammu and Kashmir is defiant and not pleased by any stretch with the exclusion of the Punjabi language.
The All Party Sikh Coordination Committee (APSCC) led by its chairman Jagmohan Singh Raina took a dig at the New Delhi government over the exclusion of Punjabi from the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill. Raina described the move “anti-minority”.
In a hard-hitting statement, Jagmohan Raina said, “the Government of India has taken an extreme step that is bound to cause resentment among the minorities in Jammu and Kashmir. The move is anti-minority and it is natural that people would react sharply to the same.” he warned. He argued that Punjabi was a “part and parcel of the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir before the abrogation of Article 370 provisions and it was a recognised language duly certified by the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir.”
The APSCC statement said the move has “bruised the sentiments of the minorities, more so those belonging to the Sikh community.” The statement demanded inclusion of Punjabi language in the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill through an amendment.
Senior PDP leader and former cabinet minister Naeem Akhtar feared that the latest decision can trigger anarchy and heartburn at both administrative as well as social levels. “Anarchy, when every official and stakeholder is entitled to use one of the five languages of preference. At social level, it has already faced rough weather with Gojri, Pahari and Punjabi speaking sections,” Akhtar told the Federal.
Gojri, for instance, has found a mention in the Linguistic Survey of India of Grierson. Grierson had classified Gojri as a dialect of Rajasthan.
According to the 1971 Census, Gojri is spoken by 3,30,485 (a little over three lakh) speakers in Jammu and Kashmir. It has assumed the status of the third largest spoken language in the region after Kashmiri and Dogri. However, Gojri linguistic activists claim that this language is spoken by a wider group of people (close to a million).
Akhtar fears that the move is a recipe for disaster. “Is that potential friction and possible new fault lines deliberate or inadvertent fallout, if it happens, remains to be seen,” he said.
Jammu and Kashmir is a Muslim majority region. The Kashmir Valley comprises over 97 per cent Muslim population while the population of Sikhs in the entire region is a little over two per cent. In the plains of Jammu, Hindus are in majority while the valleys of Pir Panchal and Chenab have nearly 40 per cent Muslim population.
In Ladakh, Muslims of Kargil constitute about 54 per cent of the population and Buddhists form 46 per cent. In totality, the Muslims constitute 68% of the entire population, the Hindus about 29 per cent, the Sikhs 2 per cent, and the Buddhists about 1 per cent of the population of the former state.
As Jammu and Kashmir lost its semi-autonomy and statehood last year in August, the region was divided into two federally ruled territories. Immediately, it was feared that days of Urdu as the only official language were numbered.
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