Who Says Urdu is a Muslim Language?
‘Badtameez’, ‘Vaqt’, ‘Intezaar’, ‘Zindagi’, ‘Koshish’, ‘Kitaab’, even ‘Hindi’ are just some of the Urdu words we use while remaining totally oblivious of the fact that the language we use is in fact an amalgamation of Hindi and Urdu. 200 years ago, this hybrid language was called Hindustani.
It’s sad, but the stereotypes rule. In our popular and often misinterpreted culture, Urdu and Hindi have become the linguistic equivalents of the skull cap and the tika. But language wasn’t always appropriated by religion.
In the late 1800s, when illiteracy was an estimated 97 percent, administrative, judicial and all other official work in the country was conducted in Urdu. Perhaps thanks to this abominable literacy rate, Urdu was at the time considered the propriety of the educated elite, by default seen as British loyalists. The relatively new language was as progressive and ‘mainstream’ as it could get in a country where only 3 percent of the population knew how to read and write.
So When Did Urdu and Hindi Take on a Religious Colour?
It began with the division of words. The etymology (origin of words) of Hindustani was identified by British linguist John Gilchrist. This proved to be an ambitious exercise since Urdu and Hindi are closely linked; nearly identical in grammar and manner of speech.
Among other things, Gilchrist set out to classify and define Hindustani into two broad categories – words inspired largely by Persian and Arabic were identified as Urdu and those inspired by Sanskrit and Prakrit now known as Hindi.
Perhaps inadvertently, Gilchrist’s efforts gave a quasi-religious identity to both Hindi and Urdu.
The Revolt of 1857
The grammar stood divided, but the language of the resistance during the Revolt of 1857 was still Hindustani. After it was quelled, the British started viewing the otherwise “loyal” educated Muslims who they employed in government services as having betrayed them. To balance the scales, the colonial rulers started favouring Hindi writers and the Devanagri script. They even founded universities in Banaras and Allahabad.
The Hindi Uprising
This encouragement from the British government prompted those lobbying for representation of the Devanagri script in government functioning to become more active.
In two separate memorandums submitted in 1873 and 1882, campaigners for Hindi argued that the Urdu script had a tendency to be vague, illegible and encouraged clerical mischief. It accused Urdu of perpetrating an artificial Persian culture and claimed that Hindi users were overwhelmingly more in number than the elites who were favoured by the ruling establishment.
Regarded as the father of modern Hindi literature, Bharatendu Harishchandra referred to Urdu as the “language of the dancing girls and prostitutes”.
The MacDonnell Moment of 1990
The lack of nuance in previous arguments is what made Congress leader Madan Mohan Malviya adopt a more strategic approach with a memorandum on the introduction of the Devanagri script in Indian administration.
Three years later, lieutenant governor of the North-Western Provinces Sir MacDonnell gave an official endorsement to both Hindi and Urdu. In his copiously-researched book Gita Press and the Making of a Hindu India, Akshaya Mukul calls this the ‘The MacDonnell Moment’.
Malviya was pivotal in helping Hindi gain a firm foothold in the regions we know today as Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar.
Formation of the Muslim League
Disdain and panic – that’s how proponents of Urdu reacted to Sir Mac Donnell’s decision to grant equal status, however symbolic, to both Urdu and Hindi. So when the All India Muslim League was formed to “promote the social, political and cultural aspirations of the Muslims”, its leaders took it upon themselves to promote Urdu in their earliest resolutions.
Hindustani had come to represent the perfect synthesis of several different cultures. But its two components, Hindi and Urdu, were appropriated by religion when the social fabric on which it rested came under threat.
The Urdu-speaking Muslim middle class which inhabited the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar moved to Pakistan in 1947. The muhajirs, as they came to be called, represented a very small minority that exerted considerable political influence in the newly-formed state. The country’s Qaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) Mohammad Ali Jinnah insisted on making Urdu the official language – a decision many historians say fuelled the revolt in predominantly Bengali-speaking East Pakistan.
India on the other hand, took two years after the Partition to pick its official language. In 1950, it replaced Urdu with English, a decision seen to be influenced by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s insistence on cultivating secular credentials. Urdu, however continues to remain one of the twenty officially recognised languages of India.
As recently as September 2015, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the government to replace English with Urdu “because it cannot be understood by the public at large”. Curiously, 48 percent of Pakistan’s 199 million population speak Punjabi. Only 8 percent speak Urdu.
In Indian schools, Urdu was gradually phased out by vernacular languages and more recently by Sanskrit, which as per the 2001 Census was reported as the mother tongue of about 14,000 out of 1.2 billion people.