The understanding of Urdu as a foreign language and a hated symbol of ‘Muslim conquest’ has been part of the discourse of Hindi and Hindu nationalism from the beginning, writes FRANCESCA ORSINI.
THE recent spate of attacks on the Urdu language and script in BJP-ruled India is both new and old. New, because it invokes conspiracy theories and the logic of ‘hurt Hindu sentiments’ and is backed by a substantial threat of violence with full impunity. The Indian food colossus Haldiram was attacked for hiding ‘animal oil’ behind its Urdu (actually Arabic) packaging. The clothing brand Fab India was forced to withdraw a new festive line because its Urdu name, Jashn-e Riwaaz, ‘hurt Hindu sentiments’. But the attack is also old, because the understanding of Urdu as a foreign language and a hated symbol of ‘Muslim conquest’ has been part of the discourse of Hindi and Hindu nationalism from the beginning.
The idea that script, language, and ethnic and religious community are tied together in a tight unit, and embody a community’s individual history and literature came to India under colonialism, together with many other ideas. Before then, as historian David Lelyveld put it, ‘People did not have languages; they had linguistic repertoires that varied even within a single household, let alone the marketplace, school, temple, court, or devotional circle. These codes of linguistic behaviour took on the same characteristics of hierarchy that other sorts of human interaction did.’
In other words, it was normal to have bahus (daughters-in-law) in the house coming from different language areas, learn a different (‘high’) language like Persian at school, and listen to or read scriptures and prayers in a ‘high’ language. It was also normal to listen to songs and poems in several languages—ghazals in Persian and Urdu, tappas in Punjabi, and khyals and horis in Braj Bhasha—as part of the same musical or theatrical performance.
One did not need to be literate in those languages in order to understand what they meant. And one usually wrote any of those languages in whatever script one had learnt—Sanskrit for example was written in any of the regional scripts. But new European ideas saw language and literature as the unique expression of a people (Volk). For British colonial writers first, and Indian intellectuals soon after, Sanskrit and its ‘daughter’ Hindi (and Bengali, Gujarati, etc.) were the real languages of India, whereas Persian and Urdu, with their ‘foreign’ script, were alien to its culture, even though Persian had been used in India for the best part of a millennium, and since Mughal times actively so by Hindus and Muslims alike.
Urdu scholars also shared a communitarian view of the language, and Hafiz Mahmud Sherani in the 1930s wrote that ‘Muslim peoples (aqwam) created a special language for themselves in India and as they spread thanks to their conquests and victories, this language also spread together with them eastward, westward, to the North and to the South.’
In the nineteenth century, a movement grew in North India seeking official recognition for Hindi in the Nagari script in law courts and government offices, in the process trying to win over to Hindi the substantial group of Urdu- and Persian-educated Hindus.
The movement developed a rich rhetoric around Hindi, with Hindi cast as the chaste mother-tongue vs Urdu as the language of harlots. Urdu ‘foreign’ words had to be expelled from Hindi—a call we hear today. Certainly, learning formal or pure (‘shuddh’) Hindi at school has meant learning a Sanskritized code that is quite separate from the language outside the school walls, and it is this language that has become a rallying point for Hindu nationalism.
The Nagari movement eventually grew into lobbying for Hindi as the national language of independent India. In this competitive environment, language loyalty was meant to be exclusive, and the idea of exclusive and mutually hostile language ‘camps’ is still entrenched in India today. Somehow, that one can be a Hindi and Urdu and English wali (and whatever else) remains unthinkable.
That the Pakistan movement in the 1940s rallied around Urdu, and after 1947 the Pakistan government insisted on Urdu as the national language of the whole of Pakistan, despite the substantial presence of other languages like Bengali or Sindhi, only cemented the association between Urdu, Muslims and Pakistan. It also led to Bangla crystallising protests in East Pakistan that eventually led to the creation of independent Bangladesh in 1971.
In India, when Urdu was recognised as one of the languages under the eighth schedule of India’s Constitution in 1950, the Uttar Pradesh Congress government refused to sanction it as an official state language (it did so only in 1982). Again, the argument that because Urdu is the language of Pakistan it cannot be a language in India is one that is heard nowadays.
Yet, for generations the allure of Urdu continued to cast its spell thanks to songs and dialogues in Hindi films and of poetry booklets, printed also in the Nagari script. More recently, the crowds that have been flocking to the Jashn-e Rekhta festivals are not of ‘traditional’ Urdu speakers. Indeed, the wonderful Rekhta.org website offers Urdu resources in Urdu, Nagari and Roman scripts, breaking the exclusive association between language and script.
For generations, too, Hindu nationalism has coexisted with a taste for Urdu poetry. Both Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were well versed in Urdu, and could give eloquent speeches in Urdu and recite scores of Urdu poetry. I have no doubt that many BJP members and supporters—like Topi Shukla’s grandmother in Rahi Masoom Raza’s novel by the same name —hate Muslims but love Urdu poetry. But it is a love they are now pursuing in private.
So there is little new in the political use of language or in the Hindu nationalist enmity towards Urdu language and script. And since threats to Urdu have traditionally elicited out vocal support from those who are not Muslim nor Urdu speakers, attacking Urdu becomes a handy way not just to cower and humiliate Muslims but also to attack those the Hindu Right calls ‘pseudo-secularists’. What is new is the muscle power behind the attacks.
- Francesca Orsini is Professor Emerita of Hindi and South Asian Literatures, School of Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of London. She is also the editor of Journal of World Literature and of Cambridge Studies in World Literature and Culture, and the regional editor of Murty Classical Library of India.