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Mainstream, VOL L, No 33, August 4, 2012

Urdu needs Kiss of Life and not Myopic Policies

Thursday 9 August 2012

by Ather Farouqui

I would like to take this opportunity of congratulating Nusrat Zaheer on his excellent views on various aspects of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Mainstream (vol. L, no. 11, March 3, 2012) and Abdul W. Qasmi in ‘Whither National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language’ in Mainstream (vol. L, no. 19, April 28, 2012)

Though Zaheer has commented on the PWA, his letter seems to have gone unnoticed in the CPI and CPI-M. This is owing largely to their well-known arrogance, which spells more bad news for the future of the communist movement in India. Most parts of the world, Europe included, have seen the decline and withering away of the local communist outfits because of their rigidity and obsolete thinking. The exemplary defeat of the CPI-M in West Bengal is a case in point of a party, beset by intellectual hubris, refusing to revise its thinking and learn from its mistakes.

This rigidity was particularly noticeable at a recent tamasha, namely, the technical conference of the PWA in Delhi University held on April 12, 13 and 14, 2012 to fulfil the ritual of re-election of office-bearers. It was more in the nature of a circus organised by the PWA office-bearers, mainly those who work in the Urdu Department of the University and the helpless research scholars under their tutelage. Most unfortunate is that no resolutions were passed, which is unique in the history of the PWA. I checked on this on April 30, and was told that they had not yet been typed though the report was available on the internet as it was quickly published in New Age to set the record straight before the communist leadership! Worse, the conference was organised with the support of the corporate sector which led to an unprecedented hullabaloo that ultimately forced the Secretary to withdraw his report and announce that the advertisement money would not be collected. I seriously doubt this promise as the PWA has for long now been an NGO kind of racket and not so long ago a huge grant for the Faiz Centenary from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) along with a number of grants from the corporate sector (as widely alleged by reliable sources) was shared between the PWA officer-bearers of the Department of Urdu, Delhi University, and an agency to which the organising of the event was outsourced.
More than anything else the CPI will now have to check corruption which is a new phenomenon in communist circles, particularly among office-bearers of the PWA. Coinciding with the Delhi University conference was an event graced by Tariq Ali in New Delhi—the Faiz Memorial Lecture, of which no office-bearer of the PWA was aware. In fact, barring a few, most among the present PWA leadership would not even have heard of him. And of course the conference has left no impact except to fulfil the agenda of the office-bearers which is certainly not in the public domain.
Unfortunately, Zaheer has not commented on many important issues which apply to other organisations, particularly government ones, which are the worst victims of the ideological confusion in the ranks of the Urdu and Muslim intelligentsia as well as Muslim leadership. All of them have always rendered erroneous advice to the government regarding Muslims issues since partition and all good-for-nothing government institutions and ill-conceived policies for the revival of Urdu can be attributed to them. They have reified Urdu as a language only of Muslims, at the same time contributing to its decline as well as setting the community apart from other Indians who speak regional languages.

Basically Urdu faces only one major handicap: its absence in the school curriculum. Fortunately, after the Right to Education (RTE) Act and the recent landmark judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, there is no need to define a ‘school’. But it is a matter of great shame (the mildest term in this context) that Muslims have decided not to be a part of the great revolution by making a hue and cry through their atavistic leadership to exclude madrasas from the provisions of the RTE Act. Nobody seems to have remarked on this collective suicide by Muslims through their failure to cash in on this historic opportunity to get their children decently educated!

Since it is the duty of the government to adhere to the spirit of Article 350A of the Constitution to provide education to every child at the primary level in her/his mother tongue, if it so wishes, it can easily extend this provision to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Thus all school-going children can study in the medium of their respective mother tongues at least in government-run schools and those whose mother tongue is Urdu will, at least up to the age of 14, benefit from this constitutional provision. Since this ceiling of 14 years is open to challenge and is bound to be extended to 15 or 16 years, until these children appear in the higher secondary examination, children whose mother tongue is Urdu (as well as others who study in regional languages) can avail of the facility up to Class 10. So far the activists’ concentration has been on the implementation of the provisions of the RTE; they can now turn to other issues like reforms in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
As I have said, policymakers, ill advised by the Urdu intelligentsia and Muslim leadership, have mistakenly come to the conclusion that Urdu is a language only of culture. This is also a convenient excuse for the government to hide behind for not undertaking the onerous task of providing education to children of a 20-million strong community. Once a language does not remain a functional language and is exiled from the formal school system, it is bound to languish and eventually die.
I have first-hand experience of this and my observation is that Delhi-based institutions, by treating Urdu superficially as a ‘language only of culture’, are sounding its death knell. The membership of these institutions is mostly made up of university teachers or political workers of the ruling party. Most unfortunate in this regard is the attitude of Ms Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi and Chairperson of the Delhi Urdu Academy. Her myopia and ignorance, when it comes to Urdu, is there for all to see. Like other political leaders, she too has a superficial approach to Urdu, mouthing clichés such as ‘Urdu is the finest component of the composite culture of India’ and maintaining that the culture of Delhi can only be saved by the Delhi Urdu Academy, which has been a dud from day one.

It, however, needs to be placed on record that the Honourable Chief Minister has never been well advised on the subject of bringing about a change in official policy. Amazingly, Ms Dikshit is also ignorant of the constitutional provisions relating to education as she feels that the mandate of the Urdu Academy has nothing to do with Urdu education which is the responsibility solely of the Delhi Government through various departments like the Directorate of Education and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). Until now, Ms Dikshit’s attitude suggests that the role of the Delhi Urdu Academy is just to cultivate appropriate Muslim leaders for the benefit of the ruling party.

The shrewd politician that she is, whenever the issue of Urdu education in Delhi schools is raised, it is forwarded to the Delhi Urdu Academy, even though it has no mandate in this regard, when it should rightfully be tackled by the Directorate of Education which is completely indifferent to Urdu. As a result there has been no improvement in the state of Urdu education in schools run by the Delhi Government and the state of Urdu education in Delhi’s schools is far worse than that in UP’s schools. The UP Government is at least clear about the institutions and personnel that have to deal with Urdu education. Let me make it clear here that my criticism extends only to Ms Dikshit’s Urdu policy and I will certainly cast my vote for her in the next elections too, simply because the CPI is unlikely to come up with a candidate!

Some six years back, I was nominated to the governing body of the Delhi Urdu Academy by virtue of my article ‘The Great Urdu Fraud’, which exposed the underhand activities of the then Director of the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), Dr Hamidullah Bhat (who was recently removed from the service permanently through contempt proceedings of the Delhi High Court). He lost in a PIL for various frauds including remaining in service longer than he was actually appointed for and was sent to jail via the CBI.

Because of my general cynicism, I have never been favoured for appointment to any committee which has saved me from becoming a sarkari Musalman. Moreover, the governing body of the Academy has no powers, except to assemble once or twice a year. The agenda at the first meeting during my tenure included an item for the funding of Dini madaris. While all the other members of the governing body kept quiet when Ms Dikshit referred to this issue, I asked for permission to speak, which was granted by the Honourable Chief Minister, who was in the Chair. I inquired under which provision the grant to Dini madaris was being provided as it was both illegal and unconstitutional. To this Ms Dikshit responded with great surprise that if my contention that the matter was unconstitu-tional was correct, then how was it that so many States were providing funding for the purpose.
By way of reply, I just passed on to her a copy of the Constitution in which Article 27 was flagged. On going through the appropriate section, she and the Secretary, Culture, Ms Rina Ray, were duly stumped. At that point of time, I also gave them a copy of a letter written by none other than Syed Shahabuddin and published in the Economic and Political Weekly on December 11, 2004, p. 5274, in response to an article by Bikramjit Dey, a historian from Oxford, against the NCPUL under the title ‘Abuse of Urdu’ (EPW, November 27, 2004) It says that the NCPUL was like a Shakha of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). I would, however, like to place on record here that the present Secretary and Vice-Chairman of the Delhi Urdu Academy, Anis Azmi and Professor Akhtarul Wasey, are most capable and deserving gentlemen, but in the absence of a mandate, they are helpless to improve the state of Urdu education in Delhi and unless that is done, the Delhi Urdu Academy has no relevance. When the aforesaid incident occurred, two highly incompetent gentlemen were serving as the Secretary and Vice-Chairman of the Academy.

To hark back to Ms Dikshit’s outing at the Academy, she finally told me that she was not really aware of the constitutional position, but given the political compulsions, it was difficult to discontinue the grant to those madrasas which were already receiving it. But she promised that the Urdu Academy would not give any fresh grants to madrasas. I have never subsequently tried to verify whether she kept her promise as I thought that there was no point in proceeding further in the matter. Till the time my term expired, I did not attend the almost worthless and futile meetings thereafter.

When subsequently the search for a new Vice-Chairman of the Academy was initiated, I received a phone call to the effect that the Chief Minister would like to see me. I sensed something amiss, as the Chief Minister could not possibly remember a person whom she had met only once. However after checking and reconfirmation, I put in an appearance at her residence at the appointed hour. Five minutes after being ushered in, the Hon’ble Chief Minister appeared in her nicely done up drawing room. Though she welcomed me warmly, I could make out that she could not recollect who I was. My premonition was turning out to be correct. As a cultured person, she tactfully started a conversation to gauge why an unusual person like me was there. After about five minutes or so of this, she abruptly said: “But you do not look like an Urduwala.” My fault perhaps was that I was sporting corduroy trousers and a formal shirt with appropriate footwear; moreover I didn’t have a beard and was not chewing paan. This obviously did not quite fit in with the mental image Ms Dikshit had of a pucca Urduwala, an image shared by most of the English-speaking class.

For this stereotypical image and its damaging implications in the minds of the English-speaking elite, the credit goes to Anita Desai’s novel In Custody, a Booker Prize winner of 1994, and a film by the same name based on the novel by Merchant Ivory directed by Ismail Merchant. Both the novel and film project the Muslim community and Urdu litterateurs in a highly objectionable manner and caricatured light. As Faiz’s poetry was freely used—rather misused—in the movie, the non-Urdu audience could have assumed, among other things, that the film was based on Faiz’s life, a great disservice to Faiz. Our elite seem to be drawing upon precisely such representations of the Urdu-speaking community while forming their views and opinions.

In case of Ms Dikshit, who undoubtedly falls in the category of the English-speaking elite, the victim was policy. Anyway, I politely asked about the business at hand and she told me that two very eminent people for the first time had strongly suggested my name so I had reasons to feel privileged. Then she added that the Secretary, Culture (I owe my thanks to Ms Rina Ray), was of the view that I would be a fit candidate for Vice-Chairmanship of the Delhi Urdu Academy. I sensed though that she felt to the contrary. She asked me to send a note about myself and my priorities if I became Vice-Chairman and said that if she did not find another suitable (read incompetent) person, she would consider my name favourably for some other assignment for which I am more suitable.

She indicated her priority that Chairmanship of a college will be the best proposition which to me was more shocking as she has mostly nominated most incompetent Muslims as Chairmen of different colleges. The only exception is Zakir Husain College for the simple reason of the Khurshids’ successful political life but this is, unfortunately, not the case of Shafiq Memorial School. She was at least honest in saying this. I told her that I was not interested in any kind of political affiliation or nomination but nevertheless I thanked her very sincerely for her consideration and a nice cup of tea. It was very clear from this meeting that for Ms Dikshit, Urdu was only an instrument for the ‘preservation of the Culture of Delhi’ and I am sure that her idea of the same is not different from that of In Custody.
My name was included in the new committee as a Special Invitee, which I thought was most disgraceful and meaningless. I, therefore, did not put in an appearance at any of the iftaar parties organised by the Academy to prove that Urdu is Muslim!
To conclude, I would say that there is a crying need to change the official approach towards Urdu, which is not possible unless the functioning of Urdu institutions is subjected to proper public scrutiny. I sincerely believe that Urdu is the language of both Hindus and Muslims and has served the cause of cultural integration between them for centuries which is not the case anymore because of the myopic policies of each and every government in all the States and at the Centre, and more importantly the communal Muslim politics. I hope that my views presented here serves to nudge policy in this direction and I hope that Mainstream will publish articles examining the approach and functioning of all the major Urdu institutions.

The author is a pioneer scholar in the field of Urdu language and its education and has for long been arguing that instead of modernising dini madrasas, the government should provide Urdu education as part of the secular curriculum of school education. He has written his M.Phil and Ph.D dissertations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His recent book, Muslims and Media Images, (OUP 2009) presents a frank and no-holds-barred discussion on an important theme that has become a victim of oversimplification. The paperback edition (2010) of the author’s book, Redefining Urdu Politics in India, with a new Introduction argues how the once-secular Urdu language has now been relegated to only Muslims and confined within the realm of madrasas. It is a timely intervention in the wake of the Right to Education Act, 2010. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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