SKARDU: In what must be one of the most improbable attempts at linguistic revival anywhere in the world, the Tibetan script is slowly making a comeback in this corner of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — fighting not just the cursive dominance of Urdu but also the suspicions of mullahs and officials who feel both Islam and Pakistan might be undermined.
The Baltistan region — centred around Skardu — is home to some 300,000 people whose mother tongue is Balti, a language of the Tibetan-Ladakhi family. ‘‘We are the only people in this region to have had our own script since the 6th century AD,’’ says Syed Abbas Kazmi of the Baltistan Cultural Foundation (BCF), ‘‘but due to the ‘‘narrow-mindedness of the mullah class people were told to stop using Tibetan’’.
The result is that over the years, the linguistic and literary development of Balti has suffered. ‘‘Persian alphabets were not suitable. Many Balti words could not be written and hence our language became like a stray animal, our prose and poetry withered,’’ says Kazmi, a scholar who has written a monograph on the Balti version of the old Tibetan Epic of King Gesar.
Together with the Aga Khan Cultural Services Pakistan and the London-based Tibet Foundation, Kazmi has been working since 1999 to reintroduce the Tibetan script.
The BCF has published an elementary textbook and helps shops in Skardu put up signboards in Tibetan. These signs are the first thing an outsider notices when he comes in to town. ‘‘We are getting a very good response’’, says Kazmi. ‘‘Of course, there is a big pressure group of mullahs who feel this is ‘unIslamic’. And then there are some who feel this will encourage a feeling of separatism from Pakistan. But our aim is purely cultural. Eventually, we want to promote cultural tourism in Baltistan.’’ Apart from the script, the BCF is working to revive Balti festivals, music and dance and renovate historic buildings.
When the BCF began its advocacy of Tibetan, anonymous leaflets were pasted on the doors of some masjids. ‘‘I was accused of trying to revive what the prophets had buried’’, says Kazmi. ‘‘What I do now is that before I start a new project, I first go to the mullahs and explain to them, educate them.’’
In Skardu, the BCF is respected and indulged, even if many are skeptical about the practicality of its main project. ‘‘You can’t undo hundreds of years of history,’’ one bookseller said, adding, however, that the Tibetan school primer was selling well. Though Kazmi is aware of the political implications of what he is doing, he insists Islamabad has nothing to fear.
‘‘We are for Baltistan but this does not mean we are against Pakistan. Even if we don’t have constitutional rights, Pakistan has given us many economic benefits — telephones, roads, schools. But they have not loved us as much as we have loved them.’’ The 1988 killing of Shias in Gilgit still rankles people here, he says. ‘‘And Pakistan is certainly not helping to find a solution to the Kashmir problem.’’