GILGIT-BALTISTAN - Many among us know Gilgit-Baltistan as a land of breathtaking natural beauty and rich cultural traditions due to its enchanting sceneries, living style, snow-covered peaks, lush green patches and sky-high pines.
As the region’s unique features set it apart from other provinces of Pakistan, it also boasts of its immense linguistic diversity with eight known languages spoken in this thinly populated expanse.
Shina, Khuwar, Burushaski, Wakhi, Balti, Doomaki, Gojari and Kohistani can be the words rarely known to other Pakistanis even those who frequently used to visit this region.
But, these languages were practiced in the region over the centuries as a symbol of fostering unity, faith and brotherhood even among the diverse communities living there.
The elders and ancestors always took these languages as their valuable heritage for ages until this culture came under threat due to recent global and local transformations of communication modes.
With the amalgamation of new languages to the GB lingoes, local people have witnessed a concerning decline in the use of ancient languages in recent years with a volume of natives opting for other languages for better communication with the visiting tourists and match teaching modes at educational institutions.
Faheem Ahmad Lone, a known Gilgit-based columnist who often advocates the preservation of the native Shina language, has regretted the absence of any coherent policy to preserve these languages.
“The main issue is the absence of a coherent government-level policy to preserve and promote these languages,” he noted. “School curriculum and national media primarily promote dominant languages like Urdu and English, thereby sidelining indigenous languages.”
He mentioned a few individuals like Shakil Ahmad, Ameen Zia, Azeez ur Rehman Malangi, Zafar Waqar, Nafees Ahmad, and some others as actively championing the preservation of the Shina language.
There are also people like Yousaf Hussain Abadi who did a lot for the promotion of Balti language, the second major language of Gilgit Baltistan.
“Besides him famous Balti poet Muhammad Hussain Hasrat and Qasim Naseem, a known journalist, also played a vital role in keeping this language alive through their poetry, columns, and articles,” Faheem said. He noted that the lack of consolidated written or documented material hinders efforts to safeguard these endangered dialects.
The advent of technology and increasing use of social media for communication with the countrymen and exotic nations had fast detracted the local population from their native languages. The lure of foreign languages, especially among youth, coupled with the influence of peers, had led many to neglect their heritage.
Another contributing factor is the reluctance of most parents to pass down their mother tongue to their children. Their reasoning often revolves around the belief that the languages they were taught could not offer practical or professional advantages. This was stated to be another mindset to erode the grip of younger generations on these languages.
“Unfortunately our new generation has replaced our culture, also directly affecting our ages-old affiliation with native languages,” remarked Professor Ishtiaq Ahmad Yad.
A known poet of Urdu and Shina languages, Ishtiaq Ahmed regretted that efforts to promote local languages often die down as there is no unanimous alphabetical order to keep these languages alive.
He also mentioned that all major languages of Pakistan were being taught at respective universities. But, in our case, our own languages are not taught at GB’s educational institutions.
“The situation of minority languages in Gilgit-Baltistan mirrors the global trend of language endangerment,” Ishtiaq Ahmed said. “I feel that in this scenario, 90% of our languages will extinct after a couple of generations.”
He urged local people to seriously contemplate the fate of their beloved languages and their preservation.
Almost all culture and heritage-loving people in the region were concerned about this decline in the popularity and use of indigenous languages. The writers, poets and columnists are seen frequently telling their people to preserve this invaluable linguistic heritage.
“The challenge is enormous. But, we can still revitalize our languages if we buttress efforts to preserve this heritage,” said Dr Afzal Siraj, a Gilgit-based writer and columnist. Known for the preservation of Gujjri language in its original form through his writings, Dr Afzal states that to achieve this goal several key actions were imperative.
“Organisations like Shina Language and Cultural Society and other organisations meant for this purpose should be empowered and expanded to highlight the importance of these languages,” he said.
Youngsters and their parents must be persuaded about the importance of teaching mother tongues and the government should frame programs to promote these languages, he emphasised.
“Inclusion of these languages in the school curriculum and university-level education can be a better way forward,” he suggested. “The regional councils should also receive increased government support to bolster this indigenous culture.”
“Only through concerted efforts, we can rekindle the flame of linguistic diversity and ensure the survival of our ancient culture for generations to come,” Dr Afzal remarked.
Just to conclude, the preservation of dying Gilgit-Baltistan languages is not just a cultural imperative but a moral obligation to preserve the identity of the region and local people.