Neglected [Endangered] Communities: A Case of Sheikha Gal (Community and Language) of Srinagar, Kashmir


Sheikha Gal Community
The settlement of Sheikha Gal Community under the majestic Hari Parbat Hill with the shrine of Sheikh Hamza Makdoomi overlooking them

OUTLINE: The present article deals with a neglected and marginalized Sheikha Gal community (of Kashmir). The article explains their linguistic and social exclusion, education, socio-economic status and the living standard, stigmatisation and stereotypes, ethnicity and their physical features.  The article is based on a larger narrative and project of understanding the Sheikha Gal (as a linguistic community), more precisely, to understand the grammatical and linguistic features of the Sheikha Gal community of Srinagar, Kashmir. Most of their traits and identity assertion symbols are in jeopardy and endangered. 

The majestic Hari Parbat hill was freshly sprinkled with winter snow. I, along with my colleague, were walking through the alleys in its foothills. The alleys were covered with ankle-high snow. As we kept walking, a man (Fayaz Ahmad) in his late thirties was passing by pushing a cart, filled with trash. I said to my colleague that probably he is a sweeper and, possibly, he speaks the language (Sheikha Gal, the neglected and unexplored language, I was going to explore). We approached Fayaz Ahmad and asked him if he could speak to us for a minute. He agreed. We politely informed him that we are looking for the individuals who speak Sheikha Gal. He turned uncomfortable, probably because he did not want to speak to us or express if he knew someone from the community who speaks the language. We struggled to convince him of our aim and how our work could help in documenting the language he speaks, which is currently endangered and may otherwise extinct. Our efforts worked, and he finally agreed and accompanied us inside his community, who speak the language I was supposed to conduct the research on. Few metres away, a skinny, dark, bearded man (Zahoor Ahmad Sheikh, henceforth Molvi Zahoor) was coming out of the nearby mosque and Fayaz, who was accompanying us, addressed him “molvi” (a common expression for a religious Muslim man having religious knowledge and leading the prayers).  Our aide Fayaz gestured to Molvi Zahoor to come forward. Before Zahoor could pronounce ‘Salaam/greetings’, our aide informed him that we have come from the university (of Kashmir) and we’re here to conduct research on his language and requested him to take us to his home. Molvi Zahoor was perplexed and did not know how to react; so, he politely took us to his home. This was my first interaction as well as introduction to the world of Sheikha Gal community who otherwise are very reluctant to speak to the outsiders due to many reasons, stereotypes and beliefs.

As we entered the alley of Molvi Zahoor’s Muhallah (locality), small tiny houses began to emerge from both the sides. This Muhallah is called Tujgari Muhallah. As we walk through the long and narrow alley we see poor sanitation, someone unclogging the drain, snow from tin roofs piled up in this narrow alleyway where kids chase dogs, someone removing snow from his entrance and piling it up on the already five feet tall snow mound. We dodge the dogs and kids, walk through the murky waters, everyone looking at us suspiciously, presumably because we were ‘outsiders’ to them. Molvi Zahoor’s house, a tiny two-story house, each floor having just one room, was a few meters away from where we met him. As we entered his home, we met his wife, and his three young daughters. One was just three months old and the others were three to five years old. His wife was surprised, probably because she couldn’t expect an uninvited guest that too an outsider.  Though she was very welcoming but a little hesitant about who we were and why Molvi Zahoor invited us. This is the community which is looked down upon by the Kashmiri community and are almost considered as untouchables, that is why there was hesitation in her offer. My sole purpose to visit the community was based on a larger narrative of understanding the Sheikha Gal as a linguistic and speech community. To be precise, for my PhD research, I wanted to explore the grammar of Sheikha Gal from a linguistic perspective.

Over the cups of hot tea in the chilling winter, Molvi Zahoor stated that his tribe, the Sheikhs were a wandering tribe and had come from Pakistan. In the past, they never settled at one place for longer durations. Due to tribal attacks, they migrated towards Kashmir and used to wander from place to place in Kashmir, usually camping at open fields or medaans. Nevertheless, he did not have any information about why and when did Sheikhs begin to settle in and around Kashmir.

While having a conversation with Molvi Zahoor, I came to know that Sheikha Gal is not the language of whole Sheikh Community (street cleaners) but is spoken by the fragment of people who once dealt with the making of winnowing pans which they call ‘Shaj’ and Kashmiris call it Shup and thus this fragment of population was named as Shupir. The group under study henceforth SGLC (Sheikha Gal as linguistic community) is sparsely spread across different geographical locations of Kashmir: Baramulla (Sopore), Pulwama (Lassipora), Kulgam, Kupwara and Srinagar. In Srinagar, they are settled at the foothills of Hariparbat, Nowhatta, and Parimpora. When it comes to their population and other statistics, there isn’t any proper recorded data.

Linguistic and Social Exclusion:

Social exclusion, according to Burchardt et al., (2002) is sometimes used to refer narrowly to the absence of economic well- being, particularly un- and underemployment, and sometimes it is used more broadly to include the absence of civil and social rights, particularly to healthcare and education. The usefulness of the term “social exclusion” over older terms such as “poverty” or “deprivation” (Welshman, 2007) or over its North American equivalents “marginalization” or “underclass” (Hills et al., 2002) lies precisely in this broad conceptualization and in the recognition that identities are a major source of exclusion from material well-being. The linguistic and social exclusion of the Sheikha Gal has not been studied thoroughly, however, Mehnaz Rashid (2022), on the basis of her research and data, opines that Sheikha Gal (as language) serves the communicative function in home domain only. Kashmiri is used in all other domains. Despite the fact that it is mostly used in the intra-community contexts, all the speakers frequently resort to practice of code-switching and code mixing. The older generation speaks Sheikha Gal with numerous Kashmiri borrowings, while the younger generation converse in Kashmiri using limited Sheikha Gal lexicon.  The community has dissociated itself from its linguistic identity practices by not only stopping using Sheikha Gal in all domains but also has a negative attitude towards it. The people of this community have switched to Kashmiri and can speak fluent Kashmiri, thus trying to converge and associate their identity with the majority Kashmiri speech community. However, Kashmiris dissociate themselves from them and strongly resist to consider them as a part of their community. The Sheikha Gal members not only attempt to shape their linguistic identities, but also social, ethnic and cultural identities by dissociating themselves from their practices by associating itself with the practices of the majority/majority Kashmiri speech community. I recall one anecdote about the expression of their linguistic inferiority complex, where a member of their community, Nasir Ahmed, makes sure that he does not communicate with his kids in Sheikha Gal. He recalled that recently he got a phone call from her sister insisting him not to speak Sheikha Gal while kids are around. Since then he and his wife decided not to use Sheikha Gal at home with kids. When I asked him about such linguistic behaviour, he responded that speaking in their language makes them feel inferior. In the present times, the community is experiencing a period of upheaval and is confronted with certain challenges resulting in the identity crisis and social exclusion.

Education, Socio-Economic Status and the Living Standard:

It was found that the community is predominately uneducated and illiterate. Few among the earlier generation are educated only up to the primary level. The new generation hardly studies after the secondary level. There are no separate schools for them and they have to study in the schools where the majority community kids’ study. Being disadvantaged, they cannot afford school fees and education related expenses. Besides, the unfriendly treatment and indecorous behaviour of teachers, the fellow students demotivate and discourage them which among the other factors, forces them to discontinue their education. The Sheikhs believe that their children are a valuable asset (economically) for their family, and that they must work as child labourers to supplement their parents’ income. As a result, they don’t emphasise on their education, and even the children are unwilling to attend school.

Sheikhs have a low socio-economic status. They are placed at the lower strata of the socio-economic status. Sheikh Community is treated as untouchable in Kashmir valley, which is antithetical to Islamic ideals of social justice and equality, although, Islam is the widely practised faith in the valley. This negative behaviour and ill-treatment of the society towards them has created a sense of inferiority in them, due to which, they hesitate to articulate their identity. They feel ashamed to talk in their own language in front of the majority community. The whole community is impoverished and works in the homes (as laborers or cleaners) belonging to the majority community to earn their livelihood.

Due to their low socioeconomic status, their standard of living is very low as compared to the majority community. They are barely able to make both the ends meet. Living in congested spaces and very ordinary houses, even the big families hardly own 2-3 rooms, or a washroom, which is usually located outside the house. Modern electronic gadgets are not found in every house. Some households even lack basic facilities and infrastructure.

Stigmatisation and Stereotypes:

As we found that the community has little education, low socio-economic status and a poor living standard, these along with other factors have led to the stigmatization of the community. The basic factor that leads to the stigmatisation of the community is the treatment it has received from the majority community. The majority holds a negative attitude towards them and does not consider them trustworthy. Certain taboos have been associated with them and the community is accused of being a hotspot for drug trafficking, immodesty and indecency. The community has been the subject of numerous complaints from the majority community neighbourhood with reference to their conduct and behaviour. They accuse them for being involved in selling drugs and consuming alcohol. Members of the Sheikh community admitted that such incidents used to happen earlier, but that as a result of the regular police raids, they have stopped completely.

There are many stereotypes constructed for Sheikhs in general, in Kashmir some of the common stereotypes include that Sheikhs are considered disloyal, untrustworthy, quarrelsome and indecent. It is believed that the women folk of this community wear bright shimmery clothes and overly adorn themselves with artificial jewellery. Thus, a person even from the majority community, who wears bright clothes is derogatory labelled as a Watul or watij. Dying of hair in a non-traditional way, is also being associated negatively with sheikhs. Talking loudly, abusing, or adopting a harsh tone is considered as a characteristic feature of the Sheikh community. If a person from the majority community tries to argue or raises a voice, he/she is personified as watul/watij. All these descriptions mentioned above are just the preconceived notions about them. The author, being the regular visitor to the said community for a few years, has rarely found any such practice ascribed to the community. The author found many good qualities instead, for example, their welcoming nature and the treatment they offered instead of multiple visits for a few years.

Ethnicity and Physical Features:  

Ethnicity is a group’s trait that is linked to lineage, culture, and language. The ethnic identity of them is mainly associated with the making of winnowing trays. Presently, the minimal use of  Sheikha Gal language has led to the endangerment of their cultural and ethnic features. Younger generation no longer associates with their ethnicity, and prefer to work as hawkers, street cleaners and bus conductors, instead of making winnowing trays. The older generation mentions that they have not forgot the skill of making winnowing trays, nevertheless, taboo got associated with and they too are reluctant to make winnowing trays, because of being called Shupir as derogatory. Therefore, being a pejorative term, caused them to quit the profession and switch to other professions like being employed in Municipal Corporations. Like their other traits, and identity expressions, has put their older and the main profession in jeopardy and endangered.

The physical features like dark complexion, sunken eyes, haggard appearance, colour dyed hair (mostly), overly beautifying themselves with artificial jewellery and unhygienic looks make them different from the majority community. It has greatly been associated with their identity thus resulting in social exclusion.

Conclusion: Sheikha Gal, a marginalized and endangered community of Kashmir has been neglected for decades, be it the governments, the policy makers, the researchers or the majority community. The community suffers from linguistic inferiority complex by not using their dialect/language with the majority Kashmiri speaking community. They are socially excluded, most of the community members are illiterate/uneducated, and economically belong to the lower strata of the society. Their living standard is very low, with less basic infrastructure, healthcare facilities, sanitation, and other facilities. They have been stigmatized and many serotypes have been associated with them. Ethnically, they are dubbed as Shupir. The physical features like dark complexion, sunken eyes, haggard appearance, colour dyed hair, overly beautifying themselves with artificial jewellery and unhygienic looks make them different from the majority community. The community has been neglected for decades, and it strongly needs the attention of researchers, policy makers, funding agencies, before the Shiekha Gal community and language extinct.

The author is PhD in Linguistics, currently teaches at the Altalf Memorial Government Degree College Kilam, (Kulgam, Kashmir) and can be reached at [email protected]

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Mr. Shahnawaz Bhat for his help and support in the entire data collecting process. 


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