Balti: Protecting the language

When UNESCO’s general assembly adopted the ‘Endangered Languages Project’ and the ‘Red Book of Endangered Languages’ in November 1993, Language Endangerment took governments, academia and civil society across the world by surprise. Researchers pointed to an alarming condition of world’s languages by estimating that by the end of 21st century around 3000 languages constituting 90 percent of the world’s languages, would be severely endangered.

The global response to the challenges of language loss concretized along two major dimensions; firstly, language loss became the concern of common man and consequently it began to be discussed in the public domains. This unified people having diversified primary interests like social workers, government workers, anthropologists, conflict specialists, politicians, educationalists etc. Secondly professional linguists set forth to research and understand the issue of language loss or language death and provide solutions to counter the colossal loss to humanity.

Although enshrined in Indian constitution as an important fundamental duty, response towards the great diversity of minority ethnolinguistic groups has been meagre. While a safety net in the form of reservations for economic development was provided, nothing significant was envisaged for  ethno-cultural and linguistic development of these minorities, except for small time efforts of individual researchers, some NGOs and certain institutes.

The situation in erstwhile J&K state which also presented a wonderful conflux of various ethnolinguistic groups hasn’t been any better. Lack of institutional support, remoteness of areas, internal migration and language shift, stereotyping and fear of discrimination, lack of writing scripts and writing material are some of the issues which weaken the ethnolinguistic vitality of the minority groups. One such group, the Baltis of Kargil, is however facing a threat of an altogether different nature.

Baltis with a total world population of 392,800 (Ethnologue 2020) are the original inhabitants of Baltistan, locally Baltyul, now partly administered by India and partly Pakistan. Skardu, now a part of Gilgit-Baltistan province in Pakistan is considered to be its historical capital and Kargil as its southern fringe. In India Baltis are mainly settled in Kargil. Besides few Balti families can be found in Pannad pargana of Tral, Madar and Papchen villages of district Bandipora and Chanderkot area of Ramban.

Baltis in India are facing a real existential threat at least in official figures. The Linguistic Census of India has put the number of Baltis in 2011 at 13,774 down from 20,053 in 2001 with a negative decadal growth of whopping 31.31%. The number of Baltis has been shown to be decreasing since 1981 when their number was 48,498. According to the same source, during the decade 2001-2011, the population of erstwhile state of J&K showed a growth rate of 23% and the population of district Kargil increased from 119,307 to 143,388 individuals, registering a growth rate of 20% in this period. This makes the decreasing population of Baltis contestable given the fact that population of district Kargil and erstwhile J&K state has shown steady growth over these decades. Certain people believe that prior to 1989 tribal census of erstwhile J&K, majority of inhabitants of Kargil were considered as Baltis as Kargil has always been conceived as part of the Baltistan. But as it turned out during the census process, Baltis only formed a minority and majority of them actually belonged to another ethnic group called as Purigpa who speak another Tibetic language Purgi also Purkhi. However Balti population continued to decrease until 2011. Balti and Purkhi are Tibeto-Burman languages quite similar in structure and mutually intelligible to a large extent. Purigpa as a tribal group was officially recognised for the first time in the Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order, 1989. Certain people in Kargil admit that they would consider themselves as Baltis, but later in their lives, they found that they are actually Purigpa. A sense of confusion can be found among certain sections in Kargil regarding their ethnic affiliation. The Linguistic Census of India 2011 classified Purkhi under Tibetan language with of 92,016 speakers, while as Balti has been recognised as an independent language. The decadal growth figures of Tibetan and Balti are available as these are included in the 99 Non-Scheduled languages. The decadal growth figures of speakers for Purkhi, classified under Tibetan, aren’t available as of now, but there is possibility that such figures may be available in 2021 Census. The total speaker strength of Tibetan in erstwhile J&K state was 100499 in 2011, out of which 92016 were Purkhi speakers and 8184 speakers belonged to Tibetan. The Tibetan speakers at all India level registered a growth rate of 114% between 2001 and 2011, while during the same period Balti registered a negative growth of 31%. Under these circumstances, it would be no surprise, if Balti speakers are again shown to have decreased in 2021 Census.

According to certain Balti activists, Balti community was the third largest ethnic group in the princely state of J&K according to census of 1944 but the community became a victim of political machinations as Baltis are ethnically affiliated to Baltistan. The activists claimed that majority of people of Kargil and Nubra, and most Muslims of Leh are originally Baltis. Creation of a Kargil centric sentiment (historically called Purig) in the form of another ethnic group by officially recognizing it, among inhabitants of Kargil was actually aimed at breaking the ethnic continuity of Kargil with Baltistan and wean away locals from Balti ethnic affiliation. Pointing to Muharram celebrations, a significant constituent of socio-religious life of Shia Muslims in Kargil, the activists questioned as ‘why do those who claim to belong other ethnic groups, separate and distinct form Baltis, become true Baltis during the month’.

Language represents us at individual as well as collective levels. Among various identities like national, regional, religious, social etc which humans take, linguistic identities represent most basic and perpetual ones and as such are taken as a core parameter in identification of an ethnic group. Considering all languages as equal and without being prejudicial to any minority group, it is high time that Baltis demonstrate an urgency in responding to the alarming decrease in their population and find means to counter those factors which have relegated them to minority status in Kargil at least in official records. The state agencies must also take cognizance of the seemingly faulty methodology in the process followed in the past to estimate the population of  minority ethnic groups. Members of other minority groups should also be vigilant about being politically exploited in matters of their ethnolinguistic identities.

Given that 2021 is the year of national census, conscious Baltis must aware others about the disturbing situation, the group as an ethnic unit is facing through all possible means like social media, community centres, individual contacts and ensure that all its members, including those who have internally migrated to areas like Kulen in Ganderbal, Sepdan in Bemina  register their true ethnolinguistic identity during census survey, without any perceived fear, as guaranteed to them by constitution of India.

Note; With inputs from ICSSR sponsored project, Ethnolinguistic vitality and Language Maintenance and Shift among various Minority Linguistic Groups in Kashmir and Ladakh.

The author teaches at department of linguistics, university of Kashmir