Authored by Zeeba T. Hashmi. Article originally appeared in Daily Times, 2016
Feature picture credit: Online Stock
For history to be recorded, related and taught, a language needs to be given its due recognition. For it to have its due share in society, the transformations a language undergoes through the ages must be studied for the changing social trends influencing it. According to a UNESCO survey report in 2011, there are about 27 languages in the areas of Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan that are dying. In fact, these languages are on the verge of extinction due to the effects of globalisation and fast paced modernisation in our society. Many people are delinking their present lifestyles with their historical identities, resulting in a huge amount of literature and folklore being lost with each passing day. The elderly from the previous generations have stopped speaking in their indigenous languages with their younger generations. Schools and higher educational institutes have also limited the growth of local languages, thus sidelining them further from their native speakers.
In 2015, The Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan ordered the government of Pakistan to adopt Urdu as the official language. This is not only for the federal government but provincial governments are also expected to follow suit. The justification given by the Chief Justice’s verdict is that Urdu makes understanding the deciphering of official documents easy. Though this move was welcomed by wider circles in the federation and in Punjab, it did not come without repercussions on the provincial languages that have often been neglected by the state, thus leaving them devoid of the importance that they deserve. Urdu, at the provincial level, is not easily understood by the locals, hence the communication gaps widen between the state machineries and local populations. There is an issue of language ownership, with people being forced to accept a language that they find alien to their language and traditions. Urdu has had a historical link with elite circles and carries with it an imperialist flair, as if to whitewash other spoken languages and impose its superiority over them. Urdu has its own richness and important contribution to our history but it must not be forgotten that often it was more a show of power of the rulers to their subjects. The hegemonic tendencies of the language sidelined the valuable literature that carried important information of local histories and rich, yet unrecognized, heritage. Ideally, we needed a cultural, heritage and language preservation effort in the recently imposed Single National Curriculum–but it laid little focus on diversity and worked mainly on whitewashing rich language heritage in lieu of a single religious nationalism.
There are many languages in Pakistan that have been subjected to linguistic dominance; among them is the distinct culture of Domaaki speakers, known as the Doms from Mominabad, in Hunza, where they are found in large numbers as opposed to their scattered populations in other places. Believed to have originally come from South Kashmir, they settled in Hunza and other areas as far as Kashgher. The language itself has its roots in Indo-Aryan languages though it borrowed words from the Dardic and got immensely influenced by other predominant languages in the region like Burushaski and Shina.
In other areas where the Domaaki reside, their language has almost vanished, as they have adopted the regional dialect to be at par with other economically progressive neighbouring communities. The community predominantly is comprised of blacksmiths and musicians though, at present, many have adopted other professions and are doing much better than they used to in older times. Domaaki culture previously used to be considered inferior by the rulers of Hunza, and its people were kept in isolation. In earlier days, the Mirs of Hunza forbade Domaaki speakers from intermarrying the people of other communities and were strictly confined to singing, dancing and being blacksmiths, which lead them into social isolation for a long time. This is reminiscent of how the musicians’ community (the mirasis) are degraded and discriminated against in Punjab. This is also true for the Bheel singing community comprising of Dalit Hindus in southern Punjab and Sindh.
According to a research conducted by Peter C Backstorm and Carla F Radloff in 1990, there are about 500 Domaaki speakers left in Mominabad. They had warned about the language fading soon, leaving us with little clues about the present number of speakers in the community. According to recent surveys conducted in 2008, the numbers have been reduced to a mere 350 speakers. It is important to mention here that there was a time when it seemed that language speakers were growing, as a researcher named D L R Lorimar in the 1930s noted about 330 speakers from 60 households in Mominabad, where, as in the 1990s, an increase of 200 to 300 speakers was observed. But, in the course of a mere 20 years or less, there has been a sharp decline in these numbers. The reasons cited for this are rapidly changing economic trends and modernism.
Little has been done to preserve this language, as no interest is shown either by the government or non-governmental organisations to work on this issue, even though UNESCO has listed Domaaki as an endangered language. What is worse is that the locals themselves are turning away from speaking it and have discarded the language from their daily lives because, for them, it is akin to having a low status in society. The unfortunate situation is partially to be blamed on the history of belittling this particular culture and attributing it to societal shame.
There are, so far, two recognised dialects of Domaaki known as the Nagar-Domaaki and Hunza Domaaki with very little differences between the two. Because of this distinctiveness, Domaaki has become very vulnerable to losing its roots, as many words from Brushaski and Shina have been adopted in the language over the past few centuries. Unlike other cultures and spoken languages that their speakers take pride in and initiate steps to uphold their linguistic richness, the Doms seem to have disowned the language of their ancestors. It is feared that over the coming decades, their history, along with the language, will perish and will be deemed unrecognisable. If not saved now, a treasure of knowledge, folklore, tradition and history will be lost forever.
It is noteworthy Pakistan is not a signatory to UNESCO 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of Diversity of Cultural Expression, which is an essential tool for the achievement of SDG Goals. Preservation of heritage and cultural expression should become part of our education and curriculum policies as well, as it accounts to 6.1% of the global economy. It also catalyses inclusive economic growth by way of preserving dying knowledge, history and wisdom which can enrich our diverse national psyche.