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Decline of a beautiful language

New Delhi: Mumbai is one of the largest centres of film making, not only in India, but the entire world. These films are popular all over the subcontinent, parts of Middle East, Russia, South Africa, Britain and other countries.

Much of the appeal of these films comes from their language, their songs, music and dance sequences. The language with such visceral appeal is called Urdu, which despite its immense popularity is in decline in its homeland, India.

After the partition of the country in 1947 into an "Islamic" Pakistan and a "secular" India, Pakistan made it the official language while India allowed it to decline slowly. The reason: it was supposed to be the language of "Muslims". 

This is despite the fact that Urdu was defeated in the Indian Constituent Assembly in 1947 as the country's official language by only a single vote which was, ironically, cast by a Muslim member (Begum Aizaz Rasool) who later lamented her irrational act which led to the murder of her own language.

The popular perception of Urdu being the "language of Muslims" caused immense harm to the language in the early years of India’s independence, when there was a feeling among powerful people that Muslims had built their own country (Pakistan), and those Muslims who stayed back in India should not insist on their cultural identity.

The anti-Urdu sentiment was tacit, though outwardly the state did take a few cosmetic "measures" like establishing "Urdu Academies" and "Urdu Boards" and organising mushairas (poetry jamborees). India’s politically most influential state, Uttar Pradesh, which is also historically most significant for Muslim presence and the heartland of Urdu, had no provision for teaching Urdu in schools over the last half a century.

The impression that Urdu is a "Muslim" language is erroneous because during Mughal rule the court language was Persian, a few nobles of Central Asian origin conversed among themselves in Turkic, the language for Muslim prayers and Islamic education was, and remains, Arabic.

Urdu came on the scene some 280 years ago as a common language for troops of different ethnic origins — Ethiopians, Arabs, Turks, Iranians, other racial and linguistic groups in the Mughal army, besides Indians of different ethnicities. Because of its birth in the barracks, the language was called "Urdu" (Turkish for army).

Classified as "belonging to the Indic branch of the Indo-European languages," the word "Urdu" shares its root with the English "horde," with similar connotations. It also shares a wide common ground with Hindi, the popular north Indian language, the distinction being its large repertoire of Arabic and Persian loan words. Urdu is written in Perso-Arabic script, which reinforces the common perception that it is a "Muslim" language.

The fact, however, is that it is not a Muslim language, but the fruit of long interaction between Muslims and Hindus as well as other Indian religious groups. It is also spoken in Afghanistan, and by expatriate communities all over Europe and North America, besides Middle East and South Africa. A substantial proportion of best Urdu poets and writers have always been Hindus.

Over the last few decades, a strange situation has developed in which a couple of generations have come up who can speak and understand Urdu, but cannot read and write it.

The issue came up for an in-depth discussion on September 25, at New Delhi’s Constitution Club. The participants included Chancellor of Hamdard University Saiyid Hamid, former Delhi University vice chancellor (VC) Amrik Singh, former Aligarh Muslim University VC Hamid Ansari, Prof Nira Chandhoke of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee, and Prof Iqbal A Ansari of Delhi's Hamdard University.

The academics observed that the language suffered from a "cultural disability" as a result of continued official neglect. The meeting was organised by the Delhi-based Institute of Objective Studies.

Prof Iqbal A Ansari, one of the leading human rights activists of the country, whose book Readings on Minorities: Perspectives and Documents (Vol. III) was released on the occasion, said that the cultural rights of Urdu speakers would continue to suffer if the laws regarding their protection were not made more meaningful.

Prof Ansari said, being a signatory to the UN covenant on human rights, India was accountable to the UN Human Rights Commission, and should see to it that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to Minorities regarding preservation and promotion of linguistic, cultural and religious identity was implemented.

He said that the phrasing of Article 29 (1) of the Constitution of India was such that the Government of India thought it gave minorities the freedom to preserve their distinct language and script without putting an obligation on the state to take special measures in this regard.

According to Prof Ansari, whose latest volume on minorities’ rights is regarding their language, education and culture, the Supreme Court should intervene to end the above constitutional ambiguity as it has done in other cases.

There are a lot of people in India who agree with Prof Ansari’s prescription for halting the decline of Urdu in India. 

¯ MG Correspondent

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