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The State of Urdu

such as the classification of Sanskrit as a The State of Urdu Redefining Urdu Politics in India by Ather Farouqui; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006;

and English, but also of nefarious ploys such as the classification of Sanskrit as a

The State of Urdu

compulsory “modern Indian language”. As

Redefining Urdu Politics in India

by Ather Farouqui; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp 310, Rs 595.


ther Farouqui’s collection of conference papers on the state of Urdu in India makes depressing reading. In the first instance, few of the 18 contributions leave any doubt about the catastrophic decline that the language has suffered since 1947. Indeed, several pieces sound like preemptive obituaries for Urdu in India (e g, Daniela Bredi, Amina Yakin). In the second instance – and this is perhaps even more disconcerting than the fact of language decline itself – there is no real sense emerging from this volume that much could be done to save Urdu for the future. Although many of the articles in the volume are both candid and insightful in their analysis of the causes behind the malaise, they are not in any meaningful sense “redefining” Urdu politics. The problem at the centre of this collection is as old as it is intractable; it is the question of how the Muslims of India can secure a sense of identity that is truly normalised. This means not only rightful recognition as an integral part of the nation, but also the freedom to develop their own identities beyond the straightjacket of a religious orthodoxy reinforced by minority status.

Although bringing together some of the biggest names in Urdu scholarship worldwide, this is not primarily an academic volume. It is part of the lobbying efforts of the Zakir Hussain Study Circle to change Indian government policy on the educational use of language, particularly a revision of the “three-language formula”. Although there is a loose topical division into “contexts”, “identity politics”, “civic spaces”, “education” and “legal aspects”, many contributions cover similar ground, and most (but not all) are designed as policy recommendations rather than outlets for analysis or new research. The volume as a whole emphasises above all that a collective concern over the status of Urdu is not confined to the usual ‘Urduwale’ and community leaders, but is in fact shared by large number of liberalsecular intellectuals of all religious communities, as well as by foreign academics and international bodies. Apart from a strongly critical stance against the government – the conference on which the volume is based took place under BJP rule in 2002 – there is a clear desire to maintain a clear distance from conservative identity politics. In particular there is a strong reaction against the appropriation of Urdu by madrasas and by religious revivalists.

Decline of Urdu in India

The catastrophic decline of Urdu in India has been widely discussed in the literature and has drawn all sorts of remedial advice from scholars and activists. Ather Farouqui himself, along with his late collaborator/ mentor Danial Latifi, and international Urdu scholars such as Ralph Russell, Intizar Husain and C H Naim have significantly contributed to this debate. The main features and causes of the decline of Urdu in India are once again outlined in the volume under review: until Partition, Urdu was a bridge-language that in certain regions of colonial India – particularly in undivided Punjab – was used and enjoyed by members of all religious communities. In the present, 99 per cent of those in the Indian union who would describe Urdu as their “mother-tongue” also happen to be Muslims. As an exclusively “Muslim” language and thanks to its association with the Pakistan movement, Urdu has fallen into disrepute amongst majoritarian nationalists, a trend that has been reinforced by the growing assertion of a Hindu/Hindi identity. Although the Indian central state has often given special recognition to Urdu as a testimony of its “secular” character, such token recognition has in fact been reversed by actual educational policies on the ground. Despite several but half-hearted attempts to get Urdu actually used in schools – not least by the Gujral Commission in 1975

– existing state policies have made such an adoption impossible. While censuses are rigged to register Hindi instead of Urdu as mother tongue, schemes such as the three-language policy allocates Urdu a place where it is most unlikely to be ever selected by students. It has become a casualty not only of the advance of Hindi a result – as Ather Farouqui reports in his important article – there are now hardly any Urdu-medium schools in UP or in Andhra Pradesh, while Urdu is used widely in Bihar thanks only to its close association with state-recognised madrasas. Only Maharashtra offers a somewhat functional Urdu-medium education with the support of a rich and vocal Muslim commercial stratum. At the same time, proficiency in Urdu has become so bad that even Islamic religious advice literature is now more commonly issued in Hindi or a regional language than in Urdu, Urdu journalism has become a dance around “ghost publications” and the study of Urdu literature as an academic subject has passed to a “fourth generation of ignoramuses” (Syed Shahabuddin).

There have been various arguments in the wider literature about who has the responsibility to save Urdu and how. Most prominently, there is the question of selfreliance on community efforts (as advocated elsewhere by Ralph Russell) versus renewed lobbying for patronage by the Indian state. It is the latter that is overwhelmingly advocated in the volume under review. Although clearly understandable in its immediate context, some questions may be raised about such an emphasis. For one, education, particularly primary education, has been a problem for members of most linguistic communities in India; and the state in the age of neo-liberalism is ever less likely to fulfil its role as chief provider of education than the “big state” of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Although one contributor even talks about “pathways to post-modernity” (Yogendra Singh) the overall thrust of the volume is statist and in this sense ill-equipped for future solutions. The Indian contributors to the volume also overwhelmingly disregard another line of thought about the future of the language, which is mentioned by several of the non-Indian academics (Barbara Metcalf, Theodore Wright, Kerrin Schwerin, Kelly Pemberton) and could indeed have been developed much further. Urdu as a language of education may be in dire straights in India, but it is actually flourishing in unexpected places: in television and films – although the latter are revealingly mislabelled as “Hindi films”; in the Gulf where migrant labour from both Pakistan and various regions of India meet and converse in Urdu; and amongst

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

expatriates in the US and in the UK where mushairahs and ghazals are an important sign of cultural self-affirmation for all religious communities.

One begins to wonder whether the real stake behind the vehement demand for proper recognition of Urdu in state education – at the virtual exclusion of nonstate alternatives – is really about the safeguarding of a future for Urdu at all. Rather, it seems that what matters to many of the Indian contributors is the fact of state recognition itself. When seen in conjunction with the condemnation of madrasas (most strongly put by Arjumand Ara) there is a definite sense that the debate about Urdu is a proxy for the not always ideologically straightforward battle between “progressives” and “religious conservatives” over who can legitimately speak for the Muslims of India. While the latter have been reasonably successful at mobilising community efforts independently of state patronage, it is the progressives who feel that the state is their greatest and perhaps only ally. Ironically, the state in question is no longer the Nehruvian edifice of old. The most articulate lobbyists for state patronage amongst the contributors are also painfully aware that the erstwhile fount of secular ideals has now all too often become a vehicle of domination by majoritarian nationalists.

In short, the debate about Urdu as it unfolds in Farouqui’s volume is really about how one may address the Muslim question from a “secular” point of view and through the officially sanctioned discourse of linguistic self-determination. The real issues never remain far from the surface, however. As Syed Shahabuddin puts it most forcefully, Urdu must forever be distinct from Hindi and never be enticed to share the “same linguistic space” with the latter because behind such concession lies the desire of the majority community to absorb Muslims not only linguistically, but ultimately also religiously. Similar concerns about “Muslims in danger” can be detected in the insistence on Urdu being recognised as a “mother tongue”, whose denial would lead to the erosion of identity (Hasan Abdullah), as if the labelling of speech as either Hindi or Urdu was more important for a sense of self-hood than what is actually spoken. Finally, Farouqui, who has consistently argued for the treatment of Urdu as “a functional language” and its disconnection from identity politics feels compelled to add a strange postscript to his piece on Urdu education, which deals with the quite unrelated matter of forgotten mass atrocities against Muslims during the 1948 “police action” in Hyderabad. The well-being of Urdu as Pratap Bhanu Mehta put it, is nothing less than a symptom of “what kind of nation” India has become.

Some Contradictions

The question of how to save Urdu, as Kelly Pemberton points out succinctly, depends crucially on what exactly one means by “Urdu” and consequently what exactly one really wants to save; and in many of the contributions to the volume several meanings are employed side-byside, often creating disconcerting subtexts to otherwise good arguments. There is Urdu the functional language of publishing and the professions; there is Urdu as a narrowly and self-indulgently defined canon of literary sophistication whose passing is much lamented; and there is Urdu as the quintessence of elegant speech with an explicit or implicit sneer at the coarseness and sobriety of Hindi. An emphasis on mother tongue and educational progress is undercut by querulous and elitist complaints about inadequate language use in the general public.

For a century or more, the problem with Urdu has been that it is not only a language but a package of several mutually contradictory discourses about history, identity and literature. An example from the remit of my own research may illustrate one of the many paradoxes involved here: Weekly Tej – an Urdu newspaper of the interwar period published in Delhi – included a regular page dedicated to Urdu, which featured literary samples from Mir, Ghalib or some other “classical” poet (along with some less-talented ghazal writers), all illustrated by pictures of dancing girls, “feudal” palaces, Muslim monuments, wine cups, flowers and so on. The irony about all this was twofold: first, this was a paper with strong Hindu-nationalist leanings and close to the Arya Samaj. Such a paper could look at Urdu culture in an appreciative way, only if the latter was reduced to a quaint but obsolete reminder of the Muslim and “feudal” past. Second, although the entire paper was of course written in elegant, functional and recognisably “modern” Urdu, both readers and editors obviously had a sense that “real” Urdu was something else, i e, the aforementioned pastiche of elaborate speech and ‘Nawabi’ culture. The very fact that this was an Urdu newspaper was in a sense coincidental, an unavoidable compromise in an era when most Hindus and Sikhs in north western India still had not reached the necessary stage of “Hindi-ization” to live up to their own ideals of a Hindi/ Hindu identity.

Such past examples of Urdu patronage by Hindu nationalist elites will offer no consolation to a beleaguered Muslim minority whose problems and grievances

– as they emerge so clearly in the volume under review – must be addressed vigorously and politically. As far as the fate of Urdu as a language is concerned, the Tej episode offers a historical lesson that the writer J S Gandhi captured most closely in his little vignettes about “life with Urdu and life without Urdu”: Urdu flourishes whenever it is a coincidental language and languishes when it becomes the subject of “Urdu politics”. The best way to save Urdu may well be, as he put it, to avoid ‘ilaniyya’ jihad for Urdu – so as to not getting shoehorned into identity politics through noisy declamations and through a craving for official recognition.



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Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

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