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Cover Story: Language Imperialism

The curious case of Urdu

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
At Kul Hind Mushaira, an Urdu and Hindi poetry symposium in Maharashtra’s Thane district in December 2018. It was organised by the Al Hind Mushaira, which represents Urdu poets. Thousands were in attendance to hear some 45 poets read out their poems.

At Kul Hind Mushaira, an Urdu and Hindi poetry symposium in Maharashtra’s Thane district in December 2018. It was organised by the Al Hind Mushaira, which represents Urdu poets. Thousands were in attendance to hear some 45 poets read out their poems.

An onslaught on a community often takes the form of intense loathing of the language it communicates in. Urdu is an example of that. Once a common fabric of eminent Muslim and Hindu writers whose work drew its grandeur from the language’s sublime and varied linguistic inventory, it is now disparaged by purveyors of Hindu nationalism as an unholy motif of Islamist incursions. The debate surrounding Urdu is as fierce as it is confounding.

Are Urdu and Hindi two distinct languages or do they have a common genesis, cleaved later under the strain of toxic politics? Is Urdu alien to India or is it a part of India’s heritage, transcending boundaries of religion and region? How did the language of the aristocracy, which epitomised love and romance and was a glue of society, come to be associated with a particular religion?

One of the earliest myths associated with Urdu is that it was a camp language, spoken and perhaps also invented in the army camps of the Mughals, by soldiers of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hindustani origins, who borrowed heavily from one another’s dialects and pioneered the formation of a common tongue. This theory was advanced by Mir Amman, an eighteenth century intellectual who translated Bagh-o-Bahar, a collection of allegorical stories believed to have beenauthored by Amir Khusrau. That Urdu is a Turkish word meaning lashkar or camp gave credence to Amman’s understanding of its origin.

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But if Urdu was invented as late as the 17th century, how does one account for the its use in the compositions of Amir Khusrau, an Indo-Persian Sufi poet who died in 1325, or the smattering of it in the writings of Babar, who founded the Mughal dynasty in 1526? Scholars like G.A. Grierson re-visited these questions and countered Amman’s theory. Grierson argued that a commonly spoken language that adapted to the nuances of different eras had been in existence much before the Mughals arrived in the Indian subcontinent, though its christening as Urdu happened roughly in the last quarter of the 18th century. Grierson underlined in the ninth volume of his “Linguistic Survey of India’, authored in 1916: “Literary Hindustani [Urdu] is based on the vernacular Hindustani spoken in the Upper Doab and in the Western Rohilkhand.”

Genesis of Urdu

Though a definitive answer is not available in the absence of scientific examination and research, as a consequence of the bitter politicisation of language several scholars converge on the opinion that what we call Urdu developed as a common tongue in the 11th and 12th centuries among people settled in and around Delhi by assimilating dialects such as Brij Bhasha, Mewati, Khari Boli and Haryanvi, which in turn were offshoots of Prakrit languages.

Padma Shri awardee Akhtarul Wasey is among those who trace the genesis of both Hindi and Urdu to Amir Khusrau’s compositions. Speaking to Frontline, he pointed out that “language has no religion, it is religion that needs a language. If Urdu were exclusive to Muslims, how would we have the brilliant examples of Firaq Gorakhpuri and Gopi Chand Narang, both non-Muslims, who produced stellar works in Urdu?”

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This school of thought underlines the Indian-ness of Urdu, though it changed its hue considerably as it came in contact with the outside world, as all languages do. English is no exception and for almost a millennium was an importer of vocabulary from a wide gamut of languages such as Latin, Greek, French and so on. According to the eminent Pakistani linguist Rauf Parekh, “Urdu nouns and adjectives can have a variety of origins, such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Pushtu and even Portuguese, but ninety-nine per cent of Urdu verbs have their roots in Sanskrit/Prakrit. So it is an Indo-Aryan language which is a branch of Indo-Iranian family, which in turn is a branch of Indo-European family of languages.” (“Urdu’s origin: It’s not a ‘camp language’”, Dawn , December 17, 2011.)

Divide and rule

So if both Urdu and Hindi, as we know them today, were at one point a nearly identical Hindustani tongue, what provoked an ignition of rage against the Arabic, Persian and Turkish imports in it and the need to Sanskritise it, which would eventually spark the virulent Hindi-Urdu divide that persists to this day?

It was during the latter half of the 19th century, after the fall of the Mughal empire, that the British actively pursued a policy of divide and rule, trying to pit Hindu nationalists against the Mughal era elites by focussing on the advancement of Hindi and the use of the Devanagari script to write it. An important indicator of this stratagem with its clandestine aims and objectives was Sir Antony McDonnel’s (Governor of North-Western Provinces) decision in 1900 to allow the use of Devanagari script in the courts, thus ending the exclusivity of the Persian script that had been in vogue for centuries, in particular in drafting royal and official communiques.

Hostility towards the use of a common tongue by both Hindus and Muslims began to surface as early as 1800 when the Fort William College was set up. The director of the College, John Barthowick Gilchrist, mandated that reading materials were to be prepared in two different scripts: for Muslims, in Persian and for Hindus in Devanagari. The whole notion of Hindi for Hindus and Urdu for Muslims and the ideological and religious moorings that were triggered by a doctrinaire approach to language are generally traced from that point, though it is likely that sporadic manifestations of it existed before. Writers such as Lallu Lal in the 18th-19th century and Ramchandra Shukla in the early 20th century drummed up support for a pristine Hindi with the predominance of Sanskrit.

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As the 20th century unfolded, organisations espousing the causes of Hindi and Urdu mushroomed quickly. Notable among them were the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, which became a champion of the Nagari script, the Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, and so on.

The Indian National Congress increasingly felt the need to address the language controversy as it threatened the viability of the national movement. It advocated the use of Hindustani, without any purge of commonly used Sanskrit or “Islamic” words. The Hindustani language was to be written in both Devanagari and Persian scripts. At the Haripura session of the Congress in 1938, the party formally adopted the Wardha Scheme of Education, a brainchild of Mahatma Gandhi that intended to promote education in the Hindustani language written in both Devanagari and Persian scripts. But the Muslim League rejected the legitimacy of the Wardha Scheme and mobilised emotion in favour of Urdu.

Forgotten heritage

The bloodshed witnessed during Partition crystallised the scepticism surrounding Urdu into a relentless assault on it, drastically reducing the deified language into simply a pointer of “the other”. This negativity exhibited itself in the Constituent Assembly when its many Hindu members, initially in favour of according “Hindustani” the status of a national language, became fervid proponents of Hindi. In post-independence India, as the chorus for Hindi as the national language grew, Sanskritisation of it followed. This was a double whammy for Urdu. On the one hand was the constant calumny heaped upon it by Hindu fundamentalists and, on the other, a reactionary bid to Arabise it.

Hafeezur Rehman, founder of the Sufi Peace Foundation, lamented that the creation of Pakistan and its subsequent adoption of Urdu as the national language despite the country’s Punjabi-speaking majority spelled doom for the language in India. He told Frontline , “As reactions grew sharper, people forgot that this [Urdu] is the language that gave us ‘ inquilab zindabad ’. They forgot that while Pakistan has only the script of Urdu, its literary finesse, swiftness, dialect are India’s heritage. They forgot the contributions of Munshi Nawal Kishore, a Brahmin in Uttar Pradesh, whose press played a major role in preserving and widely circulating some of Urdu’s exalted works.”

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Nefarious plots aimed at segregating Urdu continued unabated, be it the 1967 riots witnessed in Bihar following a proposition to designate Urdu as the second official language, or the 1994 riots that erupted in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) over the airing of a news bulletin in Urdu.

Since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) formidable election victories across the Hindi heartland have ignited a political energy that is blunt in its intended humiliation of Urdu and denying its speakers a sense of belonging. In 2017, two Muslim legislators of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly were denied permission to take oath in Urdu; ironically, Urdu is the second official language of the State. In October 2021, clothing company Fabindia faced widespread ire over naming its Diwali collection “Jashn-e-Riwaaz”. The government’s name-changing spree is well known, with Allahabad renamed as Prayagraj. These have all become part of the politics of scapegoating and targeting of minorities for historical ‘injustices’, real, imagined or exaggerated.