Guest-Editorial: Urdu in contemporary India: Predicaments and Promises
By Fahad Hashmi
One of the myths making rounds in the public sphere in India is that Urdu has always been the language of Muslims. The myth is so deeply entrenched in the society that it needs to be refuted with all the force of argument. Scholars have noted that a section of the society projects Urdu as the language of Muslims in order to urge Hindus to build their own linguistic identity. This structuring of ‘Muslim linguistic identity’ vis-à-vis ‘Hindu linguistic identity’ seeks to pit the two communities against each other. People with a sectarian bent in the Muslim community have also declared Urdu to be the language of Muslims, which, in turn, has helped the Hindu right wing advance their agenda. Unfortunately, we are witnessing an attempt at undermining the composite culture and turning Muslims into the permanent hated other.
The fact that the first great novel in Urdu was penned by Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar, and Pandit Nawal Kishore’s publishing house produced the largest archive of Urdu books is enough to prove that Urdu didn’t ever exclusively belong to Muslims.
A great deal of confusion about the origin of Urdu emanates from the meaning of the word ‘Urdu’ itself. Urdu means lashkar. All those scholars who have tried to trace the origin of this language by taking into account lashkar as its meaning have been grossly mistaken. The stalwarts such as Mir Amman, Naseeruddin Hashmi, and Maulana Syed Sulaiman Nadvi are way off the mark as regards the origin and development of Urdu. Even the works of Hafiz Sherani and other scholars do not come up to the expectations.
The arguments advanced by eminent scholars like Shaukat Sabzwari, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Jameel Jalbi, and Masood Husain Khan are far more rational, logical, and reliable. The works of these scholars stand the criteria of research methodology and techniques of investigation that hold sway in our times.
Sabzwari, Jalbi, and Masud Husain Khan agree that the origin and emergence of Urdu took place in and around Delhi, and the doab region of the Ganges and the Yamuna. Masud Husain Khan’s theory about the origin of Urdu has been well received by linguists and scholars as the theory is more coherent and plausible, and thus stands to reason. Masud Husain Khan concludes that Urdu started just after the coming of Aryans and it is a complete language on its own. It has evolved from Apabhraṃśa of the Shauraseni Prakrit. It does borrow and imbibe words, idioms, phrases from other languages to increase its own treasury, and uses them according to its own grammatical laws.
Over time Urdu has become the language of Muslims owing to a number of factors. And now it is the predominant perception in both the communities. One cannot dispute the fact that Urdu is a language of instruction in madrasas, and a huge amount of religious writing is being done in this language. Alternatively, the linkage of Urdu with Islam in South Asia is beyond doubt.
One development that has taken place over a couple of years is the association of Urdu with terrorism in India. Every incident of terrorism that takes place in India has a Muslim face that is entwined with Urdu. The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) and other such agencies always find ‘jihadi literature’ written in Urdu at the place where a terror attack takes place.
There is another side to this state of Urdu in India. The dismal state of Urdu owes a great deal to negligence and procrastination on the part of Urduwallahs. I vividly remember attending Qurratulain Hyder’s talk at the Yasser Arafat Hall in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, along with my teacher, Neshat Quaiser and a close friend, Ramjit. It was most probably the last talk that she had given before her demise in August 2007. The talk was followed by a question and answer session. I mustered enough courage to ask a question regarding the state of Urdu in India. She said: Hum kulladh me gud phod rahe hain. I think she meant that Urduwallahs produce the stuff that gets consumed by Urduwallahs only. In other words, the world of Urdu has shrunk considerably, and it has utterly failed in maintaining a connection with the outer world that it once used to do.
It is nice to see that the government-aided agencies are producing and translating books and encyclopedias of sciences and social sciences, and literary books in Urdu. However, these works not only lack in academic rigour but are shoddily written and shabbily produced. For instance, the word tarassh kharash, translation of ‘sanskritization’, hardly entails the essence and thrust of ‘sanskritization’, a popular term in Indian sociology for understanding the dynamics of mobility of the ‘low-caste’ people up the echelons of the caste ladder. We have got translated books in Urdu where North Pole and South Pole have been mentioned as junubi khanmba and shumali khamba respectively! Hard Disc has been translated as sakht tashtari! Mythology has become ilm-ul-khorafat. And masochism is mashriqi aashiqee. This is indeed a sorry state of affairs.
This special issue of Café Dissensus tries to understand the state of Urdu in India. With the help of nine articles, one interview, and one photo essay, it explores the major dimensions of the problem. I hope this effort will help address the challenges faced by Urdu in India.
Fahad Hashmi is an independent researcher, who holds an MPhil in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, Delhi, India. He regularly writes on political Islam, issues of minorities, and on other issues of political and social concerns.
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