The Politics of Language: Neglect and Decay of Urdu Language

The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.

Historically, language has played an important role in the formation of nation states. While selecting an official language plays an important role for establishing a national identity, choosing an official language for multilingual nations would be difficult in establishing a basis for equal treatment for linguistically diverse sections. As Sudha Pai writes in such situations, “if a language is not characterised by political neutrality, it too often becomes the tool by which this language group seeks to extend its domination over the minority community.” In this regard therefore it is important to understand the development of Urdu and its gradual decay post independence. The language that was once considered as a beautiful flower in the garden of languages is now despised by the majority as an “outsider language.” Language in itself is never divisive but the hidden agendas of leaders makes it so.  

In 2017, Aligarh Municipal Corporation’s BSP corporator was allegedly called a “pakistani” and threatened with assault as he took oath in urdu at Aligarh Municipal Corporation. The case illustrates that despite being developed and nurtured in the Indian subcontinent, Urdu has suffered the reputation of being the outsider’s language. As the language struggles to receive a nourishing environment in India, we look back on Ralph Russell’s article “India since Independence” published in EPW in January 1999. A committed scholar in the language, Russell, through his article, compelled Syed Shahabuddin, Ali Imran Zaidi, Salman Khurshid and M N Venkatachaliah to write about the matters concerning the status of the Urdu language in the pages of EPW in the subsequent months. Amidst the agreements and the disagreements, the authors have shed light on important issues  working against the proliferation of Urdu since the partition in 1947. For the coming generation of Urdu speakers, researchers and writers, this discussion offers an insight into an issue that continues to loom over a language that they choose for their expression and study.


Author icons inspired by the 1927 cover of the Urdu book, Diwan-e-Ghalib Muraq-e-Chughtai


A few other articles related to this discussion:

  1. Politics of Language: Decline of Urdu in Uttar Pradesh, Sudha Pai, 2002
  2. Urdu Language and Education: Need for Political Will and Strategy, Ather Farouqui, 2002
  3. Urdu Education in India-Four Representative States, Ather Farouqui, 1994
  4. Urdu in India: Strategies for Survival of Formerly Dominant Languages, Theodore P Wright Jr, 2002


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Curated by akankshya []

With editorial inputs by Divya Jyoti [] and Priyam Mathur []

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