Love of Urdu in Times of Shrinking Diversity

A narrative from a partitioned borderland of Poonch.

Jagat Ram (as seen in the picture), my great-grandfather was displaced during the partition from his native village Kalote-Hajira (now across the LoC) in October 1947. Along with my grandfather, Lakhmi Chand, his only son, had to relocate to the present day town of Poonch, in Jammu and Kashmir on the Indian side.

Jagat Ram. Photo: author’s archives

The nature of the partition here was such that the erstwhile fiefdom of Poonch under the monarchy of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was bisected into two halves. The minority Hindu-Sikh population in the fief ran towards the town on the Indian side, while Muslims were pushed out of the township towards the other side across the LoC.

The present day town of Poonch-Haveli was probably one of the few city habitations of the fief that fell on the India side, with majority of the other parts of the fief today lying with Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) contested by India as a disputed territory.

Those were the times when belongingness in a religion suddenly became a threat for those who witnessed the carnage, or has it always been so, even in the post-partition times in India and in South Asia at large?

With religion and its shrinking diversity, what have we done to a language as plural as Urdu, a language that knew no barriers. It flowed like silk through its immaculate words, touching hearts of millions who identified with it, beyond this madness and absurdity of excluding people and communities by religion, language, food, attire.

To put it differently, what have we done to a world where language signified acceptance, coexistence, tolerance and richness?

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Jagat Ram, my great-grandfather was a sergeant based in Hajira one of the four tehsils of Poonch district on the other side of LoC into the contested territory of AJK, barely 20 kms from the Poonch headquarter Haveli on the India side. So the family, like the other 40,000 displaced persons, referred to as ‘refugees’ in the local parlance, moved from one part of the erstwhile Poonch fief into the other.

He donned a safah/headwear and neat collar rolled into a knot out of a silk cloth, typical of a decorative policeman (as seen in the picture). This is not an on-duty picture from his pre-partition life in Hajira. This is a picture from his initial years in Poonch on the Indian side years
that were tough on many such families who had to survive the food scarcity in a township that was suddenly converted into a camp, housing 40,000 refugees, with the first war between the two nation states of India and Pakistan being on, on all its fronts between October 1947 and January 1949.

The town and its neighbouring villages were under siege for more than one year that halted with the UN intervention and its declaration of ceasefire. The ceasefire line sealed the fate of the erstwhile united fief by dividing it into two parts. With the line being drawn, the rich
heritage of Poonch on both the sides was lost forever. People on both sides still live with horrendous memories that continue to haunt them. However, nothing much has changed today 70 years after the siege.

Both the borderlands of Poonch are under siege and live with violence every day: iss paar and uss paar. Perhaps they are under siege now, with the sound of the shells pounding in and out growing louder as I write this, somewhere deep in the middle of the night.

File photo of India Army soldiers at the Line of Control. Photo: PTI

Jagat Ram was indeed a decorated sergeant, as he was addressed in Hajira. Not only was he the most sought after sergeant in times of trouble in Hajira, but the police in Rawalakot, which is hardly 30 kms from Hajira, sought his help when needed.

One such anecdote from the pre-partition days passed down as memory in the family goes like this:

‘There once was a Pathan thief, whose notoriety had terrorised the people in the region. He would move like a thug, stealing goats and hens apart from other similar pilferage that he indulged in. Tired of his mischief, people wanted him arrested as soon as possible. The station house officer at Rawalakot personally asked his forces to get Sergeant Jagat Ram from Hajira appointed on this case immediately. Jagat Ram usually handled cases with one of his acquaintances. They both set out to finish the task, looking for the thief in every village day after the other. After a few failed attempts, they finally captured him. Jagat Ram handcuffed him, and just to be safe he attached the other end of the handcuff with his acquaintance’s leather belt. But the tales of horror unleashed by the thief were not famous without a reason. While crossing a bridge on Jhelum, the thief suddenly jumped into the strong waves, taking Jagat Ram’s acquaintance down with him. Both of them were saved after moving a few miles downstream in its heavy currents.’

Jagat Ram’s walking stick. Photo: Author’s archives

During the carnage in 1947, while running for life towards Poonch, Jagat Ram protected the kafila he and his family were a part of with his strongly cut out wooden sickles locally referred to as gupti and a walking stick that had a hidden weapon in it. His attire in the picture along with his walking stick (as seen in the picture) with a sharp lethal tip, speak volumes about how he left his land and house in Hajira with his most prized possessions: his weapons.

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Culture shock

Both my great-grandfather and grandfather were fluent in reading and writing Urdu the language of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir they belonged to as its state subjects. The language of majority of Poonchies (people of Poonch) was Pahari, a dialect of Pothowari group of languages as discussed in a recent article here.

But Jagat Ram, my great-grandfather had somehow picked up Punjabi, courtesy; his innumerable duty calls out of Hajira, with fiefdom of Poonch being a neighbour of undivided Punjab. My father recalls how my grandmother would ask my father to serve tea to him, and Jagat Ram would remark, ithe rakh de glass…main pi laanga…maa nu kahyin phulke hor na banayin… (Keep the glass here, I will take it in a while, please tell your mother not to cook more rotis, I am full).

He was the only Pahari-Poonchi refugee who would speak Punjabi without anyone to converse it with in return. My father, an erudite reader of Urdu, is an educationist whose life has been a gift of Urdu. Six students from the same graduate batch got appointed as teachers in 1986. My father was one among them.

Interestingly, all six of them were appointed without any higher degree but with one thing in common; they graduated with Urdu as a subject. A scheme launched by the education department recruiting Urdu-knowing persons exclusively came as a blessing for
them. The recruitment opened with a meagre 2% intake, accommodating all six of them, two Sikh boys among four Hindus.

My father retired last year in April 2019, and has been a fine educationist. His life as a teacher with innumerable postings around some of the most hostile border villages has been an inspirational archive I have often written about. His first posting was inter-tehsil, and he
was appointed in a notorious border village of Balnoi, Balakote, Mehndhar. The world often reads about the unfortunate news of heavy ceasefire violation and casualty in this sector.

Stories from his two-year tenure here are filled with tales of plurality, communal harmony and peace amidst a conflict zone, given how the minority Hindu-Sikh paharis constitute hardly 7% of the population. The fraternity and brotherhood of this multi-religious ethnic-group is exemplary.

He has been teaching in Urdu medium for a long part of his career. Recently, he visited a local bania’s shop for groceries. The shop is an old and famous one with several boys employed as helpers. The customer provides them with a glossary of items written on a piece of paper. It was another routine purchase for my father that day, and the boy who took paper out of my father’s hand, said, “Uncle, yeh Urdu main hai, Hindi main likh kar lao… (This list is in Urdu…come back with the one in Hindi).”

My Dad calmly approached the owner of the shop sitting behind his desk and added, “Shahji, Urdu state language abhi bhi hai, aur apki dukaan shehar ki mashur bania ki dukan hai, paanch ladkon main se ek toh rakhlo joh urdu padh sake, business strategy sahi nahin hai
aapki… (Yours is a famous grocery store in a town where the state language is still Urdu, please employ one of your five boys who can read Urdu, how else are you going to run a business if customers who come to you with glossaries written in Urdu had to return.)”

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Disappointed, he did not purchase groceries that day, but he was more shaken when he realised that Shahji won’t employ a boy who can read and write Urdu, because more than language it is the religious identities that have hijacked the whole narrative. Being a Hindu, this must have confused him about his own plural identity. The dawn of this social reality on someone like him who had earned his bread and butter because of Urdu must have been shocking.

His father Lakhmi Chand could only read and write in Urdu and speak in Pahari dialect, his great-grandfather Sergeant Jagat Ram could read and write only in Urdu, but spoke in Punjabi, being a Pahari. He could not buy groceries anymore with an Urdu glossary.

What have we done to Urdu and the essence of language as a binding force in general? With divided lands we have divided so much that once was our collective heritage and pride. Irony, however, is we are not willing to stop here yet!

Malvika Sharma is a senior Ph.D. research fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The narratives shared here are a part of her ongoing work. She works in the field of borderland studies.