Urdu in India: victim of Hindu nationalism & Muslim separatism - i

The situation is that while written Urdu has declined in India, globally it has touched new heights, not only to become the official language and the lingua franca in multi-language Pakistan but gone beyond the borders of the Subcontinent to become the most recognized Indian language in the Gulf and even in the UK. In addition, it has developed new bases in other English-speaking countries like USA, Canada and Australia where Urdu-speaking communities and generally people of Indian and Pakistani origin have settled down.

The sad state of Urdu in independent India, particularly its decline in the field of education, administration & information, and consequent impact on the Urdu- speaking community is largely attributable to the policies adopted by the Centre and various Hindi-speaking states after Hindi was promulgated as the Official Language of the Union in 1950. A review of the situation of Urdu in 12 states with large concentration of Urdu speaking population shows that the position of Urdu in the southern states of Maharashtra, AP and Karnataka is much better than its position in the northern Hindi-speaking region namely UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarkhand, MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi. In the Hindi-speaking region Hindi and Urdu continue to face each other, although Urdu has given up all its pretension of being the ‘lingua franca of the Sub-continent,’ and the Urdu speaking community in the country has willy-nilly accepted the superior status of Hindi (‘the elder sister’), because it is now the official language of 9 states in North India which together account for about 80%, of the Hindi speaking population of the country.

According to the Census 2001 Hindi has been declared the mother tongue by more than 450 million people, which is much higher than the second highest linguistic population of 83.4 m. in the case of Bengali. Urdu is the 6th most spoken language in the country. The critical problem for Urdu lies in the fact that unlike Hindi, it is not the mother tongue of the majority of the people of any state. In fact, of all the original Schedule 8 Languages, Sindhi and Urdu are the only languages, which are ‘homeless’ as they are not the principal language of any state. In the South it continues to compete with Hindi even numerically, but Hindi has the advantage of being taught as the official language of the Union which is expected to take the place of English as the link language in due course. In these states Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil & Malayalam are the principal languages of the state; but Urdu is widely understood & spoken and taught at the school level. In fact the average South Indian does not and cannot differentiate between spoken Urdu and spoken Hindi. He is more concerned with the spoken language, which comes alive on the electronic media and in the so-called ‘Hindi’ films. Many of them identify this spoken language as Urdu or Hindustani and do not have the same inclination as in the north to Sanskritise it.

In the North, for more than 250 years Urdu has been facing, the hostility and constant threat of assimilation by Hindi under the impact of Hindu resurgence. This threat has increased many folds since independence. After Partition Urdu was assumed to have ‘migrated’ to Pakistan and its use was steadily limited to the Muslim community. Thus, since Partition Urdu faces a hostile political environment in north India. Any other language would have normally succumbed to the pressure against it as a distinct language but Urdu has shown great resilience and withstood the politically-motivated rejection.

The situation is that while written Urdu has declined in India, globally it has touched new heights, not only to become the official language and thelingua franca in multi-language Pakistan but gone beyond the borders of the Sub-continent to become the most recognized Indian language in the Gulf and even in the UK. In addition, it has developed new bases in other English speaking countries like USA, Canada and Australia where Urdu speaking communities and generally people of Indian and Pakistani origin have settled down.

Myths about Urdu

Not surprisingly, many myths have been floated about it. It is asserted that Urdu is nothing more than a ‘style’ of Hindi. Even a liberal and secular intellectual like Jawaharlal Nehru, who made his public speeches in Urdu and declared Urdu as his mother tongue shared this untenable myth in one of his letters to the Chief Ministers. Urdu is a distinct Language, it is not a dialect nor a style of another language; it has a rich literature all its very own.

Another myth, to which even Gandhiji succumbed, propagated against Urdu was that Urdu is written ‘in the script of the Qur’an’. The fact is that Urdu is neither written in the Arabic nor in the Persian script. It has a script of its own and the Urdu script is phonetically much more comprehensive than either. It represents sounds which are peculiar to Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, and also it has compound alphabets.

Until recently, the Urdu-speaking community itself continued to identify Urdu with the Muslims while at the same time, claiming that Urdu had a wider reach and was more entitled to be the national language or the lingua franca of the country. Urdu is neither the language of all Muslims of the sub-continent nor only of the Muslim, though increasingly, through voluntary dissociation of the Hindus from written Urdu and its use in madrasa instruction and in religious discourse, Urdu has indeed become the language of Muslim Indians for all practical purposes. An effort was made in 1937 in some states like UP and Bihar, with an objective to bring Hindus and Muslims together, to introduce both Hindi and Urdu as compulsory languages in schools so that every child who learnt Hindi as his mother tongue also learnt Urdu and vice versa. In fact, at the level of common speech Hindi and Urdu students had to learn only two scripts. This is what led Gandhi and Zakir Hussain to formulate the scheme for a common language, but by then the die had been cast. In his speech in Lahore in 1940, Jinnah identified Urdu with the Muslims of the Sub-continent and the demand for Partition. After Partition Urdu became the official language of Pakistan which was a key factor in the later secession of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh. In fact, one of the main grievances of the Bengali speaking Pakistanis was that Urdu was imposed on them. In India Urdu has paid the price of Partition. In Pakistan it has paid the price of imposition.

History of Urdu-Hindi Confrontation:

Historically speaking while both Urdu and Hindi share common roots in Khari Boli and Brij Bhasha spoken in Western UP, literature in the Devanagri script appeared much later than in Urdu. In early 19th century its ‘manufacture’ was sponsored by the East India Company through the Fort William College which was established in Kolkata to train its employees and administrators to facilitate contact with the rural masses. Words of Arabic and Persian origin in Urdu books were substituted by words of Sanskrit origin and Urdu books were rewritten in the Devanagri script. By that time Urdu had also reached its peak as a language of poetry and Hindi was not in a position to offer anything comparable. Thus for many years Urdu remained the language of culture, in north India from Dhaka to Ahmedabad and touched Lahore in the north and Hyderabad in the South; irrespective of their religious affiliation, the elite used Urdu and nothing but Urdu.

By early 19th Century the British had overcome all political resistance in north India and the local potentates had become their tributaries. The British defeated the Marathas in 1804 and entered Delhi, appointed a Resident who was the virtual ruler of Delhi and functionally much more powerful than the Moghul Emperor, who was virtually confined, to the Red Fort with the villages of Palam and Mehrauli as his farthest jurisdiction-’Alamdari-e-Shah Alam, Uz Dilli ta Palam’. The ‘Emperor’ lived on British pension, which was technically in lieu of the revenue collected by the East India Company under the imperial mandate.

In order to bring the alien administration closer to the people as well as to cut at the roots of the residual cultural influence of the Moghul Empire, the British first decided to replace Persian by Urdu in Persian script in offices and courts. It was the time when the Holy Quran was also translated from Persian to Urdu and many works of theology were composed in Urdu including the textbooks commonly used in Madrasas for instruction in theology as well as secular subjects.

Then arose a divisive movement, majoritarian in spirit, that Urdu in the Persian script was not intelligible to a large majority of the people and, therefore, Hindi in Devanagri script should have the same status as Urdu in Persian script. What shocked Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was that one of his old friends Babu Shiv Prasad of Varanasi became a leader of this movement and submitted a memorandum to the Lt. Governor of North Western Province of Agra and Oudh in 1868. This memorandum ended with the prayer that just as the government had thrown out the Persian language, similarly it should now throw out the Persian script. In 1893, the Nagri Pracharni Sabha was established in Varanasi to carry on the campaign for the introduction of Devanagri script. It was supported by Hindu Rajas and nobles apart from personalities like Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya. In November 1895 in Varanasi and again in March 1898 in Allahabad this Sabha submitted memoranda to the then Lt. Governor. The Sabha succeeded in its objectives and the Lt. Governor issued a directive which granted equal status to Hindi in Devnagri script in government offices and courts. The Muslims and the Urdu-speaking elite made a token protest but they were silenced when the Governor threatened to cut off government aid to the MAO College, Aligarh. What is important for us is to remember the words of Christopher King on the real purpose of the Hindi movement; to differentiate Hindi from Urdu and to make Hindi a symbol of culture & medium of education & administration. Hindi movement formed part of a much broader process which fashioned communal awareness in pre-Independence India. The transformation of one linguistic group into two communities and nationalities culminated in the birth of Pakistan.

This is what Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had anticipated and he had expressed his views in a letter to Nawab Mohsinul Mulk on 29 April, 1870. He said’ I am sad and concerned that the movement launched by Babu Shiv Prasad has inspired the Hindus to replace the Urdu language in Persian script which is regarded as a sign of Muslims. This implies that now there cannot be unity between the Hindus and the Muslims’.

We can conclude that, the Hindi movement deliberately tried to widen the gulf between the Hindus and the Muslims while the protagonists of Urdu were pleading the case of Urdu as a symbol of common nationhood. The Hindi movement in every way tried to encourage the Hindus to break off any attachment to Urdu, while the Urdu movement was trying for a synthesis. In fact, again to quote Christopher King, a divide was created so that one could no longer advocate the cause of Urdu & Hindi at the same time. The process culminated in ‘Jap Niranter Ek Zaban, Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ as slogan ‘The slogan Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan which indeed left no room for non-Hindi speakers and non-Hindus in Hindustan. Thus the seeds were sown for dividing the nation through the cultural stream which through centuries of common endeavour had produced a common language (Urdu) and enriched a common culture with a unique mode of artistic expression in Ghazal, Hindustani music and miniature paintings.

In 1906, the All India Muslim League, established that year counted Urdu as the undivided heritage of the Muslims. It was therefore, a pointer in favour of the political position which developed as the country moved towards independence. In 1937, after the first elected government was formed in various provinces, Gandhiji tried for a compromise calling for the adoption of Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani as the national language of the country to be written in both Devanagri and Persian scripts.

Minimal Aspirations of Urdu In Post-Independence-India

With the defection of the Hindu elite, the Muslims were left with the responsibility of nurturing Urdu. With a few exceptions on both sides, the cultural divide had widened and while the Freedom Movement tried to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity, the cultural gulf could not be bridged. The Muslim elite almost gave up the struggle and owned Urdu as their language. In schools the number of Hindu children declaring Urdu as their mother tongue slowly came down to zero.

As mentioned earlier, Urdu has recognized the change of circumstances and accepted the dominance and superior status of Hindi. Since 1950 the Urdu community has been demanding only that Urdu as a mother tongue be the medium of instruction at the primary for Urdu-speaking children and that at the secondary level it be taught as the first language under the Three Language Formula to those who declare Urdu as their Mother Tongue, with the provision that all such children also learn Hindi in the Hindi-speaking states as the compulsory Second Language and in other states, in the same manner, the Principal Languages of those states.

However, time and again Urdu has been rebuffed even in respect of the constitutional & legal demand. Communal politics, which has cast its shadow on the mindset even in a secular state, is not prepared to accept even this minimal demand. So, Urdu stands exiled totally from UP which, even today has the largest Urdu- speaking community (25 %) in the country. This has meant that in every successive generation the percentage of Urdu-knowing people is going down. In the first stage, Urdu-speaking children were denied facilities through numerical jugglery and administrative tricks. But they continued to use Urdu because they learnt to speak it at home and learnt to write it from private tutors. The second stage was reached when Urdu-speaking children began using with greater frequency Hindi equivalents of common Urdu words. The third stage is now with us, spelling Urdu incorrectly in writing, while mispronouncing Urdu words which are in common use. Ghaziabad became Gajiabad while Akash Vani invites listeners to ‘Galib ki Gajal Begum Akhtar ki jabani.’

Some experts assume that the spirit of a language is in its spoken form and that words when they travel from one language to another get deformed and suffer change in meaning and pronunciation; they do not see that Urdu will survive in the land of its birth, retaining both its vocabulary and its pronunciation. They look upon Urdu as a language which has always been progressive and generous in accepting words from other languages. No doubt, this is how Urdu grew and how it retains its innate vitality but why should common words which are understood at every level be distorted or replaced by unfamiliar Sanskrit equivalents till they become common currency?

To be continued in the next issue

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 April 2011 on page no. 12

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