Culture

Kashmiri: Let Not Religion Divide What Language Unites

A tragic consequence of the coerced Kashmiri Pandit exodus of 1990 has been the conscious communalisation of a common language.

These thoughts are occasioned by the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s decision to withdraw Kashmiri language translations from its language-promoting portal, Bhasha Sangam.

This in response to objections received from some Kashmiri Pandits that the translations contained lexical items that bespoke a sectarian, Muslim use of the language, ignoring Kashmiri-Hindu variations thereof.

At first thought, this is an instance of how community self-perceptions undergo radical change when extraordinary ruptures happen in history – in this case, of the kind that shook the Valley on January 19, 1990.

In normal times, arguably, the one element of culture that binds human societies into homogenous communities is a shared spoken language. This dominant element remains in place un-self-consciously, transcending other elements of culture that may from time to time foreground contradictions of a less coalescing nature.

When in Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, the King banishes the Duke of Norfolk from England, the latter, in a heart-wrenching peroration, conceives his exile as primarily and most unbearably as exile from his native English tongue.

We are often reminded by custodians of Islam that the faith does not recognise nations as much as it does an Ummah. And yet, there exist some 22 Muslim-majority states in the world that do not always see eye to eye, not just realpolitik but cultural terms dictate that separation among them as nation-states because their several civilisations are dominantly predicated on differing languages and cultural artefacts and productions through discrete histories.

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The Arabs and the Iranians may well be all Muslims, but they are Persians and Arabic users first. Think that a shared faith could not prevent the dismemberment of Pakistan as the western Punjabi-dominated power structure sought to impose Urdu on the eastern Bengali wing. The argument that Bengali was an “un-Islamic” language did not find takers among the vast majority of the Bengalis, and a new nation was consequently born.

Even among Christians, the decisive determinant of identity as between Western denominations and the Russian – note “Russian” – Orthodox Church remains an ethnicity rooted in local language and culture thereof.

Closer home, think that in a state like Assam a shared Hindu faith as between Assamese and Bengali Hindus has remained secondary to the desire for a dominant shared language. Or that northern parts of India remain disjuncted from many parts of the south, religious homogeneity notwithstanding, owing to the resolute divide along Aryan and Dravidian cultures expressed in decisive linguistic pride.

Indeed, it is conceivable that had not Indian provinces after independence been reorganised along linguistic principles of identity, the Union may not have had a long life. Or, note the many trans-state boundaries even today where strong emotions are in play on the allegiance to linguistic affiliation; the Maharashtra-Karnataka border is one such living example. It is not for nothing that Navjot Singh Siddhu could say that he felt more at home among the Punjabis in Pakistan than he does among people in our own Tamil Nadu, the “nationalist” argument notwithstanding.

Or imagine finding yourself in a “foreign” land where nobody speaks your language; and then finding that one person who does. Instantly, that ineffable feeling of being at “home” suffuses one’s subjectivity.

None of this account is meant to suggest that other determinants of culture, such as religion, caste and class, do not from time to time overwhelm that linguistic sense of belonging. But it is to say that, all said and done, for example, an ‘upper’-caste subject and a ‘lower’-caste one, or a rich and poor one, or a man or woman, or a Muslim or Hindu Punjabi, or Tamilian, or Bengali, or Maharastrian etc., would in ordinary course always rather be located in their own linguistic environs than in other places where modern forms of necessity or mobility may oblige them to reside. This is why linguistic ghettos tend to form in “alien” towns and cities, like it or not.

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This ought to underscore the unique nature of value that Kashmir has through history, regardless of often brutal upheavals, symbolised for sub-continental life. Before all else, that thing we call Kashmiriyat, has been a conglomerate of cultural values issuing from a shared language between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims. This remains the reason why, in “normal”times, Kashmiri Muslims have been more intimate with Pandits than with non-Kashmiri speaking Muslims in the Jammu Province, and why Kashmiri Pandits have never been anything but ill at ease among Punjabi and Dogra Hindus in Jammu Province.

It is of course a fact that the lexical variations that Pandits have recently pointed to exist in Kashmiri language-use. Yes, Muslims say salam alikum to other Muslims and Pandits say namaskar to other Pandits; or that Muslims accost others as haz and Pandits accost other Pandits as mahara. Or that Pandits call tomatoes tamater, and Muslims call the same ruwangun, or that Pandits call water poen, and Muslims aab. Or that traditionally, Pandit cooking does not use onions or garlic, or that Muslims wear salwar and Pandits pyjamas under their pheran. But what should be of purpose is that forms of address, as Majrooh Rashid of the Department of Kashmiri at Kashmir University has said, have always been naturally fluid and unnoticeable in common use and interaction among the two communities, and never “pointed to” as issues.

For example, tonal inflections of spoken Kashmiri among Pandits and Muslims have always been distinct as well; and yet, none of these things have been any different as endogenous cultural variations than the spoken variants of, for example, different English-speaking people in Britain and Scotland, and Wales and Ireland, speaking the same language; or indeed, within Britain itself, those from Yorkshire and Southampton etc.

The very poignant fact is that those Kashmiri Pandits who are now above 40 years of age and seen routinely on television pining to return to the Valley do not wish to do so only to visit the temples; it is first and foremost to return to a demography in which their own language has pride of place, and which alone, form day to day, can bring back to them those lost but natural rhythms of intimacy which we call home. It is also the reason why young Kashmiris Pandits who do not have Kashmiri language knowledge or use any more do not feel the same quality of traction towards the Valley, and why in their case religious identity has come to be the stronger determinant of cultural identity.

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Conversely, that new generation of Kashmiri Muslims who have never really known that older world in which the two communities coexisted, likewise feel drawn more to a new Islamised identity than to a composite Kashmiri one. Or, reason why they have come to conflate the two – Kashmiri/Kashmiriyat and Islam.

The regrettable fact is that the tragic consequence of the coerced Pandit exodus of 1990 has been a conscious communalisation of a common language. All those details that were elements of an inflected but seamless phenomenon now tend to be seen as elements of different languages. The fact is that even now, an elderly Pandit visiting the Valley finds from elderly Muslims welcome in the same pool of culture that had always been a guarantee of non-sectarian inter-faith living.

As to the issue at hand: when Kashmiri translations come to be formally inscribed among scholarly documents, it is not only desirable but incumbent that, if not elaborate etymologies of variations – for example some from Sanskrit, others form Persian, etc. – but the variations themselves should find place in the record. That the head of the Kashmiri department, Rashid, has readily acknowledged this ought to put the matter to rest.

With an all-important caveat: there is some mention on in the HRD ministry’s response to the occurrence of referring the issue to experts in order to find the “correct” forms of translation. This too could tantamount to an insidious monochromatic agenda. Languages, as Rashid has indicated, do not fall from heaven; they change and evolve through the exigencies of history. And most of all, not through correct grammatical or lexical forms but usage as an aspect of the dynamics of the productive and inter-active exertions of human communities.

Languages therefore do not have “correct” forms as much as meaningful and multiple valencies – all of equal value to social and linguistic scholars, as indeed to the actual users and consumers. Instead of, therefore, looking for “correct” forms, for example in the case in point, the project ought to be inclusive rather than prescriptive. Those who still hope that the Pandit and Muslim Kashmiris may yet find a lost unity of living must especially ensure that these formal divergencies in Kashmiri language use are respected as creative and historically sentient pluralist practices, so that no one community is bestowed the false honour of being the true custodian of “correct” Kashmiri.

Nor should it be required that a Lalleshwari (Lalla Arifa, Lal Ded, variously) be read in the Sharda script and a Rusul Mir in Nastaleeq. The one does not make of Lalleshwari a Sanskrit poet, or the other Rasul Mir a Persian one. In either script they speak to us in Kashmiri as Kashmiri poets,

Badri Raina taught English literature at Delhi University.

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