Prof Shad Ramzan teaches cultural history of Kashmir, Sufi poetry and folk literature at Kashmiri Department, Kashmir University. In a detailed conversation with Aasif Sultan, Prof Shad talks of the issues facing Kashmiri language and tells us why he is optimistic about its survival
Q Everybody talks about promoting our mother tongue, but the ground situation gives a dismal picture. What is your assessment of the current status of Kashmiri?
I have always been optimistic regarding the survival of Kashmiri language. There are a number of reasons for this. During Sanskrit period, which spanned over thousand years, Sanskrit language was visible in all three forms: state language, literary language and language of instruction. So much so that Kalhana recorded that during the Sanskrit period even Kashmiri cooks would understand pure Sanskrit. That is to say that they knew the language very well. In spite of it, Kashmiri language survived. Then came the Mughal period and Persian became the state language, literary language and the language of instruction, yet Kashmiri survived. We have a Kashmiri saying: Mogul deeshith gachi Farsi foeren (When you see a Mughal, you should dare to speak Persian). During Mughal period, two Persian-knowing Kashmiris would converse in Persian but would immediately stop conversing if they saw a Mughal. Kashmiri language is going to survive as it survived throughout the ages. There are educated people who converse in their mother tongue and teach their children the same. But there are many others who have developed an inferiority complex towards their mother tongue and converse in Urdu or English.
Q Can you identify some of the issues that come in the way of promoting Kashmiri?
We must realise that Shams Faqir or Wahab Khar or other poets didn’t keep Kashmiri alive. It was kept alive by common people. No language survives by poetry or literature alone. A language is the collective property of a nation.
There were attempts made at government level to hinder the promotion of Kashmiri language. By government, I mean central government. Because they know that if you have to kill a nation, kill their language. I have been Head of the Kashmiri Department for six years and I know all these things.
If you see, in near past, Kashmiri was the language of instruction in the Valley. Everything was in Kashmiri: Maths, history, science, etc. So, as the political landscape changed, the first casualty was the language.
The other hindrance is that over a period of time, Kashmiris have developed an inferiority complex towards their mother tongue. The reason is the slavery of more than 400 years.
First came the Mughals, then Sikhs, then Pathans and then later on Dogras. We have undergone Raze gaz te paend. (A Kashmiri proverb which means that a Kashmiri was first tightened with a rope, his mouth was then stuffed with weeds and then he was beaten).
This has happened throughout the ages and continues till date.
There were attempts made at government level to hinder the promotion of Kashmiri language. By government, I mean central government.
Q How to get rid of this inferiority complex?
The problem lies with us. We know Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi who is called Mujaddid Alf Saani, (reviver of the second millennium), but we don’t know Sheikh Yaqoob Sarfi who was his master. The problem is we have detached ourselves from our literary giants.
We have produced a philosopher in the person of Sheikh-ul-Alam. Consider his one saying: Bakhtas boud chu khadmatgaar (Intellect is subservient to fate). You don’t stop praising Kahlil Gibran, while you neglect your own scholars.
Q How far is our English-based medium of institutional instruction responsible for the current condition of Kashmiri?
Frankly speaking, in our age and time, we can’t survive without learning English. It has transcended boundaries and has undoubtedly become the global language. It is also the language of science and technology. What we can do is that we become bilinguals by learning Kashmiri as well as English. We don’t have any alternative to English language.
Q Kashmiri is being taught in some schools here. Do you think that has or can make a positive difference?
Yes, indeed it is making a positive difference. But unless and until you link faith with your mother tongue, you tend to neglect it. What I mean is we must translate important religious books in Kashimiri and teach our children the same.
Our ancestors would listen to the poetry of Shams Faqir to imbibe spirituality from it. But now no one feels the same. The reason is that we have detached ourselves from it. We read Sheikh-ul-Alam only when he has utilized Qur’anic teachings in his poetry.
Q Won’t this thing give Kashmiri language a religious colour? It is not the language of Muslims only, is it?
What I mean is that Muslims must attach to it through Islam and Pandits through their own religion. Why Pandits love Kashmiri language is due to their scriptures being translated in it. We have Ramayana, Mahabharata in Kashmiri and our Pandit brethren attached their feelings towards the language due to that.
In our history, you would find Muslim poets eulogising Shivaism. Pandits consider Kashmiri as Devi’s language and as such they revered it and are still loving it.
Q We also have had problems with settling for a script for Kashmiri as several ones have been in vogue. Has that problem been sorted out?
Kashmiri language has only one script and that is Perso-Arabic script. Those who want to change it to Devanagari script fail to understand that it will murder the language. I want to ask them what shall we do with centuries-old rich Kashmiri literature when you invalidate that script? That will become null and void. Kashmiri will face the same fate as that of Sanskrit. In our library here at Kashmir University we have more than ten thousand rare Sanskrit manuscripts, but nobody knows how to read the old script.
The government had proposed to change the script during the first tenure of Mufti Sayeed as Chief Minister but we protested against the proposal. I had even said that time that I would give up the department’s headship but won’t accept any change in the script.
Of late, the proposal was again brought to the fore when Smriti Irani was HRD Minister, but again the move met stiff resistance.
I have no problem if our Pandit brothers at their personal level want to teach their children Kashmiri through Devanagari script, but we won’t allow it to happen at government level.
Q Every new generation in Kashmir seems to know less and less of Kashmiri and interest in the language is also diminishing. How would this scenario affect our language in the long run?
There will definitely be an impact on the growth of the language. The modern age has changed the rules altogether. The internet, social media and other things have direct impact on all languages. We text in English and if at all we text in Kashmiri on our computers or mobile phones, we use Roman script.
We need to inculcate the habit of conversing with each other in our mother tongue.
The government has taken an initiative and has made the language compulsory upto 8th standard, but Kashmiris must take a collective initiative to inculcate the love of their mother tongue in the younger generation. Only this can help its growth.
Q We seem to have a class-based social problem towards the way we treat our language. The well-off in our society insulate their children from the language right from birth. Kashmiri is seen as the language that lacks status value and is treated as a language of the lower rung of the society. Why this discrimination?
This has nothing to do with any class. An educated person belonging to any class will love his mother tongue. Most of the times we see lower-middle class forcing themselves to speak Urdu so as to stand-out from the crowd. This has nothing to do with elite culture. Looking down at your own culture and language is due to the slave mentality of Kashmiris which is continuing to this day.
Q How does such discriminatory approach towards language affect its growth in our context?
It affects its growth by restricting it to the masses and not making it a literary language. But still, the language will survive. What is required for the survival of a language is to make it a literary language.
Q How has the introduction of new technology and intermingling with other cultures affected the growth of Kashmiri language?
Cultures have intermingled throughout the ages and languages have evolved by many such interminglings. The language must absorb foreign words to survive and remain relevant. For example, the pure Kashmiri word for Sun is Rao. But hardly any Kashmiri will understand this word today. The reason is that when Mughal period came, we called sun Aftab. But despite that, we have in our proverbs the word Rao.
Similarly, as technology introduces new inventions, you have to use it in your mother tongue and there is no escape from it. For example, you have to call TV a TV even in Kashmiri language. If you try to resist it by calling it with a different name, you will create hurdles for younger generation to adopt the language. This happened with Hindi language when its speakers tried to translate all foreign words into Hindi. But the closeness one feels when using words of your mother tongue rather than foreign words is paramount. For example, we would call our brother’s wife as Kakedaed and not Bhabi. There is no attachment with the word Bhabi but the word Kakedaed has great attachment.
Sometimes we used two words simultaneously to end this dilemma. We retained our own word and also accepted the foreign word. For example, Tout-naar (hot fire), Kruhun-siyah (pitch black). In the first example, touth is a Kashmiri word while naar is a Persian. We too must develop such a mechanism of linguistic expansion in our age.
Q Language grows when varied and rich literature is produced in the language. We don’t produce much literature by way of prose, stories, novels, poetry, etc. What are the reasons for this drought we see in our literary output?
There are a number of reasons for this drought. The respect and reverence that our society gave to poets of the past like Shams Faqir and Wahab Khar is no longer there.
The other reason is the misuse and overuse of modern technology. This has resulted in restricting the imagination of our younger generation, with the result there is no production of quality literature.
The other important reason is that poets of the past, like Shams Faqir and Wahab Khar, would always engage with the unseen: their beloved (Mehboob). In Muslim poetry, the beloved was Allah and his Prophet (SAW). To get a glimpse of the beloved, the poet’s imagination would touch heights to translate it into human language. This unending search of that beloved would make poets creative. But today the beloved is someone else. And it is in your mobile, you want to talk to her, call her. Want to see her, video chat with her. With technology, you can access your beloved anytime or even meet her in person anywhere anytime.That longing for the beloved ended and thus ended the creative sense of poetry.
The talent of our young generation has been corrupted by this misuse and overuse of modern gadgets. Unless and until one longs for the beloved, no quality literature can be produced.
Q The Kashmiri department you have headed could have taken the lead in producing quality literature in Kashmiri. But except for some books here and there, Kashmiri department doesn’t produce much literature.
We produce 72 graduates and two dozen scholars every year. We produce literature as well.
Q We also don’t have workshops, book reading sessions in Kashmiri and similar activities that can promote the language particularly among youth. Why hasn’t your department taken such an initiative?
Kashmiri department does record number of workshops. We have a literary sessions every week. We have published not less than 100 books.
During literary sessions, we ask students to read their works to the audience, who belong to different sections of the society. We do critical analysis of their work and this helps in their literary growth.
Our department has published a translated version of Plato’s Republic. May be we haven’t promoted our publications and other activities as other departments did. I would also say that the media is not focusing on positive aspects of the society. That is also a reason why such positive things get drowned in a sea of negative events.
Q We don’t see a high-level research being done on various themes in Kashmiri. Most research studies are done to get a PhD degree for getting a job rather than producing quality knowledge about the language. Surely your department and Kashmir University must take some of the blame for this?
Degree is a licence to talk about a subject. If the scholars put their heart and soul into their research, it will bear its fruit for a long time.
Scholars produced by the Kashmiri department in early ‘80s were par excellence but that is not the case now. Who is responsible for non-production of quality scholars? I would like people to answer it. May be the present teachers, including myself, here in the department are not that efficient as were our predecessors. It may be one of the reasons.
The other reason is lack of freedom of expression in our institutions. That has resulted in non-production of quality literature. We know that there are so many agencies working in Kashmir and if I say or write something that will annoy any one of them, I may land in trouble. So the writers self-sensor their creative imagination in view of these dangers and curtailments.
Q We have the JK Academy of Art, Culture and Language. Its current performance in promoting the language is dismal.
Cultural Academy has played a vital role for the uplift of Kashmiri language, especially during the period of Muhammad Yusuf Taing.
Q We have a rich literary tradition stretching back to 800 years to the days of Lal Ded and Sheikh-ul-Alam But the future looks bleak with no writer of significance insight. Would you agree with this assessment?
Who knew Einstein will come after Newton. It’s not to agree or disagree with the assessment, the thing is that in creative attitude, the present generation is lagging far behind the poets that you enumerated. That is true.
Q Again the today’s generation knows next to nothing about the great poets and writers we have produced. Is it because they have no access to this literature or we are not able to inculcate interest in them or they don’t care for this?
The blame lies with the older generation. They have not inculcated in the younger generation the love and veneration for their own poets. You guide them to Kahlil Gibran but forget your own Sheikh-ul-Alam. The blame squarely falls on us. We teach our children Twinkle twinkle little star and not Bishti bishti byario khotkho wan.
Q At one time, Radio Kashmir and to some extent Srinagar Doordarshan were seen as institutions of Kashmiri language and its promotion. But that is not so anymore. How much can media help in promoting Kashmiri and production of quality material in the language?
Media can make and break anything, and language is no exception. First of all Radio Kashmir is for Kashmiris. It is not Radio J&K. Therefore, at least 80% of production must be in Kashmiri language. I have always suggested to Radio Kashmir that between 7 am to 9 am, all programmes should be in Kashmiri language. Radio and other media can play an important role in promoting Kashmiri language.
Q Lastly, what are the top things you would suggest so that Kashmiri grows as a language and literary medium?
The government should make a sincere effort of making Kashmiri compulsory language for 9th and 10th grade also. Special quotas need to be kept for Kashmiri language students. When Tamil Naidu can do it why not Kashmir?
What we see is that teachers having no knowledge of Kashmiri language and literature are employed to teach the language in various Valley schools. This practice must stop. The government should employ at least 2000 Kashmiri language graduates for teaching Kashmiri. This will help in promoting the language. Last but not the least, the older generation must act as a positive link between the younger generation and rich Kashmiri literature of our ancestors.