Sheikha Gal or Watali is a language spoken by a minority community classified as schedule caste in the Kashmir province of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The watal community is divided into three classes in accordance with their professions. 1. keshir’ watal (mostly sweepers Kashmiri speakers) 2. tshiints watal(works on the skin of dead animals) 3. shupIr’ watal(makers of winnowing pans and baskets Sheikha Gal speakers) The ShupIr Watals use their own language Sheikha Gal also called as shupIrbu:l’ in their daily discourse. Their main occupation in the past was to make winnowing pans and baskets which is why they are also called ‘chaj ko:m’ ( chaj refers to winnowing pan in Sheikha Gal ) . But there is a remarkable change in the professions of newer generation, i.e. many of them have switched profession over to being hawkers usually selling quilts, bed sheets, blankets, etc. They are dark complexioned when compared to Kashmir’s thereby making them easily distinguishable from rest of the Kashmiris. The term watal is considered derogatory by this community. Their claim is that the original name assigned to them was Watvun – those who take care of something, a potentially correct way to refer to those who clean and dispose of dirt, filth and other unclean matters. They also claim that the surname Sheikh is assigned to them by Mr. Sheikh Abdullah , as a symbol of equality and unity.
The ShupIr Watals are not originally from Kashmir but have migrated to Kashmir about forty years ago. In a claim made by them they have migrated from Rawalpindi after it was under attack by the tribal communities in Pakistan. For a long period of time the community was nomadic and would dwell in different open fields because of which they got the name harmedaani sheikh (medaan refers to ‘open field’ in Kashmiri ). Nowadays the community is no longer nomadic but is settled in different parts of Kashmir valley like, Nowhatta, Hawal, Batamaloo, Parimpora, Tangmarg, Baramulla, Sopore, Uri etc. The shupIr’ watals, are easily distinguishable from rest of the Kashmiri population. The main point of differentiation is the absence of sharp features and comparatively darker complexion of the members of this community as compared to the Kashmiris.
The language Sheikha Gal is an unclassified language and the name of this language or its speakers are not mentioned in the census. This language is to some extend an amalgam of many languages viz; Punjabi, Pahari, Urdu and Kashmiri. Sheikh Gal is an SOV language like most of the Indo-Aryan language but the research done on the language at this point of time is too little to establish any genealogical affinities. This language has no literature, writing system and is only spoken by the community members. It is a language with dwindling number of speakers as the people of this community have developed and extremely negative stereotype towards the language and do not prefer to talk to their children in Sheikha Gal and some would totally deny its knowledge for the fact that knowledge of Sheikha Gal means being a part of the community which has no social status and low prestige attached to it. In watali community one can find a range of speakers from bilinguals to the multilinguals with knowledge of about three to four languages, almost all of them have active command over two to three languages. Majority of the members of the community are bilinguals or trilingual but, Sheikha Gal forms the mother tongue of almost all the inhabitants of watali community with few exceptions. The variety of Sheikha Gal spoken is same throughout the community. The incidence of monolingualisim in watali community shows a very different picture than rest of the minority communities of J&K, as it is almost impossible to find a monolingual in the community. The percentage of trilingual is the maximum in the community. One of the major reasons for this is the neighborhood languages and the languages used at work places as people engaged in certain occupation tend to show more degree of multilinguism. According to them Kashmiri is the language of their business and Sheikha Gal is used within the community. Apart from Kashmiri and Sheikha Gal many of them can speak Punjabi, and Urdu as well.

Rahila Safdar

Languages