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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 26

Urdu and Muslim Identity

Tuesday 19 June 2007, by Balraj Puri


Nineteen eminent scholars, belonging to different disciplines, including foreigners, commissioned by Ather Farouqui, have joined in an exercise in Redefining Urdu Politics in India, in the form of a book with this title.

Many among them do not know Urdu. But all of them are friends of Urdu. A majority of them are non-Muslims (twelve in number). But all of them are friends of Muslims. Thus they cannot be accused of a bias against Urdu and Muslims when they hold, with varying emphasis, that both have not received a fair deal in independent India. It is not possible to even give a brief summary of every viewpoint or to quote every author in the book. There are inevitable repetitions and some contradictions in a volume of such a nature. Broadly it covers three main questions. First, what is the relationship between Muslims and Urdu or must a religious community have a language of its own? Second, how far has Urdu declined in the land of its birth and what are its causes? Third, what remedial measures are needed and what is the possible role of non-Muslims in the revival process?

I belong to an age and place—Jammu—when and where Urdu was a language of administra-tion, religious and political discourse, public speaking and journalism. The Lahore Urdu press which covered my region, represented all view points, from extremist Hindus to extremist Muslims and moderates in between. I started my public career as editor of an Urdu weekly in 1942 and had read religious books like Ramayan and Mahabharat in Urdu as Barbara D. Metcalf observes, “the early tracts of Hindu revival movements like Arya Samaj were written in Urdu”.

As a language of literature, Urdu reigned supreme in the entire north India, “its importance lies in the development of literary and cultural tradition of India”. Its secular character was so pronounced that the “Muslim Ulema considered Urdu literature as Kufr”. (p. 27) Ralf Russel quotes Ashraf Thanvi who, in his famous book Bhishti Zewar presented a “long list of literary books that he considered as Kufr”. Needless to add that most of these were masterpieces of literature.

On the issue of the present condition of Urdu the authors in the book under review share a common concern. But on the precise nature of this condition and the causes thereof, views vary. Barbara D. Metcalf recognises Urdu’s role as a transnational language as also the language of communication between different communities and of the market. She also refers to the popularity of the Urdu Ghazal and its dominance in Indian films. Apart from the dialogue and songs which are invariably in Urdu, the titles of films like Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Zakham, Salam-e-Istaq, Fana and Fida—to name only very recent releases—are in pure Urdu. Just a cursory look at the hit songs of some recent so-called Hindi films confirm the fact that their language is nothing but Urdu. A few illustrations would suffice. “Shabe firaq hai” (Chupke Chupke), “Zaherin fazle rabbi” (Zindagi), “Ya Ali (Gangster) and “Khala hai seene mein” (Jism).

But as Rashid Banarsi laments, “You can write Urdu and call it Hindi. In films all the language is Urdu but they are given Hindi certificates.”
(p. 106). Indeed Hindiwallas own Urdu as one of its sheily (styles). Of course, in the their diction and grammar, the two languages are similar to each other.

Colin Masica calls the Urdu-Hindi relationship as “the ultimate anomaly”. They are, he says, not even different dialects in a linguistic sense. (Masica 1991, p. 27) But why as a superior language, could Urdu not claim Hindi to be part of it? Why nobody ever raised the issue of calling Urdu films as Hindi films? But who can object if Urdu writers, particularly poets, have a far better market in Devenagri script than the Hindi writers have got? Urdu’s claim to be the language of a composite nation in favour of an exclusive Muslim language received a setback when the two-nation theory was propounded by the Muslims League and Urdu was claimed to be the language of the Muslim nation, though barely four per cent people in what became Pakistan could speak the language in 1947.

The case for Hindustani—a common language in two scripts—as the official language to which the Congress was committed suffered after independence. Hindi was unanimously accepted by the Constituent Assembly of India as the official language. Not even a single member -Hindu or Muslim—voted against it. Thus the partition, observes Yoginder Singh, “came as a serious blow to the Indian Muslims (and Urdu). A large number of elite, middle class and entrepreneurial populace migrated to Pakistan... It also made most Muslims guilty at a time when the constitution was adopted.” He adds, the Muslims leadership suffered from an identity crisis. “The debate among some Muslim intellectuals on whether Urdu should shed its Arabic Persian script exemplifies this crisis.”

LANGUAGE has many uses—a means of communication, an instrument of transmitting knowledge, an expression of cultural and creative urges of a community. But it is what Robert King calls iconic use of language that creates its own problems. According to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “at one level an iconic use of language can be liberating”. But he thinks that as a marker of an identity Urdu has suffered disadvantages. However, Yoginder Singh argues that “the Urdu language has, over the years, assumed a significant space in the structure of Muslims’ identity in India. The issue of cultural identity has appropriated the maximum space of legitimacy with regard to the Urdu language.” He, therefore, concludes that “Urdu education has to take into consideration the social, cultural, economic and political aspirations of the Muslims community”.

I remember that while addressing an Urdu conference, I had provoked my audience, some decades back, by my remark that the next generation of Urdu knowing Hindus, including eminent Urdu writers, was becoming ignorant of the language and that the time might not be far off when it would become the language of Muslims. In those days every Urdu conference that I attended spent considerable time to assert that Urdu was not the language of Muslims and represented the composite cultural heritage of India.

Notwithstanding past claims and realities about Urdu, any discussion on the Muslim problem today invariably would include the state of Urdu. The Sachar Committee, appointed by the Prime Minister to report on the status of Muslims, for instance, could not ignore the problems of Urdu.

However, the government has set up Urdu academies in most of the States where Muslims are in sufficient number to satisfy demand of Muslims. While Urdu is being accessible to more and more Muslim communities, it is being neglected in Urdu speaking areas. The meeting of the National Minority Committee held on July 10 and 11, 2006, for instance, decided to open Urdu medium schools where the population of Muslims is more than 16 per cent. Strongly reacting to this decision, Syed Iqbal Hasnain, Vice Chancellor of the University of Calicut, Kerala, asks, “How will this be implemented in Kerala’s Mallapuram, a Muslim majority district where not a single soul knows a word of Urdu?” (Asian Age, October 10, 2006)

It may be true that most of the Urdu reading (not speaking) persons are by now Muslims. But not all Muslims are Urdu reading or speaking. The latter presumption would be as fatal for the cause of Urdu and Muslims as was the claim of Muslims being a separate nation and Urdu being their language.
Urdu speaking Muslims, therefore, must aspire, in cooperation with non-Muslim lovers of Urdu, to preserve the rich composite cultural heritage of Urdu and not be content with its being a mere medium of acquiring religious knowledge. Instead of complaining that Hindi was appropriating this heritage, as pointed out above, its cooperation should be sought. A suggestion made by, besides others, Syed Shahabuddin for a composite Hindi-Urdu course is very pertinent in this context. A capsule course of best Hindi and Urdu literature could be introduced at the higher secondary level in what is called the Hindi region.

Similarly much ground for teaching of technical subjects and for higher education must be yielded to English. For no Indian language, not to speak of Urdu, is equipped for that. The minimum aim for the children of Urdu speaking persons should be, as one author has put it, their alphabetisation in their mother tongue. While the recommendation of the Sacher Committee to increase the fund of the Maulana Azad Education Foundation to Rs 1000 crores may be welcome, more important and easier to implement would be to extend facilities for Urdu medium primary education. It is most surprising, even mischievous, to twist the three- language formula in North India to exclude Urdu as an optional language. Apart from compulsory education in Hindi as the regional language and English as a modern European languages the students are required to take Sanskrit as the third language. By no stretch of logic is Sanskrit more important than Urdu, for those whose mother tongue is Urdu, for primary education.

What is needed is clarity about the role of Urdu as literacy in the mother tongue of Urdu speaking children, and in promotion of a national culture. The present book provides an excellent basis for a discussion of this role.

The author is the Director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs

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