War and occupation can be destructive in ways that go beyond the headlines, and one such way is how normally important issues can be ignored and pushed aside or just receive a fraction of the attention they should. In other words, one war can hide another one. This seems to be happening in the Indian part of Kashmir. While the mass arrests and physical and human rights abuses are, rightfully, front and center, what is being lost is how right-wing politicians and officials in India may use this crisis to marginalize within Indian Kashmir the Urdu language, important for numerous reasons to even non-native Urdu speakers. And indications are that this actually is the plan for those in power who are hostile to Urdu.
On August 5, 2019, the government of India by presidential order repealed Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, and, just like that, Indian Kashmir lost its autonomy. Hundred days have passed since the region entered an unprecedented state of restriction and curfew, with a total shutdown of the Internet. Schools are still closed and landline telephone connections and post-paid mobile phones were only restored just recently. Twenty-three European parliamentarians mostly from far-right political parties arrived in Kashmir on 29th October to observe the situation, but no Indian lawmakers from opposition parties were allowed to visit Kashmir.
With these unfortunate developments in the region, the question about Urdu as the official language in Kashmir has resurfaced. Everyone speaks Urdu as a second language. But what is troubling is that Urdu, the favored language of Muslims in Kashmir, is emerging as a language of resistance. Azaadi, the Urdu word for independence, has long been a treasured word in the minds of the people of Kashmir. It has reverberated loudly on many university campuses in India, particularly at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, but the word is labelled as “anti-Indian” by India’s far-right groups.
The Indian nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been in power for more than five years now, and in May, 2019, it won a second consecutive mandate. If Urdu has so far not been explicitly and intensely targeted by the central government, one may ask if such central government-initiated suppression is now the beginning in Kashmir. Urdu has, though, been the official language of Kashmir since 1889, thanks to the Hindu kingdom of Dogra.
The importance of Urdu in Indian Kashmir
Urdu does not resemble any of the roughly 30 other languages spoken in the Jammu and Kashmir region, but it found its place smoothly even with only 0.13% the population being native speakers (Census India 2011). It was, in fact, precisely its alienness to the region that allowed it to carve out its place.
Of Indian origin myself, I did not even understand during my childhood how Urdu could become the official language of this region, where Kashmiri is spoken by 6.5 million persons, followed by Dogri, which has 2.5 million speakers (Census India 2011). The answer is very simple: if these two local languages had been recognized as official languages, speakers of other linguistic communities would have felt betrayed and excluded. This also explains why Hindi, with over 322 million speakers (Census India 2011), has not so far been accepted as a national language in India.
Urdu is considered a lingua franca in the entire region of Indian Kashmir. In the oral form, it serves as a linking language between the Kashmir & Indian administrations, for which capacity it is modified into a slightly Hindi-influenced version understood by leaders in Delhi. It is spoken in various forms, not only by Muslims but also by high-caste Hindus and also Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and people from other religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Javaid Rahi, renowned scholar of Gujari in Kashmir, mentions in his book Tribal groups of Jammu and Kashmir and its languages (2015) that “many of Kashmir’s and Ladakh’s ethnic groups, like Gujjars, Balti, Dards, Beda, Mon, Gara, and Changpa, use the same Persian-Arabic script of Urdu to write their own languages.” Many words of Urdu have also been borrowed by these languages, making Urdu accessible and transcendental while also being inclusive, preserving much of indigenous cultures in the region.
Urdu enjoys particular prestige and status among both Muslims and Hindus in the Kashmir Valley. Muslim parents want their children to speak Urdu rather than Kashmiri, their mother tongue. Tellingly, the generation born after 1990 prefer to converse among themselves in Urdu to facilitate assimilation into India in terms of both education and employment, according to Mehdi Khawja, author of the article “How Kashmiris are resisting linguistic exclusion” in The Caravan.
The claim for the Kashmiri language
Members of the BJP and more extreme supporters of their agenda have recently claimed that Urdu should no longer be the official language of the region. In addition, they want the Kashmiri language to be stripped of the Persian-Arabic alphabet, which is also used for Urdu; rather, they want to revive the Sharada script, used in ancient religious writing dating back to the 8th century.
The Kashmiri language is perceived differently by Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus. Muslim Kashmiris generally have a poor image in the media and everyday life for them is relatively hard in Indian-administered Kashmir. The problem for Muslim Kashmiris is not the Kashmiri language per se. The problem is, rather, their religion, Islam; the main religion of Pakistan, the enemy and rival of India. “The Kashmiri language has become, for them, a marker of humiliation,” says a young student of Kashmiri origin in New Delhi. “With Urdu, close to Hindi, they can show their willingness to integrate into the Indian system,” says another young Kashmiri, an engineer looking for work in Rajasthan. His heavily Kashmiri-accented Hindi cost him his first job after just fifteen days. The switch to another language has become, in their eyes, a question of survival.
Hindu Kashmiris fled their homeland in 1989, under the pressure of terrorism and Muslim-instigated militants of the liberation movement. They, on the other hand, can claim the Kashmiri language with a lot of pride. Their loyalty to India cannot be doubted.
The time now is felt by some to be propitious to settle the language issue in Kashmir in order to align with ideas of forced integration, especially if one considers the remarks of a high-ranking Indian officer, reported by the Indian Express daily paper on September 4, 2019: he asserted specifically that “Hindi is the national language, so it would be an official language of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Urdu will also be given its due place.” In reality, there is no national language in India, though Hindi is the official language of the Union of India, but the comment of the officer implies that Urdu might lose its official status in Kashmir, perhaps in favour of Hindi.
This language crisis may seem insignificant in the face of the major geopolitical crises that are shaking the region. However, let us not forget that India has been, since its independence, a cradle of linguistic conflicts even while it is supposed to be an example the promise of a non-Western nation practicing multiparty democracy with an ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse population. The last is not indicated to be least: several States have been created on a linguistic basis and language-related riots and deaths have occurred repeatedly. For many, language is a matter of life and death, of economic and social identity and survival.
Considering all this, the removal of Urdu from the Kashmiri linguistic landscape is likely to provoke an uproar among its many Urdu speakers and other speakers of lesser known languages hoping to use Urdu as a way of advancement. This possible disaster could erupt while Kashmiris are already suffering deeply because of the overall situation there and recent drastic actions taken by the Indian government. Is it really an appropriate time to throw boiling oil on these deep wounds through a language debate whose risks are not sufficiently measured? The answer is no, and no decision on language should be taken lightly or without respect for the many views and many languages that have defined India since even before independence.
Finally, it must be recognized that, as Urdu is a force that brings people together across divides—including bridging the leaders in Delhi with the people living on the ground in Kashmir—and that any effort to push aside, minimize, or delegitimize Urdu will only lead to more unrest, strife, and violence in the very troubled region of Kashmir, increasing the terrorism risk and even war with Pakistan.
It is high time that Indian leaders, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his BJP associates rightfully recognize Urdu as the unifying factor it has been for centuries. Doing so could be an important step forward for defusing Kashmiri and regional tensions and even for advancing the cause of peace.
Shahzaman Haque is the Co-director of the Department of South Asia and Himalaya at INALCO in Paris. He can be joined at @shahzamanhaque