The Crisis of Urdu (Farouqui)

Open letter from Ather Farouqui in New Delhi on the Crisis of Urdu

Dear Friends,

I am writing this note as the General Secretary of the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind) to all allies who can help rescue Urdu from the grave quagmire it is currently confined in, branded as a ‘Muslim language’, ‘language of terrorists’, ‘synonymous with Pakistan’, etc., Urdu’s glorious reign seems a thing of the past. Urdu, unlike the current misnomer, is a secular language and boasts a literature that has been enriched by literary greats from the Muslim community and people from other faiths as well, notwithstanding the fact that Urdu was used by missionary forces among Muslims. Missionaries, of course, no matter which faith they ascribe to, use all resources at their mercy for proselytization; so also in the case of Urdu and Muslims. The interesting thing is that when Urdu was the predominant language in undivided India, anti-Urdu forces, some of whom later campaigned for Hindi nationalism, used the Urdu script to oppose Urdu and promote that particular brand of Hindi. Another fascinating fact is that Urdu was the major language of Christian missionaries in north India in pre-independence days and it still serves the same purpose for Pakistan’s Christian missionaries; even to this day, one can easily find Urdu versions of the Bible in India circulated free of cost in Muslim dominated areas.

Relating to the history of Urdu, it is quite intriguing and contrary to the common belief propagated by Hindi chauvinists that as far as the name—Urdu—is concerned, the same language was earlier known variably as ‘Hindi’, ‘Hindwi’, ‘Rekhta’, etc. And most interestingly, the term Urdu was used at last in the chronological order and the evolution of a language with the same grammar and culture which ultimately met the tragic end of being dissected into two, mainly on the basis of the script. Now both languages supposedly represent Hindu and Muslim cultures and, in most cases, atavistic trends of both religions instead of being perceived as part of a composite culture which was nurtured by the language before its forced division.

Before going any further, I wish to make it clear that I am making this appeal from the platform of the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind), which has always enjoyed the status of a nationalist organization by every secular definition of the term ‘nationalist’. Among its office-bearers, non-Muslims, particularly Hindu litterateurs, have at all times enjoyed pride of place. Urdu, of course, has its linguistic roots in the Indo-Aryan family of languages (precisely khari boli, though it has been impacted enormously by Persian on a literary level) and it has had enormous influence on various cultures on both sides of the Vindhyas.

As I have said, the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind) has from its inception, been dominated by non-Muslims, particularly Hindu litterateurs, and even in our time until a few years back, household names that define our composite culture such as Jagan Nath Azad and Pandit Anand Narain Mulla have been closely associated with it. Let me illustrate this with the help of an amusing anecdote. During a return trip from Pakistan, Sardar Jafri and Jagan Nath Azad were travelling by Pakistan Airlines, on board which in those days liquor was prohibited for Muslims. Jafri Sahib tried to take advantage of the presence of Jagan Nath Azad and asked him to extend the request for whisky. Azad did his bidding but got a flat refusal. Azad argued that he was a Hindu and so entitled to liquor. At this, the cabin crew member politely informed him that he was aware that the esteemed passenger’s name was Jagan Nath Azad, but because of his Urdu poetry, Pakistan considered him an honorary Pakistani! Of course, this was during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s premiership before he turned populist and tried to make an Islamic bloc quite unsuccessfully. Anand Narain Mulla’s intimate attachment to Urdu is evidenced from his remark that he could forsake his religion but not his language Urdu. Of course, those were different days but I have recounted these tales to bring home the point that Urdu was the most secular language of India, for the simple reason that its real growth took place after Persian vanished from the Mughal durbar following the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. Being the language of the masses, Urdu was very prominent during the freedom struggle, with the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ providing an idiom to the bid for independence.

It is true that liberalization has overhauled the entire social fabric of India, with indelible impacts on the linguistic landscape of the country. This has been good in a way, for politics in the name of Urdu and Hindi has come to an end, but at the same time it is even more tragic that both languages are directly linked with the fascist agenda of atavistic forces, and this is far more dangerous than the preceding trend of language politics. Of course, technology has played a decisive role, particularly in the case of Urdu, where the issue of script has become oversensitive and has been fully exploited by politicians. Now, with the revolution of internet technology anyone can learn the Urdu script and, as a result, a new version of Urdu has emerged. This is a welcome development.

As the new General Secretary of the Anjuman, I have come to realize that while fortunately the organization is completely free from the impact of Islamophobia, there is a need to draw this old nationalist organization with secular ethos into the civic space where the new generation, not exposed to the partition, is open to all languages. In fact, a large number of non-Muslim youth have been drawn towards Urdu, not in the original Arabic-Persian script, but in a format more attuned to present times. This change has disarmed the protagonists of Hindi, who have given a bad name to what was the national language for all these years.

Through this note, I invite your suggestions for various measures via which Urdu literature can better enrich national life. I also want to associate as many people as possible, mainly non-Muslims, with the Anjuman as I firmly believe that people from outside the community who love Urdu literature do not have any vested interest and can further its cause more objectively. So please do contact us with your suggestions and contributions.

With regards and best wishes for 2013.

Yours sincerely,

Ather Farouqui

Ather Farouqui
General Secretary,
Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind)
Urdu Ghar, Urdu Ghar Marg,
212, Rouse Avenue,
New Delhi 110002

5 Responses

  1. Urdu is sometimes considered synonymous with Pakistan because it was made the national language. Before the establishment of Pakistan in 1947, however, none of the major groups that inhabited the area that would become Pakistan spoke Urdu. They spoke Baluchi, Punjabi, Pashto, and Sindhi.

    Urdu was imported to Pakistan after independence with the migration to Sindh, and particularly to Karachi, of the Urdu-speaking Mojahirs from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Bihar. In 1948, Karachi was declared Pakistan’s capital, and by 1951, Sindhis had become a minority in that city, with a 57 percent majority of the population being Urdu-speaking Mojahirs.

  2. Like most languages, Urdu has been used both by saints and scholars, as well as by terrorists. German was used both by Goethe and by Hitler, and Persian is the language of Ferdowsi, Rumi, Sa’di, and Hafiz, as well as of some narrow-minded, dogmatic and fundamentalist bigots. It is worth pointing out that more people speak Urdu in India as a mother tongue than in Pakistan (at least 55 million people in India, as opposed to 15 million in Pakistan), and together with Hindi, which is very akin to it, it is the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world (after Mandarin, English and Spanish). It is also so close to Persian that most Persian speakers understand at least 80 per cent of written or spoken Urdu. Therefore, there is no need to apologize for it in the face of some misguided descriptions of it as the ‘Muslim language’ or the ‘language of terrorists’. If for no other reason but for the fact that Iqbal Lahuri wrote some of his most beautiful poems in Urdu as well as in Persian, Urdu deserves a high place in the linguistic chart in the world.

  3. The reality of vernacular Urdu/Hindustani is that it is understood by anyone who speaks Hindi and Punjabi. Urdu and Hindi are two branches of the same mother tongue (aka Hindwi).

  4. Farhang,
    with all due respect, aren’t you mixing data about Hindustani with data about Urdu? Your numbers puzzle me…

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