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Cover Story: Language Imperialism/Jammu & Kashmir

The Chenab Times attempts to preserve Bhaderwahi and Sarazi in Jammu & Kashmir

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
A reporter  of The Chenab Times interacting with a 100-year-old woman in Bhaderwah’s rural area with regard to people’s long-standing demand for a road in their village.

A reporter of The Chenab Times interacting with a 100-year-old woman in Bhaderwah’s rural area with regard to people’s long-standing demand for a road in their village.

A news portal in Jammu and Kashmir strives to preserve the language and culture of the Chenab region.

Speakers of the Bhaderwahi and Sarazi languages in Jammu and Kashmir have finally found their voice. The Chenab Times, a multimedia news portal and activism platform, has been providing daily news headlines in these endangered languages of the Chenab region in the Union Territory since January 2021. It posts news videos first in Urdu, followed by headlines in these two languages.

The impetus for the initiative, the first of its kind, came after Parliament passed The Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Act, 2020, which listed Kashmiri, Dogri, Urdu, Hindi and English as official languages in the Union Territory. Many people feared that this would obscure other languages spoken in the region and lead to their decline. “We started this initiative to preserve our languages because people have almost forgotten them,” said Anzer Ayoob, founder of The Chenab Times.

The three distinct regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh in the Union Territory are rich in linguistic diversity. Kashmiri is the mother tongue of the people of Kashmir’s valley as well as the districts of Doda, Bhaderwah, Kishtwar and Gool in Jammu.

The Chenab valley consists of three districts: Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban, each of which has several local languages linked to the Pahari culture. Pahari Kashmiri is the most widely spoken language here, but other languages with a long history in the region include Bhaderwahi, Sarazi, Pogli, Kishtwari and Padri. Padri is a Pahari dialect spoken in the Paddar valley of Kishtwar district, which borders Pangi (Himachal Pradesh), the Zanskar valley of Ladakh, and the Marwah-Warwan valley on the south-eastern side.

Bhaderwahi is spoken in the Bhaderwah subdistrict and its peripheries in Doda district. Other languages spoken here are Kashmiri, Ladakhi and Dogri and Pahari languages such as Khashali, Gojri, Meshabi and Paddari. The 2011 Census put the number of people who spoke Bhaderwahi at 1,20,000, but various local surveys in recent times estimate the number of those who speak Bhaderwahi as their first language to be around 50,000.

There have been initiatives to bring the language back to use and adapt it to modern times. Mool Raj Misher is a well-known Bhaderwahi singer whose songs have been popular since the 1990s. Vicky Manhas, a rapper from Doda, was the first to rap in Bhaderwahi in 2015. He went on to release a lot of rap tracks in Bhaderwahi on YouTube and other music platforms after the song’s audio went viral on social media.

But many youngsters still cannot speak their ancestral language. People from our region have to go to Jammu or out of the State for studies or for jobs and they lose touch with local languages such as Sarazi and Bhaderwahi. Most of them now don’t even understand these languages,” said Raja Shakeel, marketing editor of The Chenab Times.

The portal attributes the decline of the region’s languages and culture to negligence by successive governments. According to Raja Shakeel, “the Chenab region has so many resources, but local people don’t get any benefit out of them”. The region is a hub of power projects and is known for its sapphire mines and saffron fields, but development is a distant dream here, with many far-flung areas having no electricity.

The Chenab Times’ effort has come in for appreciation from ordinary people and government officials equally. Jawaad Khan, a Bhaderwah-based entrepreneur, whose start-up, Tadpole Projects Pvt Ltd, is incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, said his mother was a regular viewer of the news round-up, particularly the Bhaderwahi news. Deputy Commissioner of Doda, Vikas Sharma, is one of those who has praised the initiative.

Naeem ul Haq Wani, who is the Bhaderwah-based anchor of the daily programme, described the process of writing news in the language as “tough” in the beginning. But he held on as people in rural areas still loved to speak and hear the local language.

Farid Ahmed Naik, the anchor of the Sarazi language, too, found the task of creating content challenging. He said, “Most people criticise me on the news presentations and say it is not pure Sarazi and that it sounds different from the normal spoken language. But when I give them the task of drafting two lines, they give up and appreciate my efforts.”

The anchors do not have scripts, according to Anzer Ayoob, because Sarazi and Bhaderwahi are their mother tongues. Farid Ahmed Naik, who translates the news for headlines, writes in Urdu using the Nastaliq script.

According to the prominent poet Jalal Din, also known as Taskeen Badanvi, of Thathri in Doda, Sarazi is one of the two main languages spoken in the Chenab valley along with Kashmiri. Sarazi is a local dialect whereas Kashmiri is thought to be an import from Kashmir. The vast majority of Hindus speak Sarazi. The 2011 Census says that Sarazi is spoken as a first language by 87,000 people.

The State radio station in Bhaderwah broadcasts programmes in Sarazi for half an hour every week. Although insignificant in comparison to other languages, the broadcast has encouraged at least a few people to write in Sarazi. Prominent among the Sarazi writers and poets are Bhagat Singh Rana and Naib Chand of Gadi, and Jagdish Chandra Sharma of Jatheli.

According to Farid Ahmed Faridi, a prominent writer and poet from Doda district, the earliest individually attributable compositions in Sarazi are those of Raheem Gratali of Ghat, who lived between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Literacy did not arrive in Saraz until a few decades before Independence. The first generation of writers who wrote down their compositions was born in those decades. They are Jaimal Singh of Kanhal, Amar Chand of Doda City, and Charrat Singh and Ganda Singh of Kashitgarh.

Shamthi poet Hari Singh Kesari was the first to publish his poems as a pamphlet in the 1990s. Amar Chand and Basheer Ahmed are two of Sarazi’s most popular writers whose corpus includes poems and interpretations of ancient legends.

The Chenab Times plans to include more languages in its project once it achieves financial stability. “Our team does a tremendous job voluntarily. We are all from different rural areas of Doda district, but we all have one interest: to uplift the neglected Chenab region, whose identity has been destroyed by Kashmir as well as Jammu-based politicians,” said Raja Irfan, a photojournalist and managing editor of the portal.

In their sights are Kishtwari and Pogali, two dialects of Kashmiri which are spoken beyond the Kashmir valley. Kishtwari or Kashtwari is a very divergent and conservative Kashmiri dialect spoken in the Kishtwar area. Pogali, often spelled Poguli, is an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the Pogal and Paristan valleys which are part of the Ramban district. Poguli has no written tradition or published literature, with the exception of a few folk tunes printed locally, and the people who speak the dialect mostly live in Banihal’s south, south-east and south-west.

Mubashir Naik and Irshad Hussain are independent journalists based in Jammu and Kashmir and they tweet at @ and @ Irshad55hussain sule_khaak.

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