On the agenda of the ongoing monsoon session in Parliament is a bill to introduce Hindi, Kashmiri and Dogri as official languages in Jammu and Kashmir, in addition to English and Urdu. “This has been done based on demand by the people,” Prakash Javadekar, Information and Broadcasting minister, told reporters in Delhi on September 2.

But the move has opened old and new faultlines in the region. Communities that speak Gojri, Pahadi and Punjabi are protesting against their exclusion. Both Gojri and Pahadi were recognised as regional languages in the erstwhile state, which was stripped of its special status in August 2019, and split into two union territories.

In the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, the inclusion of Hindi has renewed fears that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is pursuing an agenda of demographic change through its policies.

“Whose language is Hindi in Jammu and Kashmir?” asked Zubair Nazeer, a scholar who has extensively studied tribal communities in the region. “Historically and culturally, Hindi is not the language of any community in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, a leader of the Pahadi-speaking community and a former member of the Peoples Democratic Party, said the decision did not reflect conventional votebank politics. “If they [the BJP] wanted to appease ethnic minorities in Jammu and Kashmir, then they have made a mistake because neither Gujjars, Pahadis nor Punjabis are happy with it,” he said.

He added that the decision appeared to be part of a larger plan to erase Urdu from the erstwhile state. While the inclusion of Kashmiri and Dogri was symbolic, he said the introduction of Hindi showed “a design and seriousness”.

The Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill, 2020, is the first move of the Modi government to reshape the linguistic landscape of the union territory.

Under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, the power to adopt any number of official languages lies with the legislative assembly of the union territory. But since the union territory has been under President’s rule since October 31, 2019, the powers of the legislative assembly have been assumed by Parliament.

Losing regional language status

The first to protest against the official languages bill were the tribal Gujjar and Bakerwal communities that speak Gojri.

“Gojri is the second largest language to be spoken across Jammu and Kashmir,” claimed Chowdhary Zulfkar Ali, former minister of tribal affairs in the short-lived coalition government of Bharatiya Janata Party and Peoples Democratic Party that was in power till 2018.

There is no official data to support Ali’s claim. But the 2011 census data confirms Gujjar and Bakerwal communities form a sizeable chunk of the erstwhile state’s population at 8.72% – a population share that would be higher now, given that Ladakh, which was part of the erstwhile state, has become a separate union territory.

Another group that was quick to protest were the Pahadi-speaking people who live in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir. A government survey in 2018 found more than 10 lakh Pahadi speakers in the erstwhile state. They have been asking for tribal status.

The third linguistic group that joined the protests were Punjabi-speakers. Most of them belong to the Sikh community, which forms 1.87% of the population of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, according to the 2011 census.

“Exclusion of Punjabi language as an official language is an exclusion of Sikh community of union territory of Jammu and Kashmir,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, chairman, All Parties Sikh Coordination Committee.

“Punjabi has been one of the vital official languages of the state for the last two centuries,” he added, alluding to the history of Sikh rule in the region.

All three languages – Gojri, Pahadi, Punjabi – were part of Sixth Schedule of the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution, which recognised eight regional languages of the erstwhile state, including Kashmiri and Dogri. The Constitution was abolished on August 5, 2019, as part of the dismantling of the state’s special status.

With the bill elevating Kashmiri and Dogri from regional languages to official language status, the communities that speak Gojri, Pahadi and Punjabi argue they should get similar recognition.

Ali said tribal communities were not against the inclusion of other languages, but pointed out that Dogri was spoken in a much smaller area compared to Gojri.

“They have given status to a language which is spoken in only three districts of Jammu and Kashmir and that too, partially,” he said. “When you resort to this pick and choose basis to recognise languages, people will be sentimental about it.”

A Kashmiri man reads an Urdu newspaper to a friend in Srinagar. Photo: AFP/ Tauseef Mustafa

Marginalising Urdu

In Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, the official languages bill has triggered a different kind of anxiety. Even though Kashmiri has been designated as an official language, many fear the government’s real aim is to marginalise Urdu, which it sees as the language of Muslims.

“Gojri and Pahari speaking people are deeply resentful over the non-inclusion of these languages but at the same time, if you ask Kashmiris, Gojris and Paharis across Jammu and Kashmir, majority of them see it as a conspiracy against Urdu,” said Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, the leader who belongs to the Pahadi community, lives in Shopian district in Kashmir, and has served as a member of the legislative council in the past.

He pointed out that this year, for the first time ever, Jammu and Kashmir’s budget was not translated into Urdu.

When Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh declared Urdu as the official language of Jammu and Kashmir in 1889, it replaced Persian as the court language which had been in vogue for at least three centuries. Persian had been introduced in Jammu and Kashmir during the reign of Shahmiri rulers in the 15th century. Pratap Singh’s father had attempted to introduce Dogri as the language of his court, but failed. The subsequent decision to replace Persian with Urdu reflected the growing influence of the British in the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir. They had already replaced Persian in many parts of mainland India.

In Jammu and Kashmir, Urdu came to streamline communication in a widely diverse state. Its status as an official language continued under Jammu and Kashmir constitution which was adopted in 1956. It remained the language of revenue records, police proceedings, lower judiciary and lower rungs of bureaucracy – even the medium of instruction in government schools of Muslim-majority districts. But English edged out Urdu at the top rungs of bureaucracy.

“When we used to send something in Urdu to IAS officers from outside the state, they couldn’t read it, so they relied on English,” recalled Manhas, who also served as a secretary and vice-president of Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages. “Now, when they will write files in Hindi, who will stop them now? The problem will be for us.”

“We are not southern states who can resist the imposition of Hindi,” he added. “They [BJP supporters] can’t call them anti-nationals and traitors.”

Promoting Hindi

The inclusion of Hindi among the official languages of Jammu and Kashmir has left many puzzled. The Jammu and Kashmir Constitution did not recognise it as a regional language. Many point out it is not native to any major community in the union territory.

“You don’t find any Hindi-speaking people in Kashmir valley,” said Chowdhary Zulfkar Ali, the former PDP minister who is now a member of the newly formed Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party. “Same is the case with Rajouri and Poonch districts in Pir Panjal and Chenab valley districts in Jammu region.”

Zubair Nazeer, the scholar who studies tribal communities, said: “When you are trying to promote Hindi even in Jammu you are actually imposing Hindi on them as well because their mother tongue is Dogri.”

The politics of language aside, Nazeer pointed out the sheer impracticality of having five official languages in Jammu and Kashmir. “Does it mean the officials of the J&K administration have to learn all these five languages?”

Manhas was equally scathing about the logic of having multiple official languages. “If this hasn’t happened anywhere in India why are they blessing Jammu and Kashmir only with such an arrangement?” he asked.

According to Nazeer, the official language status for Hindi, he pointed out, needs to be seen in the context of the demographic changes that the BJP would like to introduce in Jammu and Kashmir by bringing Hindi-speaking outsiders into the region.

In the future, he said, Hindi could be positioned as a unifying language. “When the demographic change will make its impact, they can claim that since Kashmiri is spoken in Kashmir and Dogri in Jammu, why can’t we have a dominant language like Hindi to bridge [the gap between] the regions,” he said.

There are already signs of the administration of Jammu and Kashmir promoting the use of Hindi. In April, the erstwhile state’s Public Health Engineering, Irrigation and Flood Control Department was renamed Jal Shakti Department, drawing on the Hindi term for water power.