In the years immediately following the Independence of India, the literary genius Sadaat Hasan Manto wrote a short fiction commenting on the strange language dispute that had been simmering since the earliest days of the freedom struggle. The Hindi vs Urdu debate appeared odd to Manto. He compared it to an imaginary debate over lemon-soda and lemon water. “Why are Hindus wasting their time supporting Hindi, and why are Muslims so beside themselves over the preservation of Urdu? A language is not made, it makes itself. And no amount of human effort can ever kill a language,” he noted in his story titled ‘Hindi aur Urdu’.
The Hindi vs Urdu debate was in fact just about a century old then. It is only from the mid 1800s that we see a gradual politicisation of the two languages, and their consequent polarisation. “It is a misconception that Hindus speak Hindi and Muslims speak Urdu. Reputed writers like Premchand and Amrita Pritam wrote in Urdu, even though they were not Muslims,” explained linguist and cultural activist Ganesh Devy. “ Even today, Urdu is spoken in Punjab, Bihar, and Maharashtra very widely, and not just by Muslims ” he added.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Urdu was the predominant language in those areas of the subcontinent that are today called the ‘Hindi belt’. Historian Sumit Sarkar in his celebrated book, ‘Modern India, 1885-1947’, noted: “Urdu had been the language of polite culture over a big part of north India, for Hindus quite as much for Muslims.” He elaborated: “As late as 1881-90, 4380 Urdu books had been published in UP as compared to 2793 in Hindi, while the corresponding circulation figures for newspapers were 16,256 for Urdu and 8002 for Hindi.”
The roots of the Hindi vs Urdu debate
At the time when the English East India Company (EIC) started making inroads in the Indian subcontinent, Persian was the official language of administration in the Mughal empire. In the 1830s, the EIC replaced Persian with English at the higher levels of administration and local vernaculars at the lower levels. This meant that in large parts of north India, Urdu took the place of Persian.
Consequently, from the 1860s, a large scale controversy erupted over what should be the official language in north India. The debate took the form of literary works like plays and poetry, petitions, memorandums, gloating over the merits of Hindi and Urdu.
Historian Christopher King in his research paper published in 1977, titled, ‘The Hindi-Urdu controversy of the north-western provinces and Oudh and communal consciousness’, explained the changes that took place in the socio-political environment of north India between the 1830s-60s that led to the emergence of the Hindi-Urdu dispute. “The rapid expansion of the government educational system, its bifurcation into two vernaculars, Hindi and Urdu, and the favoured position of Urdu in administration, made it inevitable that the competition for government service would come to express itself in linguistic and communal terms,” he wrote.
It is not as though education in Hindi and Urdu or Persian were officially bifurcated between Hindus and Muslims. However, surveys of the period showed that the Hindi schools were largely consisting of Brahmin, Rajput and Baniya castes. On the other hand, Muslims and the Kayasthas were more likely to be educated in Persian and Urdu schools. King noted that all through the 19th century, Persian and Urdu educated Muslims and Kayasthas held a virtual monopoly over government service.
When language and religion became one
As proponents of Hindi started spelling out the merits of having Hindi as the official language of administration, they drew upon narratives emphasising that the language belonged to the original inhabitants of India, and that it was in popular use before the Muslims took over large parts of the country.
Babu Shiva Prasad of Benaras, an official in the department of public instruction was one of the first to publish such a memorandum. In his work, ‘Memorandum: Court characters in the upper provinces of India’, he wrote: “When the Mohommedans took possession of India, they found Hindi the language of the country, and the same character the medium through which all language was carried on.” Prasad argued that the new Muslim rulers did not bother learning the new language, rather forced the Hindus to learn Persian. Consequently, he wrote that by making Hindi the language of administration, not only would the masses be able to understand court proceedings, but also ‘Hindu nationality’ would be restored.
Similar arguments were also made by Bhartendu Harishchandra, also known as the father of Hindi literature, and by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya who went on to establish the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha. At the same time, several organisations also started cropping up to put forward a case for Hindi. Instrumental in this regard were Nagari Pracharini Sabha formed in Banaras in 1893, Hindi Sahitya Sammelan in Allahabad in 1910, Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in 1918 and Rashtra Bhasha Prachar Samiti in 1926.
Things came to a head in 1880 when the government of India appointed a commission under the chairmanship of Sir William Hunter to take stock of the progress made by education in India. Many came under the impression that the commission had the power to bring about a change in the language policy. “Several North West Provinces and Oudh organisations collected over 67,000 signatures in favour of Hindi and Nagari and sent them to the commission along with a hundred memorials,” wrote King in his book, ‘One language, two scripts: the Hindi movement in nineteenth century north India’.
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After a lengthy and robust campaign, the Hindi advocates found a ray of hope in 1900 when the government of North Western Provinces and Oudh declared an equal status to be shared by the Devanagari and Urdu script. King in his article noted how many educated Muslims reacted sharply to the decision. He quoted a report from the Indian Daily Telegraph of Lucknow that summarised the reaction of the Urdu speakers: “This calamity…hangs above our head; we are required thereby to wander amidst the zigzag of the strange and horrible characters of the Devanagari script and bid farewell to the language which reminds us of the glory of our forefathers and which is now the remnant of the once mighty sovereigns of India.”
Urdu writers came to believe that with the resolution of 1900, their language would become extinct. Several organisations sprang up with the objective of defending and promoting the Urdu language. Chief among these was the Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu (Society for the progress of Urdu) which was set up in 1903.
Though the resolution of 1903 did not actually bring much of a change in the official and popular usage of the two languages, it did embitter Hindu-Muslim relations for decades to come. Many believe that the Hindi-Urdu controversy of the 19th century contained the seeds of Muslim separatism, and found itself finally manifesting in the Partition of the country. The religious dichotomy between the two languages acquired further currency when Pakistan adopted Urdu as its national and official language, and India adopted Hindi along with English as its official language.
One language, two scripts: the hindi movement in nineteenth century north india by Christopher King
Modern India, 1885-1947 by Sumit Sarkar
Language, religion and politics in north india by Paul R. Brass
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