“मिडिल क्लास के सपनों को दिए पंख” – displays a hoarding of Government of India across Srinagar’s main traffic points this week. From the city centre, Lal Chowk, to intersection near Shri Maharaj Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital – thousands of people from different walk of lives wonder what it reads.
For instance, neither Mouzam Altaf, a 22-year-old pharmacy student can read the hoarding nor an NEET aspirant, Murtaza Ali Mohammad; so is the case with a 51-year-old auto-rickshaw driver, Mohammad Ashraf; and an 18-year-old girl Tabish Manzoor Khan; even 32-year-old shopkeeper Khalid Lateef.
Among sixty-three per cent literates in Kashmir Valley, the majority of the people read and speak Urdu – for official work and documentation – while about 6.7 million people recognises Kashmiri as their mother tongue.
Back in time, Section 145 of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J-K) Constitution identified Urdu as the erstwhile state’s official language. Today, neither the Constitution exists nor the official language.
On 30 October – a day before the erstwhile state was officially broken into two Union Territories – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) National Secretary, Tarun Chugh, celebrated the end of Urdu as an official language of Jammu and Kashmir. “The best thing is Urdu won’t be the official language of the state anymore,” he told the press.
In the morning, on the bustling road near the SMHS hospital, people wait and walk-through the busy intersection – leading to city’s centre; neglecting the hoarding. Though, Mr. Altaf, who is training in pharmacy department of the hospital, feels like ripping apart the poster. “It feels weird. I don’t like Hindi – what was the issue with Urdu?” he wonders. “It could have been in Urdu – why is it not?”
When Mr. Mohammad, the NEET aspirant, sees the smiling face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the hoarding, his conscience reminds him of “BJP’s idea of Hindu Rashtra.” Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) – where BJP finds its ideological roots – sees Akhand Bharat, or Undivided India, from the monolingual prism of Hindi language.
“BJP is trying to impose Hindi on us,” he says. “As a Kashmiri, I want to raise my voice against it – but, we don’t even have internet.” The ruling party has often made attempts to tweak policies controversially. For instance, in summer 2019, the revised draft of National Education Policy 2019 made Hindi a compulsory subject till eighth grade; only to withdraw the change after major backlash from southern states.
A few months later, in September 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah propagated “One Nation, One Language”. “If there is one language that can unite the country, it’s Hindi,” he had said.
Mr. Mohammad is not the only one who noticed Mr. Modi’s grin, though; Mohammad Ashraf, 51, who rides an auto-rickshaw, notices “fake emotions and drama” in his smiling face.
Guessing what the Hindi script might read, Mr. Ashraf predicts, “Might be one of his unilateral orders?” He breaks into laughter before finishing the sentence. “He would have written the things that he would in Kashmir,” he tries again. “Anyways, they will do nothing. They do things only for their chair and power. We have been living in this situation for the last thirty years – nothing changes.”
Waiting for an auto-rickshaw at the intersection, Tabish Manzoor Khan was standing with her mother. Her mother, an old lady in blue scarf, doesn’t want to talk. Ms. Khan is keen, though.
“This hoarding, their decisions – it’s all betrayal,” she says. “I can only understand two things in this hoarding – language is Hindi and the face is of Modi.”
“Why is this hoarding in Hindi, anyways?” she questions, and after staring at the hoarding for a while, she answers, “We cannot read Hindi – so, maybe to fool Kashmiris.”
Finally, in the afternoon, I found someone who could read the advertisement – a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel guarding in a bunker right under the hoarding. A bandana was masking his face; I could see his dark circles as he stood on the other side of the concertina wire.
“Middle class ke sapno ko diye pankh (We gave wings to dreams of the middle class),” he reads the hoarding with a smile, and adds, “He [Mr. Modi] works for poor people.” Citing his argument, he adds that Mr. Modi’s government will credit 5 lakh rupees in bank account of every poor person in the country.
Like Mr. Modi’s face, I smile too; dissatisfied with the gesture, he mistook me for a native Kashmiri – gazing at me, he says, “You don’t think of yourself as an Indian – but a Pakistani. Why should the government help you?” We wondered together.
“If one has thirty-two children at home, not everyone is good – at least, one is a bastard,” he says. Nodding his head, looking for my approval, he adds, “Until that child straightens his ways, he will not get benefits.”
This small interaction with the CRPF personnel from Manipur bare laid the blueprint of relations between New Delhi and Srinagar.
Later, when I read the hoarding to Ms. Khan, she gets frustrated and shrugged it off with a smile. She doesn’t think any of the decisions by Mr. Modi’s government has given her wings; this week, she had her twelfth grade results. In the absence of the internet in Kashmir, she called outside to check.
“Honestly, I didn’t go to school for four months – that pain is still there. I couldn’t study anything and had no internet – only I know how I survived my examinations,” she says as her eyes swell with emotions. Her mother, who didn’t want to talk until a few moments ago, watched her daughter in awe.
“I’m afraid to talk to you. If I had been on camera, police would knock my door by evening,” says Ms. Khan. “Modi just wants to show to India that he is doing Bharat Mata ki Jai! Bharat Mata ki Jai! (Hail mother India!) across the country – that’s all.”
Yashraj Sharma is an assistant editor and features writer at The Kashmir Walla.
The story also appeared in our 27 January – 2 February 2020 print edition.