No Word to Speak Of

  • Ishtiyaq Joo
  • Publish Date: Jan 24 2017 9:52PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Jan 24 2017 9:52PM
No Word to Speak Of


                              Why did Persian fall out of favour with Kashmiris?


Until only a few generations ago, Persian was Kashmir’s status language, a marker of the educated. Now, few even recognise it.

Persian was introduced to this part of the world by Sufi saints from Central Asia who came to spread Islam. Indeed, the language proved vital in spreading the religion to the Indian subcontinent and beyond. “Islam descended from heavens in Arabic but it was spread inPersian,” says Prof Shadab Arshad, who teaches Persian at Kashmir University. “In Kashmir, for example, Islam was spread by Sufi saints such as Mir Syed Ali Hamadani and his accomplices from Iran and Central Asia.”

As is the case with any language, the Persian tongue brought along Persian art and culture – to the great benefit of Kashmir. The ties that were forged as a result breathed new life into our arts, crafts, literature and sciences. Previously, for example, Kashmir’s poetic genres were limited to Vaakh, Watsun, Shrukh, but the influence of Persian enriched us with Ghazl,Qasidah, Marsiya, Rubae, Mathanavi, Naa’t, Manqabat.

The Mughal conquest of India, and subsequently of Kashmir, only raised the profile of Persiannow that it was the court language of a powerful and, perhaps most important, culturally-refined empire. By the time the British came, Persian was widely used even among the common people. “English civil servants aspiring to work for the East India Company were required to masterPersian before being deputed to India,” says Ashiq Hussain, a historian.

Then, after dominating our linguistic and cultural landscape for over six centuries, Persianunderwent a quick decline, precipitated by the Dogras.

The Dogras patronised Urdu, yet in their early days they had to conduct official business inPersian, such was its reach and influence. In fact, even the Treaty of Amritsar, through which the British sold the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to Gulab Singh Dogra in March 1846, was drafted in Persian. And when Gulab Singh’s courtier, and later governor of Kashmir, Kripa Ram wrote his master’s biography Gulab Nama, he did it in Persian, points out Hussain.

However, no sooner had Ranbir Singh succeeded Gulab Singh in 1869 that he made Urdu the state language. The writer Zareef Ahmad Zareef says this was done to ease the communication between the people of Kashmir, Ladakh and Kashmir. “Urdu was introduced so that people across the region could communicate easily. However, for a long period afterwards, official communication, including the Maharaja’s farmans, marriage documents, land and revenue deeds continued to be written in Persian,” Zareef adds.

Gradually, though, it lost prominence to Urdu. By the end of the Dogra rule, it was used only in courts. Some learned people saw in the decline of Persian a “political conspiracy to disconnect Kashmiris from Central Asia. “In reality, both geographically and culturally, Kashmir had all but become a part of Central Asia. To cull the culture, you needed to kill its language. The Dogras made the coffin for Persian by stripping it of the state language status and the Indian government drilled the final nail in the coffin by blocking all trade routes that connect the valley to Central Asia and through which the language could have been sustained,” argues Abid Gulzar, Senior Assistant Professor of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University.

The routes that Gulzar refers to date back centuries. The Chinese pilgrim Ou-Kong, who visited Kashmir in 759 AD, recorded that the valley was connected to the outside world by three routes – the first went through Zoji La pass to Ladakh, and further to Tibet through Demchok; the second was from Skardu and Gilgit across Khunjrab pass to Chinese Turkistan and Central Asia; the third followed the Jehlum to Punjab. The routes were open until 1947, and people from Kashmir would conduct trade as far as Yarkand, Dushanbe and Tashkent.

“It is only a 30-minute flight from Srinagar to Dushanbe in Tajikistan. From there, you can take a train to Moscow and further on to Germany, and you will reach in no time. Instead, people are forced to take detours of the Pacific Ocean,” says Gulzar.

Speaking at a seminar on “Silk Route as a factor in Asian Integration”, organised recently at Kashmir University, Gulzar pointed out that this transcontinental road network not only facilitated trade, it also made possible interactions among different cultures and civilizations.

The “step-motherly” treatment meted out to the language by successive state governments, especially after 1970s, only hastened its decline. “In the past every school had a Persian teacher. Now the subject is taught in barely a few schools. Subjects like Sanskrit and Environmental Sciences were introduced to replace Persian. Arabic and Islamic Studies had never been part of the studies in higher secondary schools and colleges until they were introduced in all colleges not very long ago. But if you ask for the same to be done for Persian, people at the helm just turn a deaf ear,” Gulzar says.

Shadab Arshad, Assistant Professor of Persian at Kashmir University, echoes Gulzar when he says that Persian lost out to “Arabisation”. “We Arabised our Persian culture. Until recently, for example, we referred to the daily prayers by their Persian names – Subah, Payshun, Dighar, Shaam, Khuftan. Now, in keeping with the general Arabisation, we say Fajir, Djhur…Despite the fact that we learned our religion in Persian, a deliberate attempt is being made to sideline it through Arabic. People are told to not use the traditional farewell of ‘Gus Khudayas Hawaal’ but say ‘Fih-Amanillah’ when the connotations of both are just the same.”

Others are less inclined to see sinister designs. They argue that the decline of a language “is a natural process”, shaped by a host of social, political, cultural, even economic factors. “It happens everywhere in world; the language changes after certain a period of time. It happens to every language, in every culture. It’s normal,” says Hafiz Shahnawaz Shah, Assistant Professor of Persian at Kashmir University. He points out that the popularity of classical languages as subjects of study have waned as people have become more “job-centric” and, thereby, more likely to study economically more beneficial subjects.

Zareef agrees. “Present generation is more worried about job security. They will opt for a language which will provide them this, like English. Everything these days is done in English.”

On the other side, those who see the decline of Persian as politically orchestrated back their case up by pointing towards the “fate of Urdu”. “Although Urdu is the official language, all official communication is done in English. Even a leave application has to be written in English,” says Gulzar, the Persian teacher.

Hussain, the historian, adds, “After Persian was thrown in the cold bag, the Dogra ruler made a new law in 1940 which said that Urdu would be written in Devnagri script. But the people opposed it tooth and nail and it couldn’t be implemented. Now the Indian state is making Urdu suffer the same fate as Persian.”

Still, all hope is not lost. Although Persian is now taught only in a few higher secondary schools and colleges, a growing number of students is opting to study it. For the past few years, Kashmir University’s Persian department has not only easily filled all its 55 open seats, but the 22 paid seats as well.

Could it be that Persian is witnessing a renaissance in Kashmir? That elegant language of Saadi Shirazi, Firdawsi, Rumi and, of course, our own Gani Kashmiri.