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Soheb Niazi: "The Politics of Imagining (in) Urdu in Contemporary India"

Source: Café Dissensus

Source: Café Dissensus


Language in its linguistic sense refers to the cognitive processes that enable us to communicate with each other. As a source of knowledge, however, it also tells us a history of human endeavor and about culture(s) that a particular language imbues. Through the aid of language, we learn the histories of our past, the ways of those who lived before us, their successes, their failures, the compromises they made, the difficulties they faced and how they coped with life and all its subtleties. While language enables us to imagine a distant past, it can also erase or fudge parts of it, to replace them with an alternate one, and in this sense, language plays a key role in shaping our abilities to comprehend and make sense of our present world as well.

Growing up in Delhi in the nineteen nineties, when globalization was rapidly transforming to its current form, in our English medium schools we read our Enid Blytons and Harry Potters and pretty much forgot our vernacular mother tongues in which we communicated at home with our parents and grandparents. While there was no harm in reading Sherlock Holmes cover to cover, our secular English education ensured we were far more familiar with far-away Baker Street than our nearby Rafi Marg. Shakespeare’s dramas moved us, yet Agha Hashar or Habib Tanvir’s characters, which inhabited far closer spaces around us, remained unknown, somewhere outside the boundaries of our textbooks. Any form of institutional education serves its own purposes; the history of colonial education in India has taught us many lessons in this regard. Twelve years of school education left us unaware of the tehzeeb or culture of Hindustan that comprised of major parts of Northern India before the advent of British colonialism.

Few of us are aware or today possess the wish to acknowledge the fact that Persian was the official language of Hindustan till 1836 and in the British era, Urdu and its various dialects were the predominant mode of communication and articulation in significant parts of Northern India and many parts of the Deccan as well. Urdu, in this period of more than a hundred years, was not merely the language of Muslims alone but of Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs as well. Maulana Hasrat Mohani’s famous slogan – Inquilab Zindabad (Revolution Long Live) – coined during the nationalist freedom struggle was popularized by Bhagat Singh, who also wrote and read extensively in Urdu. In its high Arabic/Persianised form, Urdu as a language of the elites, produced a greatly varied and creative literary tradition and, in its crude Khari Boli form, represented the everyday language spoken by a vast majority of the population.

It is during the colonial period that debates emerged calling for distinctions between Urdu and Hindi as distinct languages representing Muslim and Hindu communities. With the Partition of India, there was no room anymore to conceive of Urdu as a language that represented any other community than Muslims. This tragic narrative of associating Urdu to a particular religion and its subsequent demise have been termed by scholars as a cultural-linguistic genocide that stigmatized the language beyond repair.

After the Partition of the country, Muslims who stayed back in India encountered a most complex transition. On the one hand, they witnessed this cultural-linguistic genocide from close quarters, as the language they spoke and the culture they addressed as their own turned alien. This culture was to be forfeited now and to lead a peaceful life one had to prove their nationalism and patriotism. For the generation of the sixties and the seventies, this transition remained complicated. The language they spoke, read, and wrote – Urdu – was still the one they called their mother tongue. It was natural for this generation of Muslims to be nostalgic and watch Pakistani dramas, hear Mehdi Hassan and Noor Jehan’s ghazals, appreciate Faiz and Ahmad Faraz’s shairi or cheer for Imran Khan and Javed Miandad’s antics. There was an iota of truth in the charge of the Hindu right that the loyalty of Muslims lay with Pakistan during Indo-Pak cricket matches, albeit for reasons beyond their comprehension.

Bowed down by these vehement charges of the right wing, rather than challenging them by foregrounding the connection between Pakistani culture and the culture of North India through the common language of Urdu, Muslims became more insulated and defensive, to the extent that the generations growing up in the nineties finally became ‘nationalist’ and ‘patriotic’. With our social spaces and homes not inhabited by any form of Urdu cultural ethos anymore, we only relied on our nationalist education curriculum which taught us a utopian vision of secularism and made us cram the principles of Gandhi’s talisman and Nehru’s scientific spirit. We watched the Mahabharata on Doordarshan, and became die-hard fans of Sachin and Shahrukh, and were taught to perceive Pakistan as our number one enemy. Even today in our mainstream discourse, the loyalty of Indian Muslims is still as ferociously questioned as ever before, and Urdu is charged guilty of sedition.

As we grew up, with the turn of the new century, the edifices of our secular education began to crumble. We witnessed the Gujarat genocide, witch-hunting, and bloody encounters of Muslim youths, read the Sachar and Misra committee reports, which woke us up to the empirical realities and the grim situation of Indian Muslims in our country today. Many young educated Muslims in India today bemoan the dilemma that seems to be a daily reality for them. Though they grew up as patriotic and secular subjects, they often feel that no matter how much they try, their nationalism was and will always remain ambiguously questioned. Ironically in this process of proving their patriotism, their mother tongues were forfeited and now they feel incapable of an able response to their problems, without an access to a cultural legacy which might have provided some answers. For without the ability to comprehend the Urdu language, they are perhaps only quaintly familiar with their rich cultural legacy and may not have access to a world of imagination and cultural memory that unfortunately remains a distant encounter. 

कोई मरकज़ ही नहीं मेरे तख़य्युल के लिए
इस से क्या फ़ाएदा जीते रहे और जी न सके  – अख़्तर-उल-ईमान (1915-1996)

کوئی مرکز ہی نہیں میرے تخييل کے لئے
اس سے کیا فائدہ  جیتے رہے اور جی نہ سکے

There is no central focus of my imagination
What is the use, be alive and not be able to live


We often hear how post-independence Muslims have always been used as a vote bank and that there is no real Muslim politics that represents the interests of the vast number of marginalized sections of the largest minority population of the country. Token Muslim leaders can be found in centrist, socialist, and regional political parties, but there is no political force which truly represents the interests of those Muslims who besides their immediate religious identity, also broadly identify themselves as secular and modern. In contrast, a relatively more marginalized group of Dalits in India possesses a thriving legacy of thinkers, leaders, and politics that shapes the discourses of all the varied shades of politics in the country, be it socialist, centrist or even the right wing discourse. Dalits have been successful in producing an imagination of a radical culture and politics by employing various languages, for example, Tamil or Hindi. For Urdu, despite the lamentations about its decay by Muslim elites, there has been no real attempt of democratizing the language, such that an imagination of politics and culture, one which goes beyond an elite Muslim identity towards a more universal secular idiom could be conceived.

At this point it is useful to note that though the common perception today is that the relevance of Urdu is declining as the number of speakers are significantly lower than ever, in absolute terms the number of Urdu speakers has been constantly increasing. From roughly four crore people who returned Urdu as their mother tongue in the 1971 census, the figure has risen to about six crores in 2001 and eight crores in 2011. In terms of percentages as well, the number of Urdu speakers with respect to the total population has increased from 5.01% in 2001, to 6.7% in 2011. While these figures definitely suggest that not all Muslims (14.2% of the population) consider Urdu as their mother tongue, nevertheless for a large number of people, not just in conventionally understood Urdu speaking areas like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but even Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka, it remains so.

The need of the hour then is not to merely popularize Urdu as a language of Muslims, but one which represents a cultural ethos that is marked by various contested visions. Urdu literary culture and its various traditions need to be accessed and revisited as resources that can build legacies that are both transformative and emancipatory, keeping in mind the marginalized conditions of a large section of its contemporary speakers. Beyond the classical shairi and ghazal traditions, which are commonly perceived as its sole representatives, Urdu has played an important role in bringing about reform and change in society. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and the Aligarh movement as well as Zakir Hussain and his colleagues at Jamia Millia Islamia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century wrote extensively in Urdu to spread modern ideas that challenged prevailing traditions and customs. The institutions that they introduced were cultural repositories that not only advanced systems of education but produced visions that were universal and lasted beyond their own times, benefiting large sections of the population over decades.

Beginning with Premchand’s realism in the early twentieth century, Urdu literary tradition witnessed the rise of the Tarraqqi Pasand Tehreek (Progressive Writers’ Movement), which dominated not just the literary sphere with its stories and novels but also films, with screenplays, dialogues, and songs. The poets and writers as active participants of this turbulent and exciting phase of Urdu that spanned several decades of the twentieth century also differed occasionally, despite sharing a broad vision of transforming the society through the introduction of a radical set of literary and cultural idioms. Some of these writers included stalwarts of Urdu, such as Sajjad Zaheer, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Akhtar-ul-Iman, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Hajra Masroor and Intizaar Hussain, to name just a few. Not all literary traditions in Urdu though were about transformation and revolution. The literary movement of Halqa e Arbab e Zauq (Circle of the Men of Good Tastes), originating in Lahore in the 1930s, explored existential themes, emphasizing on symbolism and the personal experience of individuals. Meeraji, one of its important founders introduced free verse in Urdu poetry and translated texts and poets from Sanskrit, French, Korean, Chinese, Russian, English, and German literary traditions to Urdu. Children’s literature abounds in Urdu. This genre of literature kept the special needs of children in mind and focused on their training and cultivation of morals and ethics as bearers of the future. While many writers exclusively wrote literature for children, Altaf Hussain Hali, Ismail Merathi, and Mohammad Iqbal’s writings in this genre have been cherished by readers of different generations.

These literary traditions that are informed by a broader Urdu cultural ethos can prove immensely vital in (re)imagining new visions that are democratic, universal, and transformative. The role of takhayyul (imagination) is central to many works which emphasize the creative and transformatory potential of the Urdu literary tradition.

उलट जाएँगी तदबीरें बदल जाएँगी तक़दीरें
हक़ीक़त है नहीं मेरे तख़य्युल की है ख़ल्लाक़ी – अल्लामा इक़बाल (1877 -1938)

الٹ جائيں گی تدبيريں ، بدل جائيں گی تقديريں
حقيقت ہے ، نہيں ميرے تخيل کی يہ خلاقی

Plots will reverse, destinies will alter
It is not reality but the creation of my imagination


One could argue that in the era of globalization with the dominance of English, the death of vernacular languages is a foregone conclusion. Debates on various strategies for the survival of Urdu have seen the face of many journals over the years, without much concrete and productive work in the direction. It is necessary here to briefly revisit some of these debates. There are three points which require our attention with regard to the survival of Urdu in its contemporary context. First, according to the Article 350 A of the Constitution of India, it is obligatory for the State to establish primary schools with mother tongue as the medium of instruction. While Muslim elites have blamed successive central governments for neglecting Urdu and its promotion, primary and secondary school education is the jurisdiction of the state government. Further it is not necessary that Urdu medium education means the neglect of English, for as with the ‘Three Language formula’, it is required that English and Hindi be taught along with the mother tongue.

This brings us to the second point that is crucial for the survival of Urdu as a language. It is the question whether Urdu is still a language that is employable, or is the perusal of Urdu only an excuse to cherish a literary tradition of the past? The promotion of Urdu education as conceived above would mean the need for competent teachers of the Urdu language, printing of Urdu textbooks and literature, along with a significant number of translation projects that are necessary for any language to remain alive. Employability then will necessarily be created if one pursues the goal of promoting Urdu education with all seriousness.

Finally, a matter of grave debate is the controversial issue of the script and whether any changes can be allowed in this regard. Traditional scholars warn that a change of script has the potential of destroying the language itself. They argue that taking up the Devanagari script, instead of the classical Persian one, would leave with no difference between Hindi and Urdu and lead to the former appropriating the words of the latter as its own. Now while there is some truth to this claim (especially in the context of the Hindi-Urdu battles during and after the Partition), today it is important that Urduwallahs are open to the idea of using not just Devanagari, but also the Roman script, just like the speakers of Turkish did in the 1920s, a language that continues to flourish in its new script. In the age of internet and social media, Urdu is already being written and read through the Roman and Devanagari scripts and the insistence on the Persian script can only prove counterproductive, considering that very few people can access this script. There is no doubt that the Persian script must be the primary mode of teaching and writing Urdu, but writers should be permitted the freedom to choose any script to reach their intended audience.

The internet is believed to be a highly useful medium for the dissemination of language and ideas. It nevertheless carries a huge statutory warning for use that must be considerate and measured. Often there lurks the risk of reducing everything to their crude, oversimplified form. Authenticity goes for a toss when shers or couplets and writers or poets are (mis)quoted, out of their original contexts to mean things very different to what the writers/poets had intended. As useful as cultural festivals, literary, and academic engagements maybe, we must caution ourselves severely from temptations and tendencies that turn Urdu into a sexy cult, reducing the language and its ideas to a commodity that can be sold and resold repeatedly, hollowing any meaning and context. A project for the revival of Urdu needs sincere commitment that seeks to reproduce the canonical works and figures but also question the elite and limited etiquettes of the contemporary Urdu literati by democratizing the language and extending its reach to larger sections of society. This democratizing of the language entails moving beyond literary texts as a medium for the propagation of ideas and visions in Urdu, to oral and visual traditions that are more powerful with a far-reaching appeal. It is also important that we do not consider only an Arabic or Persianised form of Urdu as ‘pure’, but rather communicate our ideas in the simple common idiom of Hindustani, which a majority of this country possesses the ability to understand. The propagation through learning, speaking, and writing of such a form of Urdu in the contemporary context is a political act that requires our serious engagement.


The article was first published on Cafe Dissensus, an alternative magazine dealing in art, culture, literature, and politics based in New York City, USA.