In Indian history, Urdu as a language played a significant role. Is the language dying out now?

A few days ago, while discussing literature one of my friends, a professor made an interesting comment. He remarked ‘Boli aur pehnawa ilako ke hote hain, kisi dharm ke nahi.’ After pondering over his view for a moment, I decided to explore the birth and growth of Urdu in India.

Hindi and Urdu1 Urdu   A Dying Language

What is the Urdu language?

The first thing that would come in the minds of any normal Indian is that it is a ‘Muslim language’. So, let us understand how Urdu was born. When Mughals emigrated to India, they brought their culture along. Their mother tongue was Chagatai, now a dead language that was commonly spoken by Tartars. As the Persian influence became dominant in the Mughal court, Chagatai made way for Farsi. As the Hindu and Muslim cultures fused together, a new culture was formed. Urdu was a product of this cultural intermingling.

Though Farsi continued being the official language, Urdu as a new language was formed by the former’s intermingling with Hindi. It gained popularity most notably in Delhi and Lucknow. The Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was a noted Urdu poet in his own right. Until the 19th century, Punjab and Sindh weren’t heavily exposed to Urdu. It was only after the British conquest of Punjab that Urdu gradually replaced Farsi as an official language.

Apart from literary use, the language spoken by people across northern and central India was a unique combination of Hindi and Urdu-Hindustani. There were hardly few who spoke pure Hindi or pure Urdu. Urdu has a heavy influence from Arabic, Farsi, Sanskrit and Turkish. So, it is not a pure language. It follows a more modified version of the Nastaliq script. In contrast, Hindi is written in the Devanagari script. Urdu speakers were usually from regions that were directly under Mughal influence such as Punjab, Delhi, UP and Bihar. While Muslims from these regions spoke in a more Urdu version of Hindustani, Hindus spoke in a more Hindi version.

languages of india 28 638 Urdu   A Dying Language

In Punjab and Kashmir it had the status of official language and was spoken by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike. As Farsi heavily influenced Urdu, it gradually came to be accepted as a language of Muslims. During partition, millions of Muslims from the Urdu speaking regions migrated to Pakistan. So did many Urdu speaking Punjabis in the opposite direction. However, as Urdu was a ‘Muslim language’, it gained acceptance as Pakistan’s national language.

For years, a large section of Pakistanis(including Pashtuns, Punjabis and Bengalis) refused to accept Urdu as the lingua franca. The local population of Punjab and Sindh couldn’t tolerate the erosion of their culture, caused by the arrival of Muslims from India. In India, the shift towards Hindi was more gradual. Though Mahatma Gandhi proposed for the use of Hindustani as a formal language, it was rejected as it would mean acceptance of Mughal culture.

It is sheer irony that India which was the birthplace of Urdu rejected it for Hindi which, in reality no one spoke. Another interesting thing to note that states with vast Muslim populations like Kerala and Bengal hardly had any exposure to Urdu. A perfect example of this shift is our national anthem ‘Jana Gana Mana’ a Sanskritized song that fails to strike a chord with people in the way ‘Saare Jahan Se Acha’ does. The latter was written by Muhammad Iqbal in Urdu1, years before India’s independence.

Language in India Urdu   A Dying Language

Another factor to note is the fact that the imposition of Urdu ultimately lead to the creation of Bangladesh-a Muslim country. As residents East Pakistan, Bengalis were at the receiving end from the autocratic military regime, which sought to stamp out their language and culture. This was met with resistance leading to deaths of many. The date, 21st February is still commemorated as Bhasha Diwas both in India and Bangladesh to mark this event. Language was a major factor for the breakdown of Pakistan.

Urdu gradually disappeared from Punjab, which had one of the most composite Urdu cultures within the subcontinent. The language had greatly influenced theatre, literature and way of life of Punjabis for centuries. The difference is so great today, we hardly hear any Punjabi Hindu speaking in his mother tongue!

As for Muslims, who stayed back in India, their allegiance towards Urdu was taken for granted due to the growing influence of Hindi. This in a way widened the gulf between Hindus and Muslims. My grandparents were exposed to the imposition of Urdu in East Pakistan. Their knowledge of the language was only nominal as in case of Hindi. In fact, my grandfather, even after migrating from Sylhet to India continued to work as a government employee despite his poor knowledge of Hindi!

Urdu Urdu   A Dying Language

Urdu gradually became part and parcel of Indian Muslim culture. This was a big blow to communal harmony as it created a sense of insecurity among Muslims in India. From being a court language, Urdu was given the status of an optional subject in schools. Most students taking education in the language tend to come from poor, conservative backgrounds.

And yet, there is no language as sweet as Urdu when it comes to poetry!1 But if I speak and write in Urdu, would I be classified as a Muslim? It has long been revered as one of the most sophisticated languages on earth. Across centuries, poets like Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal as well as non-Muslims like Firaq Gorakhpuri and Gulzar produced great works of poetry. If you were to study more Urdu poets, you would find that most of them were either from the Delhi-UP region or Punjab.

Punjabis and Sindhis have been hard hit by this cultural change. Today, most Sindhis have little command over their mother tongue as it was written in the Nastaliq script. The introduction of the Gurumukhi script has gained momentum only in recent years. This is because Punjabi (few people are aware of) was originally written in the Nastaliq script as well.

Urdu has been worst hit by the political changes. While I do respect Hindi and its literary heritage, it wasn’t spoken in its purest form in the last 500 years. The gradual death of one of India’s most beautiful languages is indeed saddening to note. It contradicts the ethos of India which is best expressed in the words of Firaq Gorakhpuri,

Sar Zamin-e-hind par aqwaam-e-alam ke firaq
kafile guzarte gae Hindustan banta gaya.”

which stands for

‘’In the land of Hind, the Caravans of people of
the world kept coming and India kept getting formed.’’

So, if Urdu is India’s language then why is it given a step-motherly treatment in its own country? All that I wish youngsters to do is to accept it as a language of their own, irrespective of their faith.

Published By Shiladitya On IndiaOpines Blog

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