Why Recognising Indigenous Language Movements Is Crucial in Contemporary South Asia

On International Mother Language Day, a case for February 21 to be observed as Western Pahari Language Day in Himachal Pradesh.

International Mother Language Day is observed annually on February 21 as a way of promoting the awareness of linguistic diversity across the world. On the very same day in 2001, the father of the Western Pahari Language movement in Himachal Pradesh, professor and politician, Narain Chand Parashar, passed away.

In this article, we put forward the case for February 21 to be observed as the Western Pahari Language Day in Himachal Pradesh as a tribute to Professor Parashar and his tireless efforts to promote indigenous language recognition.

The importance of International Mother Language Day

Cultural and linguistic diversity is a feature of societies across the world. As a way of both acknowledging and celebrating this, February 21 was declared the International Mother Language Day in 2000 by UNESCO.

Since then the initiative has helped to increase awareness of linguistic issues across the globe. The day was chosen to commemorate those who had fought and lost their lives as part of the Bengali Language Movement (in present day Bangladesh).

The movement was initiated by Bengali activists who mobilised against the then government’s decision to declare Urdu as the lingua franca of the country. On February 21, 1952, there was a major protest against the decision, which led to a standoff between demonstrators and security personnel. This resulted in the death of a number of protesters, amongst whom were students from Dhaka University. The incident provoked widespread civil unrest in the country, and this, together with years of lobbying, led to the government granting official language status to Bengali in 1956. 

Also read: Census Data on Language Reveals a Surprise about Urdu

After Bangladesh was formed in 1971, February 21 was declared as the nation’s Language Movement Day in order to pay tribute to the above events. Following the initiative, UNESCO also adopted February 21 to acknowledge all language movements around the world. The UN General Assembly formally welcomed the proclamation of the International Mother Language Day in its resolution A/RES/56/262 of 2002. 

International Mother Language Day poster. Photo: UNESCO

Western Pahari: The mother language of Himachal Pradesh 

Western Pahari was classified as a language category by renowned linguist Sir George Abraham Grierson for languages spoken in what we refer to as the Western Pahari Belt, which includes parts of present day Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and the Galyat region of Pakistan. The language has numerous dialects, which were written mostly in the Tankri script before the 19th century. The script originated from Sharda and is regarded as one of South Asia’s oldest writing forms. However, in current times Devanagari, Nastaliq, Gurumukhi, Shahmukhi and Arabic alphabets are employed to write Western Pahari across the entire linguistic sphere. 

Close to a million people living in the United Kingdom also speak dialects of this Western Pahari, which is reported to be the second most spoken mother tongue in the UK after English. This has resulted in a number of international language initiatives including the Alami Pahari Adabi Sangat, established by renowned British Pahari writer, Councillor Adalat Ali; and scholarly studies on Pahari linguistics, such as the work produced by British academic Dr Farah Nazir. 

Furthermore, there has been a well-articulated movement for greater recognition of Pahari culture and language in Jammu and Kashmir – particularly within the twin districts of Rajouri and Poonch. Despite the historical significance of the language for the region, Pahari was removed from the list of official languages of J&K by the Modi government, after it was made into a Union Territory in August 2019. This is a devastating blow for the Pahari speaking people in J&K, who continue to lobby for the reinstatement of Pahari’s official language status

Also read: In J&K, Language Has Always Been a Political Tool for Polarising People

Focusing solely on Himachal Pradesh, dialects of the language branch are spoken within most areas of the province and according to the 2011 Census, the populations of nine out of the 12 districts reported their mother tongue as dialects of Western Pahari. These districts were Kangra, Chamba, Mandi, Hamirpur, Bilaspur, Kullu, Shimla, Sirmaur, Solan, which stated dialects such as Kangri Pahari, Chambeali, Mandeali, Bilaspuri, Kulvi, Mahasu Pahari and Sirmauri.

Language recognition and power

Despite the above, the language status of Western Pahari in the province demonstrates the bitter reality of its marginalisation by officialdom. Despite being a dominant spoken language, it is neither officially recognised under Schedule 8 of the Indian Constitution by the national government, nor has it been developed and promoted by successive provincial governments. At present, the first and second official languages of the province are Hindi and Sanskrit. This is despite the fact that until 1921 Western Pahari had its own language category in the Census of India.

However, as a result of power politics and competing territorial agendas in the neighbouring Punjab plains, Pahari was relegated in favour of Punjabi, which was imposed in areas that fell under the control of the Punjab States Agency remit – including parts of Himachal Pradesh. 

Furthermore, after independence from British rule and more so after the creation of the province in 1971, the Pahari language was side-lined once again to make way for the imposition of Hindi. This has culminated in a lack of what French theorist Bourdieu refers to as language capital, which can be applied in relation to the Western Pahari context. Language capital refers to the value a particular language is afforded within a society.

In the case of Pahari, because those who were in a position of power (often coming from outside of the region itself such as the aforementioned Punjabi State Agency) made decisions on how the Himachal population and their characteristics should be categorised, the language was demoted in favour of other official options. The consequences of this are far reaching. For example, in order to engage with bureaucratic structures, like law courts or local government offices, one must adopt the official language of those spaces. Local and indigenous languages are not only side lined as a result, but also downgraded and their speakers internalise lower status. In the case discussed in this article more specifically, this has led to a knowledge vacuum regarding the historical significance of Western Pahari for the people of Himachal Pradesh. 

Also read: Pushing Hindi as Politics, Not Hindi as Language

Narain Chand Parashar and his pursuit for Western Pahari recognition 

Although there have been many attempts to promote the language system throughout the period described above, it is the late Narain Chand Parashar in particular who stands out within the Western Pahari language movement. 

Narain Chand Parashar. Photo: Public domain.

As both a politician and linguist, he fought tirelessly for the recognition of Pahari in Himachal Pradesh. He was a three-time Lok Sabha MP representing the Indian National Congress and received the ‘Best Parliamentarian Award’ in 1987. Professor Parashar represented India several times in the United Nations General Assembly sessions during the 1980s and was also awarded honorary citizenship for New Jersey, USA. He became President of the Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee in 1990 after the party’s dismal performance in the elections that year.

After taking on the role over the course of the next few years, he revamped the structure of the party, which under his leadership, secured a landslide victory in the 1993 polls. Professor Parashar subsequently became the Education Minister, and during his office developed a new education model, which gained national and international acclaim, including praise from Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen. 

However, among his unsung accomplishments has been his pursuit of Western Pahari recognition – the focus of this article. 

As a linguist, his motivation for promoting Western Pahari as a language, was to reinforce Pahari cultural identity. This commenced when in 1966 the Dogri-Himachal Sanskriti Sangam was formed under the patronage of Dr Karan Singh, who carved out a pseudo Dogri-Pahari identity, which included parts of Himachal and Jammu. The Sangam came into formation after the merger of six societies from Jammu, Himachal and other parts of India, for the composite development of the Dogri language. 

The Sahitya Academy recognised the language in 1969 and soon after that a three day All India Dogri Writers Conference was held in Delhi between November 29 and December 1, 1970. During this conference, resolutions were passed calling for people from major parts of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu to record their mother tongue as Dogri in the 1971 Census and demand the inclusion of Dogri in the 8th schedule of the Constitution. Furthermore, proposals were put forward to introduce Dogri education in schools and to establish Dogri departments at Jammu University and Himachal Pradesh University. However, the above proposals were opposed by both politicians and linguists from Himachal Pradesh, in the same way that politicians and linguists from the Pir Panjal region of J&K have resented the fact that Dogri was given preference over Pahari. 

Also read | Language Policy: Education in English Must Not Be the Prerogative of Only the Elites

Narain Chand Parashar played a crucial role to counter what he believed was a Dogri hegemony and formed the Himachal Pahari Sahitya Sabha in response. A series of meetings with Pahari writers of Himachal Pradesh took place during 1970 and 1971 in Shimla and New Delhi, through which he strengthened his Pahari identity pitch amongst the academic community. During this period, he also played a crucial backstage role in the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly’s passing of a resolution in December 1970, which resulted in Pahari being recognised as a language in its own right with its own category, rather than being merged with Dogri. 

Professor Parashar authored several books in Pahari including the biography of the freedom fighter Baba Kanshi Ram.

Professor Parashar authored several books in Pahari including the biography of the freedom fighter Baba Kanshi Ram, who was known as the “Pahari Gandhi” and was an unsung figure who fought for independence from the British colonisers.

As a follower of Buddhism, Professor Parashar also translated several Buddhist texts including Dhammapada, Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra and the Lotus Sutra into Pahari. He founded and edited the first Western Pahari newspaper in India, a bi-monthly publication called Him Dhara. His tireless dedication to the promotion of his mother tongue culminated in the movement for the inclusion of Western Pahari as an official language of India in Schedule 8 of the Indian Constitution.

Unfortunately, due to his sudden demise at the age of 66, on February 21, 2001, the movement was weakened with no concrete continued effort for the recognition campaign. Though in 2007, the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly once again unanimously passed a resolution concerning the recognition of Pahari in the 8th schedule, there has been no subsequent progress to this affect. 

It is in recognition of the tremendous contributions made by Professor Parashar, both for speaking truth to power in order to protect this indigenous language branch in Himachal Pradesh, but also as inspiration for all language communities who face a similar challenge of recognition regardless of their context, that we draw attention to his efforts. 

Observing a Western Pahari Language Day on February 21

This article proposes rationale for marking February 21 as Western Pahari Language Day in Himachal Pradesh. It does so in the memory of Narain Chand Parashar, who died on the same day as the 2nd International Mother Language Day was being celebrated across the world. It is an important gesture for the people of the province to promote their culture and heritage, particularly at a time when aggressive Indian majoritarianism devalues the local experience

When, in 2019, the Modi government revealed plans to impose Hindi on Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, so that it would be compulsory for these non-Hindi speaking states to adopt the language, we were reminded of the efforts of individuals like Professor Parashar, for continuing to protect ethno-linguistic community rights. This remains just as paramount today as we stand in solidarity with the Pahari community of J&K whose language and identity were stripped of official status in one fell swoop by the BJP government in 2019. 

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It also reminds us of our common humanity, which supersedes borders and conflicts, by reconnecting us through shared linguistic heritage with people from across the Western Pahari Belt, including both sides of the divided Jammu and Kashmir and the Galyat region of Pakistan; as well as in the United Kingdom with its sizeable Western Pahari speaking diaspora.

Recognition of indigenous languages is of paramount importance in the current Indian context, where difference is devalued and any departure from the imposed status quo is met with an onslaught of oppressive voices. We ask that diversity be celebrated and heritage preserved as beacons in times of intense intolerance. 

Dr. Serena Hussain is a sociologist and human geographer. She is currently an Associate Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University (UK). Serena has worked as an expert consultant for a number of British government departments, with organisations such as Ipsos MORI and the BBC World Service. Her recent book, Society and Politics of Jammu and Kashmir, published by Palgrave McMillan was described as ‘one of the most meaningful endeavours towards moving the conversation forward’ by the High Representative to the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.

Vishal Sharma holds an LL.M. in Legal & Political Aspects of International Affairs from Cardiff University (UK). He is currently working under Dr. Serena Hussain as a Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University (UK).