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Death of a language, Urdu, that Pakistanis call India's Stepchild

By Mohammed Wajihuddin, 

Jan 13, 2006,

Every morning I open the Urdu newspapers with dread. Will I have to read yet another regressive rant by those who call themselves the custodians of Islam, or one more litany on the wrongs done to the Muslim community worldwide?

Sadly, the answer is yes. What better example of this kind of bigotry than the headline in the Urdu Times on January 9: 'Sharon ki maut par jashn manaya jayega' (Sharon's death will be celebrated)?

Muslims, madrassas, reservations in a Muslim university, a mosque under threat, another lavish one being built, Muslims being oppressed from Kashmir to Kandahar and Baghdad to Bradford, Bosnia, Palestine, Afghanistan.

These are the staples that Urdu dailies thrive on. It appears as if nothing else in the world is newsworthy unless it has Muslims at its centre, preferably in a situation of victimhood.

But a paper is a hard habit to break, no matter how parochial, bland or offensive. And it is also unfair to tar all the Urdu dailies with the same green brush.

But since Hyderabad's leading Urdu daily Siasat is hosting the World Urdu Conference between January 14 and 16, it is an excellent opportunity for leading dailies and their readership to do some introspection and take a hard look at the fare being dished out everyday.

This exercise might be more constructive than breast beating about the tardy treatment meted out to the Urdu language by an apathetic government.

Urdu, the epitome of our 'Ganga-Yamuni tehzeeb' (composite culture), is in its death throes. And nowhere is the decay more pronounced than its press, once the sentinel of freedom of thought and speech, mores and conduct. Urdu journalism prided itself on its glorious past.

If Maulvi Mohammed Baqar, an Urdu editor in Delhi, became the first Indian journalist who was martyred during the 1857 rising, Urdu journalists and writers like Maulana Azad, Maulana Mohammed Ali and Maulana Hasrat Mohani suffered rigorous imprisonment for opposing the British raj.

The spirit of Urdu, and its press, before it was trussed into a religious achkan, was secular, its tone revolutionary and progressive. It was never a language of the Muslims.

Munshi Prem Chand, Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar, Krishen Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Josh Malsiyani were leading exponents of the language. How many Hindus does Urdu need to flaunt to prove its appeal across religions?


Urdu: India's Stepchild

By Dr Khan Dawood L. Khan

February 21, 2006

The Rodney Dangerfield refrain, “I don’t get no respect. No respect at all,” would seem equally applicable to Urdu in India, its birthplace, its home!

Urdu is a symbol of India’s syncretic culture, but based on various perceptions -- real or not -- this so-called ‘Ganga-Yamuna tahzeeb’ often appears to have an oil-in-water consistency about it. Not just to one or the other stream but to both!

Aalimi Urdu Conference held in Hyderabad (India) this year (14-16 January) is just a celebration of the fact and this ‘tahzeeb’, regardless of the perception. How productive or effective this conference – in fact, any such gathering of an Indo-Pak Urdu-Speaking diaspora -- would be, beyond the self-congratulatory rituals and lip-service by the current political leaders, remains to be seen.

Since Independence, sustained efforts have been made to dilute Urdu’s individuality, diffuse its independence and undermine its status. A variety of myths have been created and perpetuated in the process, although every single one of them has been shown totally insupportable and even contrary to historical facts. No other Indian language -- and Urdu, though comparatively young, is just as indigenous to India as any other language-- had to face similar problems and challenges.

Urdu is portrayed as a language of Muslims and Islam, and as THE ‘language of the Partition’. This, however, ignores major contributions to the language by many non-Muslim writers, poets and journalists, to name some randomly: Prem Chand, Krishen Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi Tarlok Chand Marhoorn, Mali Ram Wafa, Labhu Ram Josh Malsiani, Kaif Arfani Mohanmurti , Naresh Kumar Shad, Pandit Sudarshan , Upendra Nath Ashq, Qamar Jalalabadi, Ram Prashad Bismil, Hansraj Rehbar, Dr. Gopi Chand Narang, Gopal Mittal, Hari Chand Akhtar , Dwarkadhish Mehar, Swami Ramanan, Pandit Dattatreya Kaifi, Mahasha Krishan, Mahasha Khushal Chand, Nanak Chand Naaz, Ram Rakha Mal Khustargrami, Sohan Lal Vohra, Pindi Das of Gujaranwala. “How many Hindus does Urdu need to flaunt to prove its appeal across religions,” asks an editorial writer in the Times of India [1]? Had Urdu not been perpetually portrayed only as a Muslim/Islamic langu age, the question at this point would be laughable.

Except for the fact that Urdu shares the Arabic script of Koran, which most religious Muslim would learn to read, most Muslims in the world are NOT Urdu speakers. In India, e.g., the Bengali- , Tamil- , or Malayali-Muslims who read the Koran, wouldn’t consider or claim Urdu as their mother tongue. ; Although it’s the official language of Pakistan, less than 10% of Pakistanis are native-Urdu speakers. Religion alone is NOT enough to unite people: it doesn’t keep Sunnis and Shias together (in Pakistan or Iraq); it didn’t keep the East and West Pakistan together either. Separation of East Pakistan into independent Bangladesh had more to do with language and culture than shared religion!

Some still consider Urdu either as a reminder of our Mughal past and, therefore, not quite desirable, or as another bone of Hindu-Muslim contention, and thus no longer welcome. Both are far from the truth. Have we not hung on, rather unabashedly, to English and our British Raj past for the past 60-plus years? Don’t we recall how English (NOT H indi) has remained the one truly national language that not only kept India united (through the disastrously divisive linguistic Reorganization of the States and the language riots, first in the South and then till very recently in the Northeast) but also provided us a considerable edge over other countries in this Information Age and global, on-line 21st century? Nothing has caused more internal strife and distrust than attempts to impose Hindi as THE only national language. In fact, the upsurge in demands for linguistic recognition still continues. The Constitutional Amendment (2003) to the Eighth Schedule has added two only-verbal languages for the very first time, as a part of the deal between the central government and tribal groups that had been demanding independence and other kinds of recognition. It’s expec ted that 35 more languages would follow, while English would continue to remain unquestionably as one the two national languages.

‘Hindustani’ was supposed to serve as a bridge between the Devanagiri-script Hindi and Arabic-Persian-script Urdu. Aptly termed as Hindi-Hindustani-Urdu mentalite (the traditionally overlapping and shared cultural values, attitudes and identity, as the French would say) in a detailed review of the subject [2], what occurred mostly was a gradual erosion of the legitimate status of Urdu as an independent language.

The position that Urdu is an archaic and ‘dying’ as a language is absurd, and just a blind extrapolation from “in Custody,” the 1985 book by Anita Desai. Were it true -- even Ismail Merchant who made it into a 1994 movie denied it in his AsiaSource interview of May 2001 -- why would we continue to see an ever-increasing number of Urdu words and phrases used so enthusiastically in supposedly Hindi movies, songs, TV shows and in our vernacular? We don’t see any such interest in or demand for the introduction of Telugu, Tamil or any other language words into the national media, do we? It is true, however, that the indices of linguistic health and growth (newspapers, books, etc) have not been as high for Urdu as those of other languages, but there are various reasons for it [2].

However, it’s too naïve and careless to suggest, as an editorial writer for the Times of India [TOI] recently did, that Urdu is ‘in the throes of death’ or that Urdu newspapers in India or elsewhere are consumed by issues concerning only Muslims and Islam, and ‘bellyache’ about unfair treatment to Urdu by Indian government [1]. That’s a broad-brush, which this writer even acknowledged! The orientation and focus of other regional or religious press in India is in fact just as narrow, if not narrower. Nothing uniquely Indian either, because such newspapers in other countries, including US, Britain, Israel, and other democracies, tend to be that specifically focused. There’s always the question of fairness and balance, but that again is not just limited to the Urdu press in or outside India, as the TOI writer would have you believe.

Urdu newspapers are published not just in India – they are also published in Pakistan and other countries, including Canada and the US, each with its own focus, and none necessarily bound or supposed to be in agreement with the Indo-Pak Urdu press. When the TOI writer acknowledges that “Like some Hindi rags, they [Urdu newspapers] too have begun to thrive on sensationalism,” he disembowels his own argument. What he calls “breast beating about the tardy treatment meted out to the Urdu language by an apathetic government,” is nothing more than a totally legitimate attempt to seek redress. It is claimed that “Nobody paid a bigger price for Partition than Urdu. Pakistan, in its desperation to acquire legitimacy, appropriated Urdu and its poet Allama Iqbal.” This is too naïve, and ignores the history of Partition [3]. Overall, the article [1] seemed to be nothing more than “yet another regressive rant,” or just what the author calls the Urdu press.

The TOI writer adds that “Urdu has enriched Hindi cinema immensely, providing mellifluous lyrics and embroidering dialogue.” True, but without getting its due credit! In this regard, I have previously suggested [cited in 1] that the Urdu-speakers of India can get it rectified by : (i) noting down the number of Urdu words used in Hindi movies, songs and TV shows, (ii) forwarding the information to the producers of such fare and the Union Ministry of Information that certifies the products (or any other government or non-government agency) asking them to co-list Urdu in the credits if Urdu words exceed 10-15% of the total, and (iii) seeing some ‘Truth in labeling and advertising’ in the products released. Imagine how popular purely Hindi or highly Sanskritized-Hindi programs will be!

Many successful countries try to reduce sectarian, regional and other differences and unite them all behind a common set of goals. Instead, leaders of India have preferred to reorganize the States along linguistic lines and continued to stoke the fire that kept an already diverse country stay diverse, without letting it gel yet into a synthetic whole. None of the indigenous languages has yet been able to bring the country together in this fashion. In fact, what did keep India united over the last half-century of needless linguistic regional turmoil that squandered much of the country’s valuable time and resources, was English, the language of our British colonial past that most conservative nationalist were so anxious to get rid of (just like they tried to disown Urdu and other remnants of Mughal period). In addition, it is English and English alone (NOT any of the regional/official lang uages, including Urdu) that will keep India highly competitive and prominent on the world stage in this 21st century information age. Regardless of the ongoing turmoil within India, NONE of the regional and official languages travels well even within India, much less outside. Except English, no other Indian (Hindi, or any Regional/Official language, Urdu included) offers even a remote opportunity to comfortably step into the cyber-world.

Urdu is a product of undivided India, and it will remain as such, carried in both parts of the subcontinent. The continuing campaign to deny Urdu its true status in India is nothing more than trying to disown what was born there.

[1] Mohammed Wajihuddin, The Times of India, Editorial, January 13, 2006.


[2] Rizwana Rahim, ‘Urdu in India’ (in 3 parts), September 30-November 3, 2005,


[3] Khan Dawood L. Khan, Partition Players’ Politics’ (in 5 Parts), September 9 – October 14, 2005


Source: Pakistan Link