Fighting for Urdu

On Monday, December 2, lovers of Urdu in the national capital were surprised to find that Rekhta Foundation, organisers of Jashn-e-Rekhta — a popular festival celebrating the language every winter, had dropped “Urdu” from its posters. Instead, the three-day festival beginning on December 13 at the Dhyan Chand National Stadium sent out posters that read: “Jashn-e-Rekhta: The Biggest Celebration of Hindustani Language & Culture.” This prompted several writers and historians — as well as lovers of Urdu literature — to lodge protests through an online campaign till Rekhta Foundation, which did not issue any statement on the matter, to revise the poster by the evening to: “A Festival of Urdu Celebrating Hindustani Culture”.

In March this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said it was necessary to make Urdu popular all over the world. The National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language, an autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, had also revealed plans to get Bollywood stars, such as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Katrina Kaif to promote the language, accepting that it had fallen behind private organisations such as Rekhta Foundation in this task. The move had, however, received mixed responses with some detractors even ridiculing Kaif’s less-than-adequate Hindi. The efforts on the part of the government were perhaps prompted by data revealed by Census 2011.

Among languages spoken by 10 million or more people, Urdu was the only one that registered a decline — falling below 4.2 per cent of the population. According to the 2001 Census, Urdu was the sixth most spoken language in the country, but by 2011 it had slipped to the seventh spot, with Gujarati overtaking it. In Uttar Pradesh, the traditional bastion of Urdu, it had seen a decline, with only 28 per cent Muslims in the state (the language is popularly — and erroneously — associated with the religion) registering it as their mother tongue. At the same time, however, the language continued to maintain its pan-Indian identity, with 21 million speakers in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, and more in West Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Jharkhand.

Jashn-e-Rekhta has played a significant role in promoting Urdu in recent times. So what prompted the Rekhta Foundation, which describes itself as the largest website of Urdu poetry, to change to “Hindustani”? In the absence of a statement, there was widespread speculation, with journalist and writer Ziya Us Salam telling The Indian Express that the change had been prompted right after the Delhi High Court had asked Delhi police to not indiscriminately use archaic Urdu and Persian words in first information reports (FIRs). The Times of India reported that the Bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice C Hari Shaknar said: “Urdu/Persian words are being used mechanically by cops without knowing the meaning.” While the court’s intention might have been to weed out archaic words and make processes more transparent, attacks on Urdu have grown in recent times.

In 2016, two artists — an Indian and a French — were forced by a group of people claiming to be affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to deface an Urdu couplet they had painted as graffiti as part of a beautification project for the Delhi government. Urdu is one of the official languages in Delhi, along with Hindi, Punjabi and English. Their couplet had read: “Dilli tera ujarna, aur phir ujar ke basna. / Woh dil hai toone paya, sani nahi hai jiska" (Oh Delhi, you were ruined and you overcame your ruin to settle. No city has a heart like yours). And, earlier this year, Panjab University provoked widespread protests when its administration decided to make its Urdu department a part of the School of Foreign Languages, after merging departments of Russian, French, German, Chinese, and Tibetan.

The classification of Urdu in popular culture with Muslims and defining it as foreign has been challenged by several scholars over the years. Urdu poet and theorist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in his essay The Name and Nature of a Language: Would Urdu by any other Name Smell as Sweet? claims that the source of this confusion is in the name itself, which in Turkish means army or camp. “Whose army? ...the Muslim armies, of course. They came from abroad with the view of conquering this country and naturally needed some means of communication with the locals.” He claims that Urdu originally referred to the city of Shahjahanabad, now called Old Delhi.

Faruqi also argues that the word Urdu to denote the language started only in the late-18th century when there was no Muslim army in the subcontinent. The only army was of the British East India Company. “The fact seems to have occurred to none of us that taking away the name Hindi from our language and letting a new name, Urdu, develop in its place was the first major step towards creating a linguistic-communal divide,” he writes. The British, of course, did it to prevent any inter-religious unity among their colonial subjects — one wonders whom the denigration of Urdu now helps. The answer is not too difficult to guess.

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