How India Has Abandoned The Urdu Language
Great injustice has been done to Urdu in India. This great language, which has produced perhaps the best poetry in modern India — the immortal poetry of Mir, Galib, Firaq, Faiz, etc. and is a shining gem in the treasury of Indian culture, is today neglected and almost looked at with suspicion. I cannot imagine a greater foolishness.
This injustice to Urdu was due to two false notions in India, which were propagated by certain vested interests: (1) that Urdu is a foreign language and (2) that Urdu is a language of Muslims alone. This was done as part of the British divide and rule policy by propagating the idea that Hindi is the language of Hindus, and Urdu of Muslims.
The first idea, that Urdu is a foreign language, is palpably false. Arabic and Persian are no doubt foreign languages but Urdu is a language which is totally indigenous. It was born here in India and in its simplified form (as Khariboli or Hindustani) is the language of the common man in large parts of India and Pakistan.
Its prominent figures all lived in India, and they have made an outstanding contribution to our culture, dealing with the problems of the people, sympathising in their sorrows, and touching the human heart. Only ignorant people can call Urdu a foreign language.
The second notion, that Urdu is a language of Muslims alone, is also false. In fact up to the last generation in our country Urdu was the language of all educated people, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, in large parts of urban India. In my own family upto my father everyone was highly proficient in Urdu. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told me he writes all his speeches in Urdu.
In my opinion no country can progress if it overlooks its own cultural heritage, and Urdu is an essential part of our heritage. And I may clarify here that I do not regard Kashmiri Pandits alone as my ancestors, I regard Kalidasa also as my ancestor, I regard Amir Khusro also as my ancestor, I regard Ashoka and Akbar, Sur and Tulsi as my ancestors, just as I regard Mir and Ghalib as my ancestors. Real ancestry is cultural ancestry and not mere blood ancestry.
Urdu is the language which was created by the superimposition of some features and vocabulary of the Persian language on a Hindustani (also called Khadiboli) foundation. Thus Urdu is a language created by the combination of two languages, Persian and Hindustani. It is for this reason that at one time it was called ‘Rekhta’ which means hybrid.
Since Urdu was created by the combination of Persian and Hindustani, the question arises whether Urdu is a special kind of Persian or a special kind of Hindustani? The answer is that it is a special kind of Hindustani, not a special kind of Persian. The reason for this is that to know which language a sentence belongs we have to know to which language its verbs belong. It is the verb which determines this, not the nouns or adjectives. We can take the sher (couplet) of any Urdu poet and will find all its verbs are in Hindustani. For example, take this sher of Ghalib :
Dekho mujhe jo deeda-e-ibarat nigah ho
Meri suno jo gosh-e-naseehat niyosh hai
Here we find the verbs ‘dekho’, ‘suno’, ‘hai’ are all in Hindustani, though other words are in Persian.
I am emphasising this because had Urdu been a special kind of Persian it would have been a foreign language. The fact that it is a special kind of Khadiboli (or Hindustani) shows that it is a desi or indigenous language, and therefore the propaganda that it is a foreign language is false. Khadiboli is simple or spoken Hindi, as contrasted to literary Sanskritised Hindi which is used by many writers and public speakers.
Since Urdu was created by the combination of Hindustani (or Khadiboli) and Persian, let us consider these two languages.
Hindustani is simple or spoken Hindi, as contrasted to literary Sanskritised Hindi which is used by Hindi litterateurs and some public speakers.
Hindustani is an urban language (in rural areas different dialects are spoken). It is the first language of the common man in the cities of what is known as the Hindi-speaking belt (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, etc) and is the second language in the cities of many parts of the non-Hindi speaking belt, not only in India but also in Pakistan (Pakistanis wrongly say that they speak Urdu. In fact they speak Hindustani or Khariboli).
How did Hindustani (or Khadiboli), which is the foundation of Urdu, come into existence? This is an interesting question, and requires a deeper analysis.
In large parts of India (and also Pakistan) different dialects are spoken in the rural areas, whereas the same language, Hindustani, is spoken in cities. Thus, in Allahabad city, my native town, Hindustani is spoken, but in rural areas around Allahabad the dialect spoken is Avadhi (in which Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitmanas). In Mathura city Hindustani is spoken, but in rural areas around it the dialect spoken is Brijbhasha (in which Surdas wrote). In eastern UP (Benares etc) and in western Bihar In the cities Hindustani is spoken, but in rural areas the dialect is Bhojpuri. In north Bihar in the cities Hindustani is spoken, but in rural areas around them the dialect is Maithili (in which the poet Vidyapati wrote). In Patna city Hindustani is spoken, but in rural areas the dialect is Maghai. In western Rajasthan (Jodhpur etc) in the cities Hindustani is spoken, but in the rural areas the dialect is Marwari. In southern Rajasthan (Udaipur etc) in the cities Hindustani is spoken, but in rural areas the dialect is Mewari.
Why is it that in large parts of urban areas people speak a common language, but in rural areas the dialects are different, many unintelligible to Hindustani speakers?
The answer is that most cities originated as mandis (agricultural market places). When commodity production increased (due to the development of the productive forces) sellers of commodities had to take them to non local places for sale, and these were the cities. But the seller and purchaser must know a common language, otherwise the transaction of sale and purchase could not take place. For instance, a producer of commodities in, say, Patna, who could speak his dialect Maghai, had to also a language which was also known to a UPite whose dialect was, say Avadhi or Bhojpuri, or a Rajasthani, whose dialect was, say, Marwari or Mewari. This common language spoken in cities (which, as mentioned before, were originally mandis) became Hindustani, and this was how Hindustani came into existence, due to economic forces. A huge common market had arisen in most of India even before the coming of the Mughals (due to the development of the productive forces) and this required a common language.
Now let us consider the second component of Urdu, which is Persian. Persian, after all, is the language of Persia. How did it land up in India?
To explain this it may be mentioned that the elite of a society often speaks a language different from that spoken by the common man (because the elite wants to distinguish itself from the common people). Thus, in India and Pakistan the elite speak English (apart from speaking the common man’s language). In Europe upto the 19th century the aristocrats of Germany, Russia, etc often spoke with each in French (though they would speak with their servants in their native languages). In Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ Russian commanders (who were aristocrats) speak with each other in French, though their enemy Napoleon is a Frenchman.
For centuries Persian was the court language of India. This was because Persian had been highly developed in Persia by writers like Firdausi, Hafiz, Sadi, Roomi, Umar Khayyam, etc. as a language of culture, grace and sophistication, and it spread to large parts of the oriental world.
The Mughals were Turks, not Persians, but though their mother tongue was Turkish, they accepted Persian as the court language as it was much more developed than Turkish.
Thus, though Babar wrote his autobiography, Tuzuk-e-Babri, in Turkish, his grandson Akbar got it translated into Persian and called it Babarnama.
His own biography, Akbarnama, written by Abul Fazl is in Persian, and so is the autobiography of his son Jehangir (called Jahangirnama) and the biography of Shahjehan (called Shahjehanarna).
Persian was the court language of India for several centuries, and hence it exerted its influence on the common language of the cities, which as already mentioned above, was Khariboli.
How, then was Urdu created? This is a fascinating question, and I will try to answer it.
The Mughals after Aurangzeb (known as the later Mughals) were Emperors only in name, they were in fact pauperised, they had lost their empire to the Britishers, the Marathas, and their Governors, who had really became independent rulers (like the Nawabs of Awadh or Nizam of Hyderabad). In their reign the court language gradually ceased to be Persian and instead became Urdu.
Why did the court language which was Persian in the reign of the great Mughals become Urdu in the reign of the later Mughals? This was because the later Mughals were not real Emperors but had become nearer to commoners or paupers with all the difficulties of the common man. Hence they had to take recourse to a language nearer the common man.
Why then did their court language not become Khariboli, which was the language of the common man in the cities? That was because these later Mughals, and their lieutenants, the Nawabs and Wazirs, while having become pauperised retained their dignity, culture and self respect. They still prided themselves in being Shahzade-Timuria i.e. descendants of Timur, the great conqueror (who was Babar’s grandfather’s great-grandfather) and descendants of the great Mughals.
The well-known story of Urdu’s greatest poet Ghalib is that despite being in great financial distress he refused a job simply because when he went to offer his services no one was there to receive him.
The content of Urdu i.e. the feelings and ideas expressed therein are that of the common man, but its form of expression is aristocratic. In other words, Urdu expresses the troubles, sorrows, anxieties and hopes and aspirations of the common man, but its style (andaz-e-bayan) is not that of a common man but that of an aristocrat.
For instance, the great Urdu poet Ghalib had a horror of the commonplace in the mode of expression in poetry. Regarding himself an aristocrat, he had an intense desire to be different from the common masses, and his poetry is marked by its originality and unconventionality.
Ghalib was of the firm view that the language of poetry should not be the same as the spoken language. Hence he often expresses his thoughts not directly but indirectly, by hints and suggestions.
The same is true of many other Urdu poets. They often express their thoughts and feelings not in simple, direct language but by insinuations, allusions, indications, and in a roundabout way, the aim being to appear sophisticated and elitist, instead of being commonplace. However, this sometimes makes the work difficult to understand (the great Urdu critic and biographer Hali regarded one-third of Ghalib’s verses too recondite to be regarded as being in Urdu), and sometimes several meanings can be attributed to them.
As long as there were strong Mughal Emperors in India, Persian was the court language and Urdu was never given respectability, and could never become the court 1anguage in North India, but instead found its haven or sanctuary in South India and Gujarat (where it was the language of the elite).
In a sense Urdu originated in South India and became popular there during the reign of the great Mughals, receiving patronage in the Southern sultanates of Golkunda, Bijapur, Ahmednagar, etc. where it became the court language.
Thus it is interesting to note that Urdu became the court language in South India and Gujarat during the reign of the Great Mughals but it could never displace Persian in the North as long as there were strong Mughals. In fact till then it was looked down upon as an inferior language, and Persian was regarded as the ideal language.
It was only when the era of the later Mughals began (after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707) that Persian was gradually displaced by Urdu as the court language though this was done very grudgingly. An example of this is Ghalib who preferred his Persian poetry and looked down upon his Urdu poetry (though his greatness is entirely due to the latter).
Thus, in a letter to his friend Munshi Shiv Narain Aram Ghalib writes “My friend, how can I write in Urdu? Is my standing so low that this should be expected of me?” Thus, writing in Urdu was regarded infra dig, and all respectable writers at that time wrote in Persian.
Urdu was made respectable in north India by the poet Wali Dakkhini who came from south India (as his name indicates) to Delhi in 1700 in the reign of Aurangzeb. At that time Delhi and Agra poets always wrote their poetry in Persian, whereas Wali would write it in Urdu, which was easier to understand.
Right up to 1947 Urdu was the language of the courts, and of the educated people in large parts of India. At the same time, due to its dual nature, it was also (as Khariboli) the common man’s language in urban areas.
Being the common man’s language in large parts of urban India Urdu borrowed from every language, and never objected to words of other languages. Thus, the great poet Akbar Allahabadi used many English words in his poetry. Since Urdu was the common man’s language it was loved by the common man, and is loved even today.
Even today Hindi film songs are in Urdu, for the voice of the heart will be in one’s own language, however, much some people may try to suppress it.
In railway bookstalls in India the books which get sold are works of Ghalib, Mir, Faiz, Josh, Firaq, Hali, Dag, Majaz, Zauq, etc. (nowadays in Devnagri script) and not the works of Hindi poets.
Hindi writers who have an Urdu background e.g. Premchand, Kishan Chand, Rajender Singh Bedi, Prof. Gopi Chand and Malik Ram are most accepted even in the Hindi world.
Urdu is loved by the people of India because it has grown among the people. Urdu literature is a literature of protest, protest against the afflictions of the common man and against injustice.
Urdu poetry has protested against ritualism, formalism, and oppressive or antiquated social customs (in this sense it can be said to be a successor to Kabir’s poetry, though of course it is much more sophisticated.
Being the language of the common man in modern India Urdu is almost entirely secular. Urdu literature has Sufi influence. The Sufis were the liberals among the Muslims, and not the bigoted. They spread the message of universal love among all humans, whatever their religion, caste, etc.
Some of the Urdu writers like Mir and Nazir have written beautiful poems on Holi, Diwali, Raakhi and other Hindu festivals and customs, which shows that Urdu was not the language of any particular religion. A large number of Hindus have made their names in the front ranks of Urdu literature e.g. Firaq, Chakbast, Ratan Lal Sarshar, etc. In Wali’s poetry the words Ganga, Jamuna, Krishna, Ram, Saraswati, Sita, Lakshmi, etc. appear frequently.
The greatest damage to Urdu was done by the Partition of India in 1947. Since then Urdu was branded in India as a foreign language, as a language of Muslims alone, so much so that even Indian Muslims stopped studying Urdu to show their ‘patriotism’ and solidarity with their Hindu brethren.
This policy of hatefully removing Persian words which were in common use in Khariboli and replacing them by Sanskrit words which are not in common use resulted in creating an unnecessarily Sanskritised Hindi which the common man often finds it difficult to understand. In our courts of law it is often difficult to understand the Hindi used in government notifications. Also this policy of hatred for Persian words resulted in almost genocide for Urdu in India.
When I was a judge in Allahabad High Court, a lawyer who would always argue in Hindi, presented before me a petition titled ‘Pratibhu Avedan Patra‘. I asked him what the word ‘Pratibhu’ meant. He said it meant bail application. I said he should have used the word bail or zamanat which everybody understands, and not a word no one understands.
Many words which had a Persian origin, but which had become of common usage, were systematically and hatefully replaced by Sanskritised words, e.g. ‘zila’ was replaced by ‘janpad’
However, despite all hostile efforts the language which speaks the voice of the heart can never be stamped out as long as people have hearts. The evidence that Urdu lives in the hearts of Indians even today can be seen from the surprisingly large crowds which “mushairas” attract, from all sections of society and in all parts of the country, North, West, South and East. If Urdu is a foreign language it is very surprising that the people of India love it so much.
In the end I would like to urge Urdu writers to use simpler language. Often on reading some Urdu work one finds it difficult to understand it. To make it comprehensible to the common man I suggest that more Hindustani words should be used, and less Persian or Arabic words (unless they have become of common usage). If what is written is not even understandable by the common man what use is there of such literature? Today the Indian and Pakistani people are facing terrible problems like poverty, unemployment, malnourishment, price rise etc.
Literature must contribute to the people’s struggles for a better life by inspiring them, and that it can do by using simple language which the people can understand, like the war time speeches of Winston Churchill, or the works of Premchand, Sarat Chandra, Faiz or Manto.
Markandey Katju is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India.