The dispute over script still endures among Sindhis

A group of Sindhi speakers in Mumbai has started a campaign to promote the Perso-Arabic script for their language.

The group, Sindhi Sangat, says it has convinced 40 schools, most of them managed by community trusts in the Mumbai region and Madhya Pradesh, to teach the script to students.

Sindhi is a branch of Indo-Iraninian like Hindi, Punjabi and other major languages in South Asia, but unlike the others and those belonging to the Dravidian group that are written in scripts derived from the Brahmi style of writing, Sindhi is written in a version of the Arabic script. Punjabi in Pakistan also uses this script though Indian speakers of the language, especially Sikhs, write it in Gurmukhi, which is also derived from Brahmi.

There is no unanimity among scholars about the original script used by Sindhi speakers.

They are of the opinion that the language appeared in the written form in the 8th century and different scripts were used to write it. Some reports, attributed to 10th century traveller Alberuni (Al-Biruni), talks about three scripts that were in use. Researchers are reported to have found evidence that a script derived from Brahmi was in use, but the evidence is too thin to establish whether this was the predominant writing style.

After the Arab conquest of Sind, the Arabic script became the preferred writing style. Shah Abdul Latif, considered to be language’s greatest literary figure, used this writing style.

Even after the Arabic script became predominant there were attempts to give the language its own writing style, and according to some experts the Khudawadi, or Khudabadi, script – developed by an education officer – was among the choices looked at in the 19th century. The script was derived from Devanagari, a derivative of the Brahmi script used to write Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, among other languages.

Mohan Gehani, a Sindhi writer and Sahitya Akademi awardee, said that as many as 21 scripts were in use till the colonial administration set up a committee in 1854 to create a 52-letter script called Perso-Arabic, a modified version of the Arabic alphabet. “The Sindhi language started appearing in the written form only after this script was adopted,” said Gehani.

After partition, many Hindus who migrated to India from Sindh advocated the discarding of the Arabic script. “Jairamdas Daulatram (a freedom fighter from Sindh who later became the governor of Bihar and Assam) promoted Devanagari,” said Asha Chand, of Sindhi Sangat. Sindhis in Pakistan continue to use the Arabic script.

According to Chand, who is a writer, unlike the Arabic script which was modified for its use in Sindhi, Devanagari was not. “Sindhi has 52 alphabets but Devanagari has only 33. There is hardly any Sindhi literature in Devanagari; our entire literature, including the works of Shah Latif, our greatest poet, is written in the Arabic script,” said Chand. “We are not against Devanagari, but there is no standardised version of the script that Sindhis can use.”

To add to the confusion, there was a campaign to promote the use of the Roman script to write the language. This dispute over scripts is not limited to Sindhi; Konkani is written in four scripts, including Roman, and Santhali in six.

In the midst of this debate, the Arabic style is still popular, with most Sindhi newspapers and writers using the script.

According to Gehani, around 10,000 books in Sindhi printed in the last 50 years in India have used the Perso-Arabic script.

In comparison, only 1,000 Sindhi books have used the Devanagari script.

Chand says this is a cause of worry because the younger generation of Sindhi speakers is unfamiliar with the Perso-Arabic script. “In 10 years, there will be hardly any people who will understand the script. This is the reason children have to be familiarised with the script,” said Chand.

According to Gehani, the dispute is redundant because of new software that can write and translate languages, regardless of the script.

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