language policy in Kashmir

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 24 13:41:53 UTC 2005


 Take up the challenge and make English official

This language alone can level us up with the rest of the world, so why


The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been blessed or cursed, choose as you
wish, with a large number of ethnic groups each speaking its own language.
There are Kashmiris who speak the ancient Kashmiri language with a rich
literature spanning more than a millennium. Ladakhis speak a dialect of
Tibetan written in the Tibetan script whereas the people of Southern Jammu
speak Dogri - a dialect of Punjabi. Apart from these major languages there
are a large number of minor languages spoken mainly in the various hill
tracts and fastnesses, such as Gojri, Pahari (a dialect of Hindi), Shina,
Balti and various other Punjabi dialects. The presence of so many
linguistic communities makes Jammu and Kashmir a very colourful and
attractive place, especially from a tourist point of view. If you look at
the tourist guides on Kashmir dating from before the militancy youll find
J&Ks linguistic diversity clearly emphasised.

However, unlike the situation in other states, such as Maharashtra or the
Southern States, the official language of the State Government is Urdu.
Urdu was chosen as the official language by Maharaja Pratap Singh. This
decision was not based on the will of the people or on any democratic
consultation - it was the typical arbitrary edict of a Dogra despot. Most
people in Kashmir at that time could not read or write so the decision had
little effect on them. However, it did mean that their officials spoke to
them in Urdu, a language they could scarcely understand. There has always
been a tendency in Kashmir, and also in South Asia, on the part of rulers
to speak to their subjects in an alien language. Language has been
exploited as a tool for imposing elitism and exclusivity by South Asias
moguls, past and present. In the Ancient times the official language was
invariably Sanskrit - unintelligible to the vast majority of people who
spoke the various Prakrits. When the Muslim sultans took over they changed
the official tongue to Persian - a language even more alien than Sanskrit,
which no-one but a handful of theologians could understand. Persian
continued to be the official language in Kashmir until 1906 or thereabouts
when the Maharaja decided to replace it with Urdu. Urdu has remained the
official language ever since, remaining undisturbed by Sheikh Abdullahs
overthrow of the Maharajas regime.

The linguistic situation since independence has been in a constant state
of flux. The introduction of English in Kashmir and its growing popularity
has run in tandem with the steady decline in the fortunes of Urdu. English
was originally introduced by the Maharajas as the medium of instruction in
the higher institutions of education. It continued to grow in popularity
and was soon adopted by all sectors of public life. The government began
using it in administration and legislation. The High Court was already
using it even before 1947. The only sphere where Urdu continued to be used
was in state-run school education. The situation today is worlds apart
from that in 1947. English has now attained the status of a de facto
official language. Despite attempts by Urduwallahs and other obscurantists
to promote it in education, business and government the language has
receded more and more into the background, dying a slow death and destined
to be supplanted by English sometime in the future. So far as India is
considered Urdu is virtually a dead language - at best a language still
used for composing mawkish poetry (for which it is eminently suited). In
Kashmir the use of Urdu is confined to school education in the ramshackle,
zabar zachi schools of the valley. It is also used in many official
documents such as ration cards (when will we see an end to them?).
The government now uses English in most, if not all, of its documentation.
The commissioner-secretaries, deputy commissioners and other mandarins who
run the administration prefer English in their official paperwork and
communications. Legislation is invariably drafted in English. The
universities and higher colleges use English for all bachelors, masters
and doctors level courses (other than courses in the languages for obvious
reasons). All the major private schools - which perennially face a huge
scramble for places - employ English as the medium of instruction. No-one
in Kashmir wants their children educated in Urdu. Everyone wants them to
speak fluent English so that they can take part in the 21st century. All
the professions, without exception, use English. In the private sector the
only use of Urdu is found in the newspapers. This must be attributed to
the fact that many Kashmiris have not yet acquired a sufficient grasp of
English to enable them to read an English newspaper. Although nearly all
shops and outdoor advertisements are in English, even in the remotest
village, most ordinary Kashmiris are still able to read only Urdu - a
result of the governments disastrous language policy. However, even this
is fast changing: English is catching up in the mass media as the rising
circulations of the English dailies testify. It is not improbable that one
day all the Urdu dailies will lose their readership and find themselves
out of business.

The purpose of this article has not only been to paint a linguistic
picture of Kashmir. It is also to pose an important question: why has our
government failed to respond to the transformed tonguescape? Why doesnt
the government realise that its all up with Urdu and that it is time for
English to be recognised officially for what it already is? If the
government decrees English to be the official language it is not going to
make much difference to the administration or the courts - English is
already in use there. However, there is one sector where the callous
linguistic policy of the government is perpetrating an atrocity on the
people, and that is the schools. The state-run schools still continue to
use Urdu as the medium of instruction. This is in spite of the fact that a
students knowledge of Urdu leads them to nothing but a dead end in the
world of the professions. To become a good doctor, engineer or professor
one needs a good command of English. Why then are we forcing the poor
young students of our state-run schools to study in Urdu only to switch to
English after their 8th standard?

The rural poor cannot afford the luxuries of a private education for their
children, however much theyd like to. They too want their children to
learn English and succeed in decent professions and vocations. Even if
their children end up in menial occupations such as farming theyd still
like them to be able to speak English. They want their children to speak
with the pride and self-assurance that English inspires and not in the
obsequious, ingratiating manner which Urdus large supply of stale,
sycophantic addresses (e.g. jenab, huzur) habituates them to speak. This
perverse policy of forcing Kashmirs poor people to learn Urdu is
condemning them to a second-class status. It is saying: only the rich can
secure an English education for their children. The poor, on the other
hand, must be burdened with having to master Urdu, only to pick up a
smattering of English if they wish to pursue higher studies. Besides, it
is difficult to see the wisdom of an education policy that requires
teaching in one medium of instruction up to 8th standard and then switches
to another. If youre so concerned with Urdu then why not make it the
language of teaching all the way up to doctorate level? Any particular

Making English the medium of instruction in all government schools would
work a revolution in Kashmirs educational system. It would give our
youngsters the chance to excel in this world language, a language in
comparison to which Urdu is nothing. It would remove the unfair advantage
which students of private schools enjoy by their better knowledge of
English. It would also make accessible to the people of Kashmir the great
gems of literature in English - not only the titans of fiction like
Wordsworth, Shakespeare or Dickens but also the almost limitless ocean of
non-fiction books on philosophy, history or science. Therefore, I urge the
government to take up this important challenge, and follow the example of
the whole world which is busy embracing English. We seldom get to witness
any significant policy or programme being enacted by the government. This
is one ripe opportunity that has always been waiting in the wings: a
chance to show that the government cares about the people and their
children. The Mufti government - which has already taken the laudable step
of introducing English as a second language in state schools - would do
well to seize this chance.

Thursday, March 24, 2005
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