Until a month ago, cars in Kashmir had to navigate through the occasional herd of sheep and goat driven by Bakarwal goatherds to pastures and forest land in the hills. The animals and their masters will spend the next six to seven months there in the company of nature. These nomads have spent the winter in the relatively warmer Jammu region. They have been doing this for centuries and they continue to keep their date with this annual movement from fringe to fringe in a region riven by conflict informed strongly by identity politics. The Gujjars, semi-nomadic and migratory tribal cousins of the Bakerwals, are more rooted but they too live along the margins: geographically, socially, politically and economically. Both communities speak Gojri, a language which, like them, is marginal in a place where every other community has made its perceived or genuine marginality a battle cry.
Gujjars and Bakerwals are the third largest ethnic group after the Kashmiris and the Dogras. About 20 per cent of the total population of 1.25 crore speak Gojri, which, along with 38 languages in India, clamours for inclusion into the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. The government of India is obliged to develop an 8th Schedule language so that “it grows rapidly in richness and becomes effective means of communicating modern knowledge”.
Given the current state of Kashmiri and Dogri that were both included in 8th Schedule long ago, Gojri’s struggle is doubly hard and the goal of bringing it on par with other languages seems a pipe dream. According to Javed Rahi, who has been heading the Gojri section at the Jammu Kashmir Academy of Arts, Culture and Languages since 2004, the language is not taught in schools, colleges or universities. Authorities have been sitting on the proposal to introduce Gojri in schools even though the Academy has prepared textbooks for students up to standard 8.
“Gojri is not taught even in schools where 100 per cent of the students are Gujjar,” said Rahi, who believes even mere preservation of the language would be a blessing.
He finds it ironic that Kashmir University has full-fledged departments of Persian, Sanskrit and Hindi, which have virtually no speakers, but not even a small centre for Gojri. The varsity also has Russian, German and French language teaching centres. Jammu University recently introduced Gojri at the Masters level but only as an optional subject in one of four semesters.
To top it all, according to the 2011 census, the literacy rate of Gujjars and Bakerwals is between 32 and 42 per cent. This means only a small percentage of students well versed in Urdu can get familiar with written Gojri, if at all they have the will to.
The community was granted Schedule Tribe status in 1993. It is generally assumed that the improvement in social and economic conditions that accrue from reservation in jobs and admissions into professional institutions would also reflect in the development of a language. But 25 years down the line, not much has changed.
In fact, Gojri has thrived as an oral tradition so far largely because the nomadic and migratory nature of the community has shielded it from mainstream urban culture. This preservation is evident in other cultural artefacts of the Gujjar community such as dress. However, over the years, courtesy government jobs and a shift to other professions, the community is gradually shedding its nomadic, semi-nomadic and migratory nature for a more settled life. Thus, at a time when one would expect Gojri to flourish, Urdu and English are becoming the primary modes of communication for community members who have climbed up the social and economic ladder.
No Gujjar in Jammu and Kashmir has a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree in Gojri. In fact, Rahi, who is officially the top authority on the language today, has a PhD in Urdu. Degrees in Urdu and Persian are the requirements for appointments in the Gojri section of the Academy, which is the only government institution that works for the language currently and publishes Gojri books.
So far, since its formation in 1978, the section has published about 1000 Gojri books of poetry, folk songs, history, autobiography and translations of the Quran. Like Urdu, much of the literary production in the language gravitates toward poetry. Interestingly, some of the finest Gojri poets can’t write in any language, said Abdul Salam Kausari, a calligrapher in the Academy’s Gojri section.
“Abdul Rashid Zar is considered the Ghalib of Gojri. He will say a fully-formed couplet, complete in metre and all, but he can’t write,” said Kausari.
What prevents Gojri from flourishing in educational and other state institutions? While Rahi attributes it to the political firewall erected by two assertive ethnic groups, the Dogras and the Kashmiris, others blame the community’s leadership.
“Dogras in Jammu simply see us as unwanted Muslims. Kashmiris consider Gujjars somewhat as the inferior Other. You will be surprised to know that there is no Gujjar assistant professor in any of the three universities in Kashmir. Jammu Government Medical College at least has 10 to 15 Gujjars on the rolls,” Rahi said.
A Gujjar intellectual who requested anonymity said the union tribal ministry had granted `123 crore to Jammu and Kashmir for the community’s welfare. He reveals that he had requested a “few lakhs” for the development of the Gojri language but the state tribal affairs minister had flatly refused. “Not a penny of this grant is spent on our language,” he said.
Though there is no Gojri newspaper, news bulletins in the language are broadcast from Radio Kashmir stations in Srinagar and Jammu twice daily and Doordarshan telecasts a half hour programme once a week. The community’s repeated pleas for daily Gojri programmes have gone unheeded.
“The Sheena and Pashto communities, whose number is between 15,000 and 35,000 in the state, too have a weekly slot on Doordarshan like us,” Rahi said.
All this is probably why the community is more visible on social media than on state-run or private media. A YouTube channel run by Rahi, which raises revenue through advertising, features interviews, talks, songs, religious programmes and documentaries, has about 19,000 subscribers. Two Facebook pages, Gojri Mahri Zubaan (Our language Gojri) and Gojri Zabaan, each have about 65,000 likes. The Gujjar diaspora and Gujjars from Pakistan, where the community is vibrant socially and in terms of literary production, also visit these pages. All in all, it’s a sorry state for a vibrant language that could definitely flower with more official support.