(My name is Urdu and I am Khusrau’s riddle
I am Meer’s confidante and Ghalib’s friend)
Kyun mujhko banate ho tassub ka nishana
Maine to kabhi khud ko musalmaan nahi maana
(Why have you made me a target for bigotry?
I have never thought myself a Muslim)
Dekha tha kabhi maine bhi khushiyo ka zamana
Apne hi watan me hum agar aaj akayli
(I too have seen an era of happiness
But today I am an orphan in my own country)
I don’t think anything can describe the state of Urdu’s neglect and decline than these lines by IqbalAshar.
In this article I want to dispel the notion that a language can have a religion by tracing its origin and the roots of how that tag got attached to it, leading to its subsequent neglect.
Language is a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.
India is home to several hundred languages out of which 22 are scheduled languages and a rich cultural heritage attached to all of them.
After independence, the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights recommended that the official language of India be made Hindustani, as it was already the national language: “Hindustani, written either in Devanagari or the Perso-Arabic script at the option of the citizen, shall, as the national language, be the first official language of the Union.”
Had this been adopted there would just be a beautiful national language, Hindustani with a shared cultural heritage instead of two artificially created languages via kind courtesy of the British: Sansritised Hindustani called Hindi and Persianised Hindustani called Urdu. Unfortunately, this recommendation was not adopted by the Constituent Assembly.
Till the early 20th century Persian was the language of the elite and learnt by them (irrespective of religion) but Urdu was the language of the masses, and used as a medium of instruction. Our Prime Minister and the poet Gulzar, amongst other famous Indian personalities even today use the Urdu script for their writings. Many friends who read this will say their fathers or grandfathers according to their age received education in Urdu medium schools and were fluent in the language.
So where did the language go wrong? When did it become associated with a religious community?
To understand this we must understand the aftermath of 1857 and the British ‘divide and rule’ policy.
Languages are a common cultural bond and having known this the British encouraged the use of Perso-Arabic and Devnagari script via the printing press to cement the division of Hindustani, the lingua franca of a majority of Indians, into the standardised Urdu and Hindi language.
In fact Bibles which were distributed by the missionaries to spread Christianity were also printed in the 2 scripts and distributed accordingly as per religion of recipient.
After partition, the death knell for Urdu as an Indian language was struck when it was declared as the national language of Pakistan. But today only 7.4 percent of the total population of Pakistan claim Urdu as their mother tongue (and I suspect these are the muhajirs who went from the Indo-Gangetic plains.)
Opposed to this is the figure of 44.15 percent Pakistanis who speak/ list Punjabi as their mother tongue. (In Pakistan, Urdu is spoken by a much larger percentage of people but they do not list it as their mother language and it’s the same case in India)
In India there are 5.01 percent of the population for whom Urdu is the mother tongue and Hindi is spoken by 41.03 percent.
Please note that the total population of Muslims in India is 13.4 percent of the country’s population. So if Urdu is supposed to be a language of Muslims why don’t the Muslims of Kerala speak it? Why do they communicate/ list their mother tongue as Malayalam? Muslims represent a majority of the local population in Lakshadweep (93 percent) and they all speak Malayalam. Having lived in Kerala for many years I have a first-hand experience that the only other language understood by the majority was English.
Why do Muslims of West Bengal, which has the second largest Muslim population in India, after Uttar Pradesh, list their mother tongue as Bangla? Gujarati Muslims use and list Gujarati as their mother tongue.
Yes, majority of practising Muslims in India as well as in the rest of the world read/ understand Arabic or at least try to. That can be called the language of the Muslims as the Holy Book was revealed in it.
Hindavi, Dehalvi, Gujri ,Dakhini, Rekhta were the names given to the language which evolved from Hindustani to today’s Hindi and Urdu.
The first writer to popularise Hindavi, which he referred to as Dehalvi, was the prolific and wondrous Amir Khusrau.
Sunil Sharma, the author of “Amir Khusraw: the poet of Sultan and Sufis” credits Khusrau as being the father of Hindi and Urdu.
Khusrau baazi prem ki main khelun pi ke sang,
Jeet gayi to piya moray, haari, pi kay sang.
(Khusrau, I play the game of love with my beloved,
If I win, the beloved is mine, if I lose, my Beloved I am yours.)
The word Urdu is derived from the same Turkish word ‘ordu’ (army) that has given English the word, ‘horde’. In fact according to S.R. Farooqui the term Urdu was used during Akbar’s time to denote ‘royal city’. When Shah Jahan built a new walled city in Delhi in 1639, known as Shahjahanabad, a market close to the royal fort (the Red Fort) was called Urdu Bazar (“Army/camp Market.”)Emperor Shah Alam II with his love for Hindi, gave it a position in his court with the nomenclature, “Zabaan e Urdu e mualla.’ (The language of the exalted city.)
Meer Taqi Meer( 1722-1810) used the words Rekhta and Hindi for the spoken language.
Rekhta ke tum hi ustaad nahiN ho “GHalib”
Kahte hai Nagle zamane meN koi Meer bhi thA
(You are not the only expert of Rekhta,Ghalib
Have heard tell that ere was a Meer too)
Mushafi farsi ko taaq pe rakh
Ab hai ashaar-e-Hindavi ka rivaaj
(Mushafi put Persian back in the closet
Custom is now to write verses in Hindi)
Showing that Hindi was exchangeable with Rekhta till the 19th century for the language. Mushafi (1750-1824) himself was the first to use the word Urdu meaning a language in his first Divan. Till then it was called hindavi and Rekhta.
The conversion of Hindavi/ Hindustani into Urdu, a language of Muslims started with Gilchrist (June 1759 – 1841) a surgeon turned Indologist who wrote and published ‘An English-Hindustani Dictionary, A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language’ in Persian and Devnagari script.
Though the British accepted that Hindustani was spoken or at least understood all over India, they insisted on identifying it with Muslims.
According to S.R. Farooqui since the term Hindustani was ambiguous in its religious affiliation, the British insisted on Urdu, as “that didn’t have the faintest reverberations of a Hindu link.”
The earliest reference to the story of the Zaban e Urdu, Hindi being generated by Muslim invaders was in a book for teaching Hindustani (that is Urdu) to British bureaucrats, and was written and printed in Fort William College under the aegis of Gilchrist, by Mir Amman Dihalvi called Baagh o Bahar.
Mir Amman’s book had many loopholes and he also forgot to mention that the language he called Zaban e Urdu was in a sense the language of the city and referred to as Hindvi / Hindi, as it was called at that time. Soon the popularity of his text book ensured the perpetuation of the myth of Urdu as a language of Muslim invaders.
It took a long time to harden the khariboli into separate Hindi/ Urdu traditions and there is evidence that the Hindu populace for whom” a new linguistic tradition was being created in the 19th century, resisted the idea.
Peter Austin in his “One thousand languages: living, endangered, and lost” writes that Urdu and Hindi have the same roots in the emerging Indo-Aryan language varieties spoken in an area centred on Delhi and specially the variety called KhariBoli which spread throughout India under the Muslim armies of the Delhi Sultanate (13th to 15th Century).
He says that in the early 19th Century the British chose KhariBoli as their administrative language, encouraging the use of Perso-Arabic and Devnagari script in parallel. The choice of scripts and source of vocabulary gradually became a source of religious affiliations and ultimately resulted in two standard languages, Urdu and Hindi.
The advent of the printing press meant that religious literature was translated for the common man. This deepened the growing schism amongst religions which was being fanned by the British and led to Sanskrtisation and Persianisation of Hindustani into a formal Urdu written in Persian script using Persian origin words and Hindi written in Devnagari with more words of Sanskrit origin.
The British rulers created texts and published discourses for Indians in the now rapidly getting standardised Hindi or Urdu by using Devanagari or Perso-Arabic script and distributing accordingly.
In the early days translations of The Quran and religious texts were commissioned and printed in Persian and Devanagari script. Later Urdu was the preferred medium for Islamic texts and treatises, further strengthening the belief of it being a language of Muslims. Though, today I have many relatives who read the Quran in Devanagari and many Gujarati friends who read it in Gujarati script.
There is a vast treasure trove of Indian literature, prose and poetry written in Urdu. Everyone in India has heard of the poetry of Ghalib, Meer, Daagh, Brij Narain Chakbast, Krishna Bihari Noor, Josh Malihabadi, Jigar Moradabadi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni to present day Javed Akhtar and Gulzar to name just a few.
In prose we have Munshi Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Qurratulain Hyder,Ismat Chughtai. Munshi Premchand’s first novella, Asrar e Ma’abid was first published in Awaz-e-Khalq, an Urdu Weekly, after which he became associated with an Urdu magazine Zamana, writing columns on national and international events. He wrote under the pseudonym Nawab Rai in Urdu script, afterwards transcribing them (or hiring some local helper to transcribe them) into Devnagari, so that he eventually published practically everything in both scripts.
Firaq Gorakhpuri, the famous Urdu poet, had been a champion of secularism all his life and was a chief crusader against the government’s effort to brand Urdu as the language of Muslims. He was also instrumental in the allocation of funds for the promotion of the language.
In 2010 Gujarat High Court observed there was nothing on record to suggest that any provision has been made or order issued declaring Hindi as a national language of the country.
Today Urdu is languishing because somewhere along the line it was adopted by Muslim parents’ and the common perception is that it had apparently converted to Islam too! Nowadays it’s just a malnourished, homeless orphan.
(Urdu is the 6th most spoken language in the country but 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. (Census 2001))
The percentage of people listing Urdu as their mother tongue is also declining. In many instances Muslims themselves are listed with their mother tongue as Hindi by census officers because they don’t know how to read and write Urdu.
Today Urdu is no longer linked to jobs and no language can progress or grow unless it can lead to economic rewards. Urdu newspapers are on the decline because of lack of advertising revenue. Schools/ colleges have stopped using it as medium of instruction because of dearth of Urdu text books for science and technology. Urdu medium schools lack qualified teachers.
Associated as it is in people’s eyes with Muslims, it has become nothing but a trap for vote bank politics, unkept promises and empty dreams. The only silver lining is that it still lives in the hearts of many across religious lines, in our Hindi films and TV serials, the crowds flocking to mushairas and the number of sites which provide sms lines on the internet.
After all everyone needs words to express love!
baad-e-nafrat phir mohabbat ko zabaan darkaar hai
phir aziiz-e-jaan vahii urdu zabaan hone lagii
(After hatred, once again love needs a language for expression,
Once again Urdu becomes beloved of all)
- Dr Mohammad Yaqub ‘Aamir’