Digital tools set to save Kashmiri script from disuse

Now included in MS Translator, Kashmiri is likely to be on Google Translate too in six months, following an online campaign; just 5% of Kashmiris could write the script in 2013

January 06, 2024 08:18 pm | Updated 10:21 pm IST - SRINAGAR

Kashmiri language, withdrawn from schools in 1955, was again introduced in primary­ level schools in Kashmir in 2001.

Kashmiri language, withdrawn from schools in 1955, was again introduced in primary­ level schools in Kashmir in 2001.

For centuries, the Kashmiri language has survived only through oral traditions; by 2013, those who could write the script fell to just 5%. This year, two technological giants, Microsoft and Google, will infuse a new lease of life into the language, whose rich literature continues to remain accessible to only a small section of people.

Like most adult Kashmiris, 40-year-old Azar Nazir, a poet and resident of Srinagar, can only transliterate Kashmiri words into the English language; he cannot write in his mother tongue itself. “When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the Kashmiri language was neither taught in schools nor preferred at homes. Like many, I have the handicap of not being able to read and write in Kashmiri. However, my poetic sensibilities come from the spoken Kashmiri I hear on a daily basis,” Mr. Nazir said.

Linguists in the Kashmir Valley are hoping for a turnaround this year, thanks to the giants of Silicon Valley. Microsoft India’s MS Translator software has now included the Kashmiri language. In November 2023, an online campaign was get Kashmiri included in Google Translate as well; this demand has also been accepted and is likely to be rolled out in the next six months. These moves are likely to benefit 70 lakh Kashmiri speakers living in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir, including those in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Tech champions

“In the 1970s, it was Radio Kashmir and the J&K Cultural Academy that played a key role in enhancing the prospects of the Kashmiri language, giving it a fillip. Besides, among urban populations, singers like Ghulam Ahmad Sofi, and Abdul Rashid Hafiz ensured that the language survives through folk music. We are thankful to Microsoft and Google for taking up the initiative to include the Kashmiri language for translation, though it’s still in process and is evolving with each passing day,” Amin Bhat, playwright and president of the Adbee Markaz Kamraz (AMK), told The Hindu.

The AMK, an umbrella platform of 30 cultural organisations in the valley, is at the forefront of efforts to promote Kashmiri. “The Microsoft and Google initiatives will preserve and popularise the language. It will help in a two-way process: one, in translating Kashmiri literature into English, reaching to a wider audience, and two, in translating English literature into Kashmiri,” Mr. Bhat said.

It was the AMK campaign that pushed around 17,000 people to write to Google in November and December last year, urging the company to include Kashmiri in its translation app. “This campaign has given an additional lease of life to the Kashmiri language. We have laid our grip deep in the ground for the language to flourish in the future,” Mr. Bhat said.

Education efforts

Left out of school curricula for almost half a century, Kashmiri — which is influenced significantly by Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic — had fallen into the category of endangered languages. In a 2013 research paper, scholar and author Maroof Shah said that 95% of literate Kashmiris could not write Kashmiri. Less than 5% could read it fluently, Mr. Shah said, adding, “Fewer are comfortable with the highly Sanskritised or Persianised language of Kashmiri poetry.”

Urdu was introduced as an official language during the Dogra monarchy in Kashmir prior to Independence. Kashmiri was introduced as a subject up to the primary level after 1947, only to be withdrawn in 1955 for unknown reasons. An earlier AMK campaign, however, resulted in the re-inclusion of Kashmiri as a subject in schools up to Class 8 by 2001. Later, Kashmiri was introduced as an optional subject at the undergraduate level in 2008.

Such efforts on the education front began the language’s revival as a written medium, ensuring that the next generation can read their mother tongue. “The seeds to allow the language to survive were sown by 2000. We have a growing population today that can read and write Kashmiri, very essential to revive the literature in the language,” Mr. Bhat said.

Opposition from within

In 2020, the Union government passed the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill, including Kashmiri in the list of official languages of the Union Territory (UT).

However, the major opposition to the language comes from within the community. “Most people think it’s inferior to speak in Kashmiri. It’s attributed to being from a lower class to speak in the language. However, the new generation using music to play old Kashmiri songs have done their bit to fight this bias. Over 30% of Kashmiri are able to read and write Kashmiri as of now,” Mehfooza Kamili, professor at the School of Arts, Languages and Literature of the Kashmir University, told The Hindu.

For the first time in several decades, the Kashmiri language is flourishing again, Ms. Kamili said. “The new age platforms like YouTube and now Google and Microsoft are going to create rare knowledge banks about the language. The new generation is dependent on gadgets and will find it easy to know the meaning of the words they get to hear from elders. It will introduce them to their cultural roots,” she added.

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