tft-logo   By Zia Ur Rehman and Munawar Barki

February 21, 2014

Half of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world today may disappear by the end of this century if they are not preserved, according to UNESCO. And that is why it observes the International Mother Language Day on February 21 as a day for awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and promotion of local languages.

Kaniguram valley , South Waziristan

But residents of war-torn mountainous valley of Kaniguram in South Waziristan, the native residence of Urmar Burkis, fear their language Ormuri is on the brink of extinction, because of the displacement of Burki tribesmen due to the military operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in South Waziristan. Located in the heart of the Mehsud area of South Waziristan, Kaniguram valley is only home of the Ormuri language, where an estimated population of about 10,000 Ormuri speakers lives. But because of military operation codenamed ‘Operation Rah-e-Nijat’ that started in October 2009, the entire Burki population has been forced to leave Kaniguram. “A majority of them are living in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while a quarter of them preferred to migrate to Karachi and Hyderabad in Sindh, which are comparatively cheap,” said Nazar Khan Burki, president of Burki Welfare Association Pakistan. Burki tribesmen link the survival of Ormuri language with the Kaniguram valley. They have been the primary inhabitants of the valley since the reign of Mehmood Ghaznavi, who ran the Ghaznavid Empire centered in modern-day Afghanistan from 997AD to 1030AD. When Ghaznavi was launching his last assault on India, he took along a group of 3,000 Burki tribesmen from Afghanistan, who then inhabited the valley. Kaniguram was also home to the 16th Century scholar and warrior Bayazid Ansari, popularly known as Pir Roshaan. “Although the Kaniguram valley is in South Waziristan, which is considered a stronghold of Taliban, it was known for its high literacy rate, rich history, Sufi shrines, unique language and culture, and accomplished professionals,” said Tariq Khan Burki, an activist. “The town was partially demolished during the military operation along with its rich culture, economy, architecture, agriculture, and language,” he said. In a series of interviews, Burki elders and youth in Dera Ismail Khan and Karachi expressed concerns over their endangered language and culture. In Karachi, displaced Burki families are scattered in various neighborhoods and it is very difficult for them to meet each other on regular basis. “Since the displacement from Kaniguram, Ormuri speakers in Karachi and elsewhere have no proper organized community or society where they could live together and get a chance to speak in their mother tongue, therefore  they are losing the language little by little,” says Ajab Khan Burki, a university student who migrated from Kaniguram to Karachi. He said women of the displaced families continue speaking in Ormuri, which gives them hope that the language would be passed on to the next generation. The words Burki and Ormur are synonymously used for the same tribe, although the latter is comparatively new and not used by the tribe itself, according to Rozi Khan Burki, a researcher. In a research paper on the Ormuri language, he says the language has also been called Baraki, Bargista, and Barakey by historians and linguists in the past. In his book written in Ormuri, Rozi Khan Burki claims there are similarities between Pashtun and Ormuri people because Ormur was the grandson of Qasi Abdur Rasheed – the forefather of all Pashtun tribes. “They are originally Pashtuns who migrated in 1025 to Kaniguram from Logar, Afghanistan. Their language was initially known as Burgista but has now become Ormuri,” he said. Burki elders said that a number of families had migrated to other parts of the Indian subcontinent in the past, especially in the 17th century to the Jalandhar city of India. Today, Burki tribesmen live in small numbers in Lahore, Peshawar, Bannu, and the Logar and Paktia provinces in Afghanistan. All of them have adopted the dominant languages of their new homes, such as Pashto, Urdu and Punjabi. Burki tribesmen say the preservation of the language, culture and identity of the people of Kaniguram will only be possible if its residents are allowed to return to their hometown and provided the basic amenities. Meanwhile, the displaced tribesmen in Karachi and Dera Ismail Khan continue to gather and speak in their language, in common spaces provided by the Burki Welfare Association. B