Urdu in modern India: A shift in the making

The Urdu language within India has faced many turbulent times, pressure brought upon by the Union government, Hindi chauvinists and sometimes the ineffectiveness of Urdu literary education. In 1947 when Pakistan gained its independence from British rule and the Indian State, a great shift was made in the maintenance of the Urdu language.

Many of the experts on the Urdu language may argue that within India, during the time period immediately following independence, the maintenance of the Urdu language has been a difficult task in many respects. Many organisations and individuals with and without the support of the Union government have worked to preserve the Urdu language and ensure its education to younger generations. However, there are many roadblocks to progress.

Although since the agony of the Partition of India in 1947, Urdu has become more and more restricted to use in Pakistan and among Indian Muslims, it is still the primary literary language of many Hindus and Sikhs in India. The effort of organisations and individuals within India working to maintain the education and use of Urdu needs to be examined. In the early years of independence, in the area which one might call the heartland of Urdu – Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – the two state governments were working to discontinue the use of Urdu.

The somewhat twisted interpretation of the three language formula, devised by the Government of India, was the device by which the state governments attacked Urdu. The three language formula recommended that in every state three languages should be taught in schools – in most cases, the language of the state, Hindi and English.

In Uttar Pradesh, Urdu should have been chosen as one of the three languages, as it was the language of most inhabitants after Hindi. The  government of Uttar Pradesh and some other Hindi-Urdu speaking states chose Sanskrit as the modern language, and so Urdu, which was taught in schools before independence, was discontinued.

The protagonists of Urdu looked to the Centre for support to the language; they knew that first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Government of India had sympathy for Urdu. The best the Central government could do was provide funds and backed organisations which supported the Urdu language. The progress of these organisations would be examined at an individual and small community level, followed by the role of larger and independent organisations.

The role of National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language under the leadership of Professor Irteza Karim has worked extensively well in the recent years for the promotion of Urdu. The Maulana Azad National Urdu University fortunately got leadership of Mohammad Aslam Parwaiz as its Vice Chancellor and Zafar Sareshwala as its Chancellor. The two have the vision and modern outlook to enrich the Urdu language and education in modern India.

Role of madrasas
One proposal that has been made in regards to the teaching of Urdu is that religious schools of learning or madrasas take on the task of teaching Urdu to the younger generations. The issues that arise with such a proposal is that these Islamic learning institutions have never been given any incentive to teach Urdu on a mass scale, or at any advanced level. Maulana Mohammad Wali Rahmani, who has done extensive work to promote modern education among Muslims, has always spoken about strengthening and enriching the Madarsa education with modern approach.

Many of the Urdu speakers in India who are not limited to the Muslim community, do not know the Urdu written script. So, giving these people access to Urdu literary works in the Devanagari script would further the cause of Urdu. One of the great scholars when it comes to Urdu literature, Gopi Chand Narang, was quoted as saying: “Urdu is not the language of Muslims. If at all there is any language of Muslims, it should be Arabic. Urdu belongs to the composite culture of India. Hindi and Urdu are supplementary and complementary. They are like sisters strengthening each other.” 

There is an increasingly important audience for Urdu literature presented in English amongst second generation immigrants from Urdu-speaking areas within Europe and the US. The comparison between writings from the East and those of the West is constantly under way; so many authors from both sides have contributed to this discussion which reflects on the characteristics of the text including concepts of reality, humanistic relationships, and the view of religion and God.

Another forum which has greatly helped use of Urdu in popular culture and street life is that of popular Hindi films, these immensely popular films have bridged a gap between Urdu and Hindi in Indian culture. Also wide use of Urdu in these films indica-tes that a vast number of people in the population do understand Urdu, although they may not be able to write in the Urdu script.

Firoz Bakht Ahmed, who has written extensively on Urdu language and education, is of the view that it is responsibility of true admirers and scholars which allows Urdu language to be preserved and further advanced to new heights.

The Urdu language has seen many shifts in support throughout its long history and as the times change, the people led by their government fall in and certain languages go out of favour. However, within India, where the use of Urdu is a cause for which many people and organisations have been working to uphold, these efforts are not without their flaws. It is the mix of these efforts along with popular interests developed by films and ongoing research which will ensure that classical Urdu texts will be preserved and promoted.

(The writer is a linguist and teaches at Washington University in St Louis, USA)

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