Pushing language to the margins

Aziz Ali Dad

The issue of official languages has remained a major irritant for the state in Pakistan from the outset. Since the state operates under a monolithic vision, it is natural that diverse cultural groups resist attempts to subsume their identities and languages under a single mould. It is unfortunate that, instead of inclusion, the state follows a policy of exclusion when it comes to languages.

In his article – titled ‘The language of identity’ – published in these pages on February 22, Zubair Torwali rightly points out the apathetic policies of the government which has marginalised the speakers of the remaining 60 or more languages – including the languages of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). He particularly refers to the discussion of two bills which demanded a national status for a few languages from the Senate Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights on February 20. One of these bills includes Punjabi, Balochi, Pashto, and Sindhi and excludes all other languages whereas the other recommended seven languages only.

Among the languages that were not made part of the bills were the languages that are spoken in GB. However, the case of the languages spoken in GB is different from the others as they were presumably rejected because the region is not a constitutional part of Pakistan. The absence of the region from Pakistan’s power dispensation reflects the absence of power within the culture that inhabits GB’s languages. Traditionally, these languages were enmeshed with the indigenous power structure. As a result, the traditional dispensation of power accommodated diverse languages.

The languages of GB were closely embedded with the cosmology of the traditional worldview – which was developed in relative isolation. This enabled them to coin words that can explain their world in metaphors derived from the culture and space they inhabit. Because of that, the languages of GB have developed indigenous knowledge and specialised words within the domains of agriculture, governance, hunting, shamanism, poetry, skills, crafts, rituals, law, society and culture.

Following exposure to modernity, the traditional worldview of GB disintegrated and society was left with a residual vocabulary without proper context. Current generations do not know much about the context and worldview that infused meaning into different realms of life and the world. In addition, an emerging concern is the hollowing out of villages because of rapid outmigration and high mobility among young people. This trend gradually disengages new generations from activities such as agriculture, pastoralism and hunting – where the act and word become one. Ultimately, the nomenclature of a particular domain of culture gradually disappears.

All the languages of GB are still in the stage of orality. The written word is a modern phenomenon for the native speakers. It was during the colonial period that the people of the region saw a change in the style of governance from the traditional mode, conventional codes, customs and oral covenants to a modern mode of the culture of compilation in written words. The modern culture of compilation is strengthened by the printing press which played a pivotal role in the standardisation of procedures and documentation.

The British Empire laid great emphasis on the documentation of societies that came under its domain through geographical and scientific societies. Unlike the oral culture of GB, the written word and compilation played a crucial role in state and empire building in the UK. The treatise prepared by the British during the colonial period and post-colonial states regarding the fate of GB were very much manifestation of the modern culture of compilation against the oral culture.

Though the local rulers of GB relied on a few religious men who had a modicum of knowledge of Persian and Turkish for their correspondence with Kashgar and other Central Asian khanates, they did not have any knowledge about the role of documentation and its significance within the modern state. Oral culture, by its very nature, is highly participatory and tribal, whereas the written word tends to exclude.

The shift in the mode of governance and knowledge from the oral to the written made the traditional worldview – and its associated knowledge – irrelevant. The written word has become an authority and holds a superior status because it had corpus to dig the past, whereas oral languages can only rely on fleeting memories stored in the mind.

The absence of GB from administrative documents and treatises in colonial and post-colonial periods pushes it into constitutional and political limbo – which in itself seeps into every sphere of life, including the status of languages native to the region. It can therefore be said that the marginalisation of the languages of GB stems directly from political liminality and ambiguity about its status within the Pakistani state.

Although some of the treatises and documents about GB are more than a hundred years old, they are increasingly becoming reference points for the argument evinced to define the identity and non-entity of the region. As a result, the written documents become a new contesting arena to give an identity to spaces with geographical presence and documentary absence.

The situation of local languages is aggravated with the mutation of geographical unity during the modern period. This caused a rupture with the linguistic space which eventually manifests in identity crises and political marginalisation. Modernity – being a product of the written word – forced oral languages in GB to also resort to the written word. But in most cases, the experiment failed. The written word is an elite medium and not many people got access to it.

Now, new developments in communication technology and the media have enabled these languages to skip the phase of writing and preserve their heritage in mediums of sights and sounds – or the visual medium, which combines both. The various mediums of modern media are democratic. They offer an opportunity for activists to preserve and disseminate knowledge and language to more people with ease.

As a political marginalised region of Pakistan, GB along with its locals and elected representative do not have a say in the corridors of power in the centre to ensure that their languages are accorded national status. There is news making the rounds that GB’s languages are not included in the census of 2017. Unfortunately, the elected but spineless representatives of the region cannot protest against it, for they tend to play second fiddles in the periphery to serve the interests of their masters in the centre.

While our state was pursuing an exclusionary policy towards the languages of GB from the census, the Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education has introduced Shina language text book for class four in Shina-speaking areas of Jammu and Kashmir.

Pushing the languages of the region to the margins will produce a counter-narrative and alienate the populace from the state. Given the region’s uniqueness, the federal government needs to extend more administrative powers to GB so that it may decide the fate of its languages and identities. The state must also recognise the rich cultural diversity of the region if it wants to integrate it to a stronger degree within the national narrative.

Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

The writer is a freelance

columnist based in Gilgit.

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