Senge Hasnan Sering
Due to Islamabad’s unfeeling agenda, local languages and cultures of Gilgit-Baltistan are on the verge of extinction.
As was seen with the War of Liberation, resulting in the birth of Bangladesh, a common religion alone cannot hold different nationalities together. Issues of good governance, economic development, social justice and cultural identity also must be addressed in order for a nation state to sustain its existence. However, four decades since the violence of 1971, areas such as Gilgit-Baltistan remain a target of forced cultural assimilation and racial oppression – especially because the natives oppose Pakistan’s Kashmir agenda, and refuse to entertain hideouts and training camps for militants.
Over the decades, authorities in Islamabad have tried to justify these suppressive policies based on underlying insecurities. For instance, they argue that Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed territory claimed by India and that, according to United Nations resolutions, the locals have yet to choose their country. Official insecurity also comes from the fact that the population of Gilgit-Baltistan does not share ethnic or linguistic relations with the rest of Pakistan; the people of Baltistan have ethno-linguistic connections with Ladakh, while the predominant population of Gilgit (including the Shin, Yashkun and Khowar) are Dardic, and closely related to the ethnic communities in Kashmir and Rajasthan. The policymakers have long feared that any people-to-people contact between Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh could rekindle ethnic and linguistic movements across the Line of Control.
Since the Mohajirs, or refugees from Uttar Pradesh and surrounding areas, were instrumental in creating Pakistan, they also succeeded in imposing their new language, Urdu, as an important tool of the incipient nationalism. The establishment took every possible step to empower this language and its script, which came at the cost of weakening the predominant indigenous languages such as Sindhi, Seraiki, Balochi and Brahui. With an eye to expanding their political constituency, the Mohajirs started to paint the area’s indigenous languages as symbols of ethnic resistance and, hence, a threat to the Pakistani federation. With a clear sense of cultural superiority, they also began to impress upon the local nationalities that adopting Urdu would help to eliminate ‘cultural shame’ and ‘backwardness’. Since that initial push, band-aid efforts have been made to promote a ‘Pakistani identity’ that goes beyond the propagation of Urdu, but to little effect. In the meantime, together with the large population of Sindh and Balochistan, the unique mountain-based culture of Gilgit-Baltistan is seeing erasure.
Today, Urdu has become officially the first language of all ethnicities in Gilgit-Baltistan, while the Urdu script is imposed as the chief medium of instruction in all schools. While children speak their native tongues at home, they are forced to adjust to Urdu (alongside Arabic and English) at a very young age. State-sponsored media likewise encourage Pakistani seasonal festivals, as well as Urdu poetry and music, which distract children from their ethnic roots. Indigenous scripts of Baltistan, such as Yige, suffered as well, once they were declared profane and anti-Islamic.
In late 2009, the state created an official institution in Islamabad called the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, headed and largely appointed by the prime minister. The council, rather than the Gilgit-based Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, enjoys veto right over the majority of legislative matters, including language, religion and script, thereby depriving the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan the right to decide on these important social issues. With the loss of script, the local languages have inevitably lost social capital, and have even taken on the baggage of perceived liability. Parents feel that associating with native cultures and languages will restrict their children from rising socially within Pakistan. Since children are already being forced to bear the burden of learning multiple languages and scripts at a young age, it becomes increasingly convenient to abandon one’s own native tongue. In the long run, children lack the awareness about their cultural legacy and the comprehension of the richness of their civilisation, all causing alienation from their land and heritage.
This cultural weakening in Gilgit-Baltistan is of course part and parcel of the much larger hegemony of globalisation. Local languages around the world are increasingly forced to take on ‘loan words’ from ‘mainstream’ languages in order to describe new technologies, jobs and experiences. The result is loss of vocabulary and folklore more generally, two phenomena indicating the first stages endangering a language. Further, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Pakistani settlers into the high valleys has brought with it changes in the local linguistic demography in Gilgit-Baltistan. The settlers easily overwhelm the sparse and largely illiterate local communities, where each language is represented by only a small pool of speakers. As the art of writing and reading remains confined to a few, the society has largely failed to resist the redrawing of cultural identity and political history. This has been exacerbated by the fact that Punjabi-speaking residents of the region have also adopted Urdu.
In Gilgit-Baltistan, the most critical aspect of this cultural deterioration is perhaps the imposition of the Urdu script. Phonologically, Urdu is entirely unequipped to deal with the orthography of the Tibeto-Burman and Dardic languages. Of course, no borrowed script could be made sufficiently inclusive to represent native languages, and thus most folklore and literary heritage in the area has traditionally been passed on in oral form. The absence of adequate script and lack of documentation has therefore forced a considerable amount of native core vocabulary to be replaced with Urdu, English, Arabic and Persian. Had the original scripts been promoted consistently, the confluence of different languages could have enriched the local cultures without destroying their foundations.
The proponents of the Pakistani version of federalism claim that using native scripts in primary school, in addition to Urdu and English, would overburden students, and actually hamper attempts at spreading functional literacy. This overlooks the fact that, in recent decades during which Urdu and Persian scripts have been temporarily used to write local languages, literacy in Gilgit-Baltistan has failed to receive any boost. Even today, three-fourths of the area’s population is illiterate, with the rate among girls and women remaining alarmingly low. Actually, one need not sacrifice the mother tongue and script in order to reduce the number of languages taught in the schools since, according to the UN’s culture agency, UNESCO, literacy can be best promoted in native tongues, provided that it has its own script to accommodate linguistic peculiarities.
Ultimately, of course, the burden of learning several external languages is coming at the cost of endangering linguistic and cultural identities, in the process wasting time that could be used by simply employing local scripts. The imposition of external languages is also being seen specifically in the light of subjugation, thus inducing and increasing feelings of alienation among the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Linguists and anthropologists believe that saving the unique languages of the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges is also important in the context of research on the broader evolution of languages and ancient migration patterns. The people of Baltistan, for instance, speak the most archaic dialect of Tibetan, whereas the Shin and Yashkun of Gilgit, Diamer, Astore and Ghizer speak Shina, which is related to Sanskrit. Burushaski, spoken in Hunza, Nagar and Ghizer, is one of only three languages in the world classified as ‘unrelated’ or ‘isolated’ – meaning that no one knows about their roots. Then there is Wakhi, spoken in the Gojal Valley, which is the most archaic form of Persian surviving today. During the 18th century, the historian H Jaschke stated that any neglect of Balti could be fatal to research on the evolution of Tibetan, given his view that Balti phonetics closely resemble 12th-century Tibetan. The dialect is therefore of paramount importance for the re-construction of the Tibetan language and phonetics; similar arguments are made for Shina vis-à-vis Sanskrit, and Wakhi with respect to modern Persian.
The languages of Gilgit-Baltistan can be saved if the authorities adopt adequate language policies, going beyond the rhetoric of granting equal right of preservation and development to all languages and cultures. Foremost, indigenous political institutions such as the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly need to be given the right to legislate on matters pertaining to religion and language, so that locals can adopt requisite policies to preserve their identity.
In addition, a university should be established to conduct research on languages, with branches in Gilgit and Skardo. National and international linguistics and anthropologists should receive encouragement, including economic, from the Islamabad government to spend time in Gilgit-Baltistan and pursue research. UNESCO representatives should also be encouraged to initiate projects in Gilgit-Baltistan to document and restore local scripts and encourage print media to accommodate native scripts. Finally, Pakistani authorities must encourage the study of local language preservation elsewhere in the Himalayan and Karakoram region. If chosen and motivated correctly, linguists have the potential to influence attitudes towards the use and promotion of mother tongues, and to inspire locals to actively preserve their language.
Alongside, Islamabad needs to undertake measures to enhance the literacy rate in Gilgit-Baltistan, especially among women. Unless the masses are educated, measures to save languages will inevitably fail. Schools in Gilgit-Baltistan should begin to use local languages and scripts as a medium of instruction, at least at the primary level. It must be noted that experts on the Yige script have formulated ‘inverted’ letters to accommodate Arabic and Sanskrit words, and hence Yige is best suited to bring out all the richness of the ancient Balti language. Since students waste a great deal of time in learning to bridge the language barriers, employing local scripts could help save time and resources. In addition, local languages should be taught as a subject even at the intermediate and college level, in order to deepen understanding for local languages and culture. Endangered languages can survive only if written in appropriate scripts and taught through modern technology and electronic medium (such as radio, television and incorporate different possibilities of information technology), and it is the government’s responsibility to provide funds to ensure such measures.
Though of course representing a major step geopolitically, for the sake of cultural survival of this region the authorities should also immediately open the Line of Control, with an eye to enabling cultural and linguistic exchanges amongst the peoples of Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan, Astore and Kashmir. Similar efforts should be made, on the other side, to encourage interactions between the peoples of Tajikistan, Wakhan, Chitral and Gojal. Further, teachers and trainers should be invited from Ladakh, Tajikistan and Kashmir to help run language classes in Gilgit-Baltistan. In Ladakh, after all, the Indian government has given Balti, Ladakhi, Kashmiri and Shina the status of regional languages, and this and related expertise deserves to be used for the benefit of those living in Gilgit-Baltistan as well.
It is unfortunate that the centuries-old languages and scripts of Gilgit-Baltistan have been victimised as part of the goal to legitimise Pakistan’s existence. This trend needs immediate review, since the educated people of Gilgit-Baltistan have come to realise that their national identity and cultural rights cannot be sacrificed to entertain the expectations of policymakers in Islamabad.
Senge Hasnan Sering is president of the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies (IGBS), based in Washington, DC