Features | Society | South Asia

India’s War on Urdu

Urdu is a long-time part of Indian culture, not an alien presence to be purged.

By Shahzaman Haque for
India’s War on Urdu
Credit: Pixabay

If Urdu is guilty of being a foreign tongue,
Who, then, does India belong to? I cannot understand.
–Rashid Banarsi, Indian Urdu poet

As a 9-year-old boy, one evening I went to play in a huge park, Gandhi Maidan, in my hometown of Patna, in India. Among the bustling crowds of mostly young men and children, I found myself alone and decided to wait for my friends for a while on an rusty iron bench. A man in his 30s approached and sat beside me, initiating a conversation and introducing himself as an off-duty member of the Home Guard. Within minutes, he told me that I was not speaking like other people and my pronunciation was like Muhammadens. I was baffled by his remark.

I was unsure how to react to his remark, but he did not seem to be complaining or hostile: on the contrary, he was in awe of discovering another set of sounds seemingly alien to him. Flattered, but also with a sense of discomfort, I noticed that my speech was unnecessarily marking my religion and made me alien in my birthplace. What had gone wrong?

Later, in the year 2001, I joined a French research project on the education system in the Urdu schools of East Delhi. When I met some principals and teachers of these schools, all complained about the lack of funding provided to ensure a proper education. Teachers were not getting their salaries on time, pupils were left unattended in some classes, and some schools did not even have desks or benches, with the children made to sit on a dirty carpet. All blamed the shortages on the negligent way the national central government was treating these Urdu schools. Once again, I got the feeling that Urdu was being treated as alien to Delhi, just as in Patna, although in both places, it has the status of the second official language.

Urdu, which evolved from the Khari Boli language, is a variety of Sanskrit. During medieval times, Khari Boli came into contact with the Muslim invaders in the northwest part of India. Urdu, hitherto known as Hindi, but also by the names of Dehlavi, Hindavai, Rekhta, Gujri, Dakhani, and Hindoostani, was the language of the masses in the area of Delhi and its surroundings.

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Some pieces of literature in Khari Boli, with Perso-Arabic-laden script, are found from as early as the 13th century in the texts of the great Delhi Sufi poet and musician, Amir Khusro. However, it was from the 18th century, that, according to Tariq Rahman, Khari Boli was Islamicized under the aegis of the Muslim rulers. All lexicons derived from Sanskrit and local dialects were purged. It was not known as Urdu in those times, but as Hindustani.

Since then, Urdu has been erroneously and relentlessly associated with the Muslim community.

Actually, Urdu’s literary artefacts represent a plethora of cultures, but most prominently, it has been a strong voice of indigenous culture, particularly from the 20th century onwards. Intizar Hussain, Qurraitulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Premchand, Farhatullah Baig, and Krishan Chandar were all Urdu writers, and many others penned enriching local narratives with the refined aesthetic beauty of Urdu’s Persian and Arabic linguistic and cultural heritage.

As far as Urdu is concerned, in terms of its perception by others, its nativeness is not put into question — its lineage to Sanskrit is often proudly recalled. Instead, it is the alteration of the language, drawing heavily on the dominant Islamic culture of the times, that is problematic for some. The outer surface was embellished with Perso-Arabic script, lexical borrowings mainly from Persian and Arabic, and, corollary to these borrowings, other sounds that have been added to its linguistic system. It was as if Urdu bore the taint of Islam, a bête noire in India’s post-1947 sectarian politics.

The term gharwaapsi (returning back home) was coined by Hindu supremacist groups, such as Hindu Jagran Morcha. Their theory was that every non-Hindu entity in India has its origins in the ethos of Hinduism but has been alienated or converted by force into other faiths. The attempt should be made, therefore, to bring them back to their original, fundamental state: in other words, “returning back home.” Quite a few headlines were abuzz with this theme in the year 2016, when rituals were performed to reconvert some Muslim families to Hinduism.

Oddly, it seems that the gharwaapsi of Urdu had already begun in the early 19th century. Professor Tariq Rahman refers to the “Hinduization of Khari Boli (1803-1949),” undertaken in part to consolidate Hindu identity. One example Rahman cited was Prem Sagar (1803) by Lallu Lal, in which Arabic and Persian words were purged. Known as “Father of Modern Hindi,” Lallu Lal set the tone for Sanskritized Hindi. Following him, several works by Ramchandra Shukla emphasized the importance of Sanskrit Hindi, associating it with the identity of Hindus.

The Mutiny of 1857 (the first War of Independence), in which Muslims participated in huge numbers, angered India’s British colonial overlords. Partly as a result, they took the side of the Hindi movement over Urdu in promoting the Devanagari script. Ali Ahmad, author of Twilight in Delhi, mentions that many Urdu writers bore the brunt of the failed 1857 revolt. They were sentenced to the Andaman Islands, where most died from harsh living conditions and their treatment.

Sociolinguist Rizwan Ahmad recalls two memoranda by Hindu nationalists in the years 1868 and 1897 against Urdu as the language of the court. One missive written by a team of Hindu nationalists from Bhartendu Harishchandra and sent to Madan Mohan Malviya was a scathing attack on the supposed uselessness and alienness of Urdu in British India. Their purpose was to rejuvenate the Hindu identity as part of the Hindu Renaissance movement launched by the reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833).

The future of Urdu seemed bleak. It became a victim of linguistic segregation under the campaign of the Hindi nationalist movement. Christopher R. King, author of One Language, Two Scripts, blamed the Hindi movement for creating communal consciousness in pre-independence India, as Sunil Shrivastava reports in his review of the book. King opines that the Hindi movement in the 19th century characterized languages by their script and vocabulary and not by their linguistic configuration.

Urdu, in return, became radicalized by its own proponents. Its genre shrank to moral literature based on Islam. Muslims were, sadly, fast becoming the sole owners of the language.

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Kuldeep Kumar reports that, when Urdu was recognized as the second official language of Uttar Pradesh in 1989, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who would later serve as prime minister of India, protested it as an act of “Muslim appeasement.” Just 22 years previously, in 1967, riots had erupted in Bihar, with a Muslim minority population of 17 percent, when it was proposed that Urdu should be the second official language. The Raghubar Dayal Commission reported 184 deaths in Ranchi, of which 164 were Muslims and 19 were Hindus. Similarly, in 1994, riots erupted in Bangalore, resulting in 23 deaths, after a news bulletin was aired in Urdu. The literary council of the official Kannada language of the state and more than other 50 language organizations promoting Kannada language threatened state-wide protests against the Urdu bulletin. Even last year, in 2018, two deaths resulted in West Bengal from protests against newly appointed Urdu teachers.

More recently, when the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) government came to power in Rajasthan in 2013, it merged Urdu-medium schools to the benefit of Hindi-medium schools, developments that were reported by Shruti Jain. The recruitment of Urdu teachers was subsequently postponed and exam papers were no longer available in Urdu for public primary schools in Rajasthan. In 2016, the same Rajasthan government removed Urdu author Ismat Chughtai from the Class VIII Hindi textbook.

In 2017, two Muslim members of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly were denied permission to take the oath in Urdu, the second official language of the state. In December of the same year, a Bahujan Samaj Party member was charged for offending religious sentiments when he took his oath in Urdu.

Linguistic landscape and city names in Urdu or connected with Islamic heritage have also come under attack from Hindi chauvinist politicians since 2014. The name of the famous emblematic railway station, Mughal Sarai, was metamorphosed into Deen Dyal Upadhya following a chilling fervor by nationalist extremists, just to name one major example. Other examples include Mustafabad being renamed Saraswati Nagar in 2016 and Allahabad being renamed Prayagraj in 2018 by BJP-led governments. The proposal for changing the name of Ahmedabad, a UNESCO World Heritage City, into Karnavati has been a dream of the same crowd since 1990.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is careful to use Urdu in his campaigns and even to recite Urdu poetry, many of his more intense followers clearly do not share in such practices or appreciation of Urdu.

The argument of Hindi chauvinists is that Urdu has greatly deviated from its original Sanskrit roots, and it needs to be brought back to its original forms, echoing the gharwaapsi of the converted Muslims. Such a claim is absurd, for though the languages of Hindi and Urdu have a shared history going back some seven centuries, how can one ignore the evolution (lexical, syntactic, and scriptural) over these years, resulting in two extensively divergent written codes?

Despite these many assaults, the Persian-Arabic script of Urdu maintains the ecological balance of the language, keeping intact its rich historic heritage. Its lexical codes represent the hybrid, cosmopolitan tones of many cultures, cultures that define India even today. The question boils down to the identity of Urdu, which is scrutinized under the radar of Hindi chauvinists.

The strength of Urdu lies in its diversity and broad appeal. It has united people in the past and it still has the potential to reunite and shrink the distances between different communities in today’s turbulent times. It is a pity that powerful Hindu nationalists take such an exclusivist and hostile attitude toward Urdu, as such an attitude is hardly representative of India’s deeper identity and long coexistence of multiple regions, peoples, faiths, and languages. To purge Urdu is to purge a part of India, and one can only hope that the contributions of Urdu to Indian history and culture today as well as in the past will be celebrated, not suppressed to the satisfy whims of the narrow-minded and intolerant.

Urdu’s roots in India are so deep that the only idea truly alien to India is that Urdu is alien.

Shahzaman Haque is the Co-director of the Department of South Asia and Himalaya at Institut des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO), Paris. Follow him on Twitter @shahzamanhaque