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Rethinking Urdu Nationalism in Pakistan: Raza Rumi

February 8, 2012

Guest post by RAZA RUMI

Urdu has been a controversial language in Pakistan despite its official and holy status. The Bengalis rejected it way back in the 1940s when Jinnah, advised by a bureaucracy, with imperial moorings declared in that it would be the official language. Subsequently, Sindhis, Baloch and Pashtuns have also resisted the one-size-fits-all Urdu formula. Yet, Urdu has emerged as the functional lingua franca that connects Pakistan’s federating units, and its conflation with Islam and Muslim ‘nationhood’ remains the paramount narrative in Pakistan.

It takes arduous scholarship and infinite courage to author a book like From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History (Oxford University Press, 2011). Dr Tariq Rahman, ironically, has worked as the Director of the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at the Quaid-i-Azam University and therefore his challenge to the mythical dimensions of ‘Pakistan Studies’ comes from within and not as an outsider. Sixty-four years after the creation of Pakistan, we have not arrived at any conclusion about our ‘national’ or cultural identity. Dr Rahman’s book if anything shatters the myths that we have built around Urdu; and therefore presents a valid alternative to Goebbelsian tone of our official history.

Urdu, according to Rahman, evolved out of the various indigenous dialects across Northern India. Muslims who landed in India as soldiers, merchants, mystics enriched these native dialects. Especially the one that was spoken around Delhi called Khari Boli. A language known as Hindi, Hindvi or Dehlavi came into being. It spread towards the south and by the 18th century it was called Rekhta and Hindustani, among other names. The elites of Delhi Persianised it and renamed it as Zuban-e-Urdu-e-Mualla, the language of an exalted city. Rahman summarises his research in a series of columns published by Pakistan’s daily Express Tribune:

… the ancestor of Urdu and Hindi was called by the following names: Hindi, Hindvi (13th-19thcentury); Dehlavi (13th-14th c.); Gujri (15th c.); Dakhani (15th-18th c.); Indostan (17th c.); Moors (18th c.); Rekhta (18th-19th c.); Hindustani (18th-20th c.). The term Urdu to refer to this language was first used, at least in existing written records, in 1780 by poet Ghulam Hamadani Mushafi (1750-1824). Before Mushafi, the term Zuban-e-Urdu-e-Mualla (the language of the Exalted City) was used for the Persianised language of the Mughal capitals Agra and Delhi. “ [The Murder of Linguistic Theory – II]

Far from being a separate identity marker, Urdu represented the complex Hindu-Muslim exchange during the 13th-18th centuries. Therefore, as Rahman rightly says, Urdu is a common heritage of Hindus and Muslims for at least 500 years if not more. By undertaking detailed research into subject, he shows instead of being an elitist language it was the language of common men and women. Urdu language essentially is rooted in the Indian soil and a manifestation of osmosis between Hindus and Muslims. Rahman also shows that Urdu was not born in military barracks as a result of Muslim invasions. In Rahman’s words

… the word ‘Urdu’ in the Persian sources of India did not mean ‘military camp’ but only ‘city,’ and generally the capital city of the empire. Its origin is not military but urban; not soldiering but urbanisation and sophistication; not the battlefield but the hustle and bustle of life, especially life in the courts of kings.

One cannot disagree with Rahman that ‘modern’ Urdu is a deliberate Muslim cultural product, which came into being through the linguistic reform movement during late 18th century. In a piece, How Urdu got associated with Muslims in India? — I , published on August 27, 2011 (Express Tribune, Pakistan), Rahman writes:

The impact of this movement was that it changed the identity of the common language of north India to two languages: Persianised Urdu and Sanskritised Hindi. The process of Sanskritisation started from 1802 onwards and it was a consequence of political awareness, incipient nationalism and reaction to Muslim cultural dominance. But this dominance had been contributed to; by the same movement of the Islamisation of Urdu so that a Hindu poet had to use Islamic phraseology in order to be appreciated. And yet, ironically and most unjustly, Azad’s book Ab-e-Hayat ignores both Hindu poets as well as women. There is no doubt that this process of Persianisation was a class movement meant to strike out an independent path rather than to write in Persian itself as the Iranians made fun of Indian-Persian. Moreover, from the 1830s onwards, Persian was being phased out from the domains of power. Both the Muslims and Kaesth Munshis were interested in using Persianised Urdu to retain their monopoly over jobs in UP and the Punjab. But the apprenticeship (ustadi-shagirdi) tradition, the poetry recitation sessions (mushairas) which were assemblies of rivals and the cultural capital given to language was such that the allusions, references and the atmosphere, at least in the ghazal, was Persian and Muslim. That is why the movement alienated Hindus and that is why I call it the Islamisation of Urdu.

This was the same time when Hindu reformers started to clean up and removed Persian and Arabic words in favour of Sanskrit.

Its greatest harm was that it began the division of Urdu-Hindi into Urdu and Hindi and this was continued by the Sankritisation of Hindi later. And yet, the spoken language of ordinary people remains undivided. It is only by recognising this history and resolving to build upon common themes and continuities of this common language of north Indian cities that we exorcise the ghosts of the past from this subcontinent.

However, the most illuminating part of his study relates to the prevalent myth in Pakistan that somehow the British deliberately promoted Hindi against Urdu i.e. the Muslims. To the contrary as Rahman tells us the British showed partiality towards the development of Urdu rather than Hindi and made public investments into the language. In one of his columns, Rahman writes:

… the British taught Urdu, which they mostly called ‘Hindustani’, to their officers in Fort William College. The first department of Urdu was, in fact, established by them there under the supervision of John Borthwick Gilchrist who wrote A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language in 1796. Urdu was later spread in the lower schools of present-day Utter Pradesh (UP) by British officers, notably James Thomason (1804-1853) during the 1850s. In 1853, the authorities made the knowledge of Urdu necessary for employment so it spread faster. Later, when the British conquered Punjab in 1849, they spread Urdu to the schools in both Punjab and present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Again, as in UP, they also made Urdu the language of lower jobs and hence, people learned it in their pragmatic interest.

Of course, such narratives cannot be popular in a country where Hindi-Urdu controversy of 19th and early 20th century is cited as the basis of Muslim separatism. Critiquing a Pakistani textbook for BA, Rahman writes:

… major lie in the textbook is that during the Urdu-Hindi controversy, the British drove out Urdu from the courts and imposed Hindi instead. In fact, while individual British officers were divided amongst themselves, the British government did not drive out Urdu from its major strongholds i.e. present-day UP and Punjab. The guide mentions Lt Governor AP Macdonnell (1859-1925) as the man who threw Urdu out of the lower courts and offices of the North Western Provinces (NWP, present-day UP). Macdonnell’s papers are available in a special collection at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford…Macdonnell received petitions from the supporters of Hindi — about 86 per cent of the population — to replace Urdu by Hindi in the courts. He sat on them for three years and eventually decided that (1) petitions could be received in both Urdu and Hindi scripts (2) summonses and proclamations will also be in both (3) only people who could read both scripts would be given government service (April 18, 1900). In short, Hindi was allowed but Urdu remained the language of the courts and lower offices…In his own words of May 18, 1900: “A political danger of considerable magnitude here intervened. The dethronement of Urdu, and the enthronement of Hindi, would mean an embittered war between Mohomedan and Hindu and the excitement of Mohomedan hostility against the government.

Unfortunately, we have little room for the kind of rigorous research that Rahman has undertaken. Half-truths and invented ‘facts’ enable the construction of nationalisms. We have used Urdu as a political instrument to articulate the hegemony of the key classes that led events to Partition. Furthermore, imposition of Urdu at the expense of regional languages has further compounded its status. Thus we have isolated ourselves from centuries of a cultural identity, and also alienated the various peoples of Pakistan ‘reinventing’ Urdu as an Islamic thing. It has led to reactions across the border where a similar ‘Muslim’ stamp is affixed on a people’s language that was essentially secular and plural.

Pakistan is a reality now. We can still correct our future if we give up the pastime of hating our heritage and admitting that all the weapons and propaganda cannot falsify history. As Rahman writes: I will end with a quote from Rahman:

Yet, a language may have more than one association. And it is always possible that Urdu can produce discourses of inclusiveness, tolerance and pluralism which can make it both a rich repository of Islamic literature and a language of enlightened, progressive and tolerant thought.

One hopes that Dr Rahman’s book is translated for the Urdu readers soon.

(A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Express Tribune. Raza Rumi is a journalist in Lahore.)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Malay Deb permalink
    February 9, 2012 3:27 AM

    A language of sublime finesse and infinite beauty; pity, it’s viewd through the prism of religion and/or ethnicity.

  2. February 16, 2012 12:40 PM

    Congrats to Dr. rahman. An illuminating peace.

    The Hindustani (Gandhi wrote) should be neither Sanskritized Hindi nor Persianised Urdu but a happy combination of both. It should also freely admit words wherever necessary from the different regional languages and also assimilate words from foreign languages, provided that they can mix well and easily with our national language. Thus our national language must develop into a rich and powerful instrument capable of expressing the whole gamut of human thoughts and feelings.

    Source From Harijansevak of 12 Oct 1947: see Gandhi Thoughts, p. 174 as quoted in “The Indian Constitution”, Cornerstone of a Nation, Granville Austin, Oxford University Press, 1966


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