Written by Saif Mahmood
It was the 1990s, when Saghar Khayyami, lamenting the communalisation of food, got a standing ovation at a popular Delhi Mushaira when he ended his hard-hitting verses with
Nafraton ke daur mein dekho toh kya-kya
Sabziyaan Hindu huin, bakra Musalmaa’n
Little would he have known that soon the language in which he enthralled millions of Indians would itself meet the same fate — Hindi would become Hindu and Urdu, Muslim — and even if he did, he would surely not have expected it to be declared a “foreign language” in the very State where it flourished. The recent proposal of Panjab University to shift its Urdu Department to the School of Foreign Languages not only militates against proven historical facts and flies in the face of the Constitution of India but also besmirches, rather shamelessly, the unrivalled contribution of Punjabis to Urdu.
Is Urdu a foreign language? It is generally believed that Urdu was born in the army camps of Delhi as a language that borrowed words from different languages so that soldiers from different parts could easily communicate with each other. Noted critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, however, disagrees and maintains that it is the language which was spoken by the inhabitants of a neighbourhood in Mughal Delhi which, because of its elevated position, was called Urdu-e-Moalla-e-Shahjahanabad [Exalted City of Shahjahanabad]. Either ways, there is no dispute that the language was ‘born and raised’ in India and, by the mid-1700s, had become the lingua franca of most of north India and Deccan.
The spoken language of the people of the Urdu-Hindi belt has always been Hindustani — a mix of Urdu and Hindi. No one has ever used either Sanskritised Hindi words or Persianised or Arabicised Urdu words in their conversations; and till the mid-20th century, the language was written in both Nastalikh or Urdu script and Devanagri or Hindi script.
When British rule came to an end, Independence came at a cost. The cost was the country’s partition on religious lines into India and Pakistan. Partition resulted in strange things and one of them was the alienation of Urdu. By a surreptitious stratagem devised to annihilate the Urdu script, the language, by some absurd logic, started being identified with Muslims and Pakistan and, consequently, being gradually excluded from primary level courses. Nothing could have been further from the truth since Urdu transcends religious and ethnic boundaries and has historically acted as a secular bridge between different communities of north India.
Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz were not the only masters of the language. It owes its richness equally to the writings of Brij Narayan ‘Chakbast’; Tilok Chand ‘Mahroom’; Pandit Hari Chand ‘Akhtar’; Ram Lal Bhatia ‘Fikr Taunsvi’; Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq Gorakhpuri’; Anand Narain Mulla; Jagannath Azad; Dewan Ram ‘Khushtar Girami’; and Pandit Anand Mohan Zutshi ‘Gulzar Dehlvi’ to name a few. However, despite the language’s wide reach and secular appeal, the stratagem worked and by the 1960s, Urdu script almost entirely disappeared from schools and became confined only to madrasas or Urdu departments in universities and colleges. In 1969, when the government decided to celebrate Ghalib’s 100th death anniversary, an agitated Sahir Ludhianvi wrote:
Jis ahd-e-siyaasat ne ye zinda zubaan kuchli
Us ahd-e-siyaasat ko marhoom ka gham
Ghalib jise kehte hain Urdu ka hi shaayar tha
Urdu pe sitam dha kar Ghalib pe karam
And yet, although the script was hardly being taught, Urdu poetry kept enthralling audiences in mushairas. In 1954, Sir Shri Ram, founder of DCM, began organising an annual mushaira in Delhi in the memory of his brother, Sir Shankar Lall ‘Shankar’, and son, Lala Murli Dhar ‘Shad’ – both of whom were Urdu poets. Known as the Shankar-Shad Mushaira, it is still held every year in Modern School, Barakhamba Road.
Cinema is, perhaps the most powerful influencer in Indian society. We may not have heard of Nehru’s ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech but we surely remember the dialogues of Sholay. Today, if Hindi films cannot be imagined without their melodious songs and unforgettable dialogues, it is because of the continual infusion of Urdu in Bollywood.
While in India the State has been Sanskritising the Hindustani language, now written exclusively in Devanagri, in Pakistan, the language is being ‘Islamised’ by incorporating more and more Arabic words. Despite language politics on both sides of the border, Urdu has kept charming the common man.
Recent years have seen what some commentators refer to as the ‘resurgence’ or ‘revival’ of Urdu in India, especially of Urdu poetry. Young men and women, most whose first language is not Urdu, are not only showing incredible interest in its literature but are also writing exceedingly well. There is also a blossoming of Urdu literary events with the magnificent Jashn-e-Rekhta taking the lead.
The romance of a pluralist India that Urdu poetry has always painted is changing. Its innocence is withering away, giving way to anger and hatred. Communal politics, which Urdu has always abhorred, is gulping down the language itself. But we must remain hopeful. Urdu cannot be killed — symbols of love are immortal and Urdu is India’s truest love-symbol.
(Saif Mahmood is Advocate, Supreme Court of India, and author of Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets)