The Journey of Urdu as Sub-continental Language

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In response to some comments on Urdu, especially with regard to the questions where it’s the main language of the people — in which states/provinces of India and Pakistan — and what’s the present status of the language, I would like to point out the following:

A) Urdu was never the language of any particular province or region of the Subcontinent. While Persian (Farsi) was the official language of India during the Sultanate, Mughal and British India (down to 1837), Urdu developed as the lingua franca of the common people across northwest, north, east, and central India. It developed in garrisons, but spread to cities, small towns, qasbas and literate sections of the people, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and others.

Urdu was never the language of any particular province or region of the Subcontinent. While Persian (Farsi) was the official language of India during the Sultanate, Mughal and British India (down to 1837), Urdu developed as the lingua franca of the common people across northwest, north, east, and central India.

B) While the heart of the language was Hindi or Hindustani, Farsi, Arabic, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Punjabi, Pashtu, Sanskrit, last but not least, English have been the liver, kidney, lungs, and other organs of the language. Of late, as appears from Pakistani usage, Urdu is indigenizing hundreds of English and Punjabi words and expressions. By the way, “Hindi”, “Hindustani”, and “Urdu” were used to denote the same language. I think Hindustani is the right word!

After English replaced Farsi as the official language of British India, Urdu emerged as the SECOND MOST IMPORTANT language in the Subcontinent.

C) After English replaced Farsi as the official language of British India, Urdu emerged as the SECOND MOST IMPORTANT language in the Subcontinent. Every educated person from Peshawar to Kolkata, Hydrabad, and Muslims in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Mysore, Odisha (Orissa), Bengal, Assam, Bhopal, Baluchistan, Sindh, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, knew how to speak, read, and write Urdu. This is NO ahistorical, braggadocious or hyperbolic statement. If you watch some pre-Partition documentaries, movies, pictures, photos and read private letters and documents, laundry list of groceries, ledger books of merchants/bankers (Hindu-Muslim-Sikh) in Peshawar, Lahore, Amritsar, Ambala, Mumbai, Delhi, Karachi, Quetta, Hydrabad, Bhopal, Patna, Allahabad, Lucknow or elsewhere in the VAST URDU BELT, the language was invariably Urdu for the people, only college-educated sections of the population used English. VERY FEW used Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi etc.

Jawaharlal Nehru presides over a mushaira organised in Srinagar by the All Jammu & Kashmir National Conference in September 1949, in which poets from across India participated. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

D) Hindi in Devnagri script became the official/state language of India only in 1950, after the framing of the Constitution. And that too by the casting vote of the Speaker of the Parliament, Dr Rajendra Prasad. The House was split 50:50 on Arabic and Devnagri (Urdu and Hindi) scripts. All the Bollywood movies upto the 1990s had Urdu dialogues and songs. The rise of Hindutva (unfortunately) struck the last nail into the coffin of Urdu in India. Now it has become the language of “Muslim Invaders”. Many elderly Hindus and Sikhs (in their eighties) still can’t read Hindi, and read and write Urdu. I saw elderly Sikhs reading Urdu newspapers (Tej and Partaap) in New Delhi a few years back. The circulation of these dailies have dwindled.

E) Pakistan has adopted Urdu as its national and state language. It’s simply MISLEADING that only Muslim immigrants (Muahjirs) speak, read and write the language in Pakistan. Every educated Pakistani — Muslim-Hindu-Christian-Sikh — is proficient in Urdu.

Unfortunately, while Hindi in India has become very Sanskritized, Urdu in Pakistan has become Arabized/Persianized too. In sum, Urdu and Hindi are the same language, written in different scripts.

F )Unfortunately, while Hindi in India has become very Sanskritized, Urdu in Pakistan has become Arabized/Persianized too. In sum, Urdu and Hindi are the same language, written in different scripts. Jawaharlal Nehru, his father, sisters, daughters only spoke Urdu. I had a letter by Nehru to my late father (who was a Muslim League leader in Assam) in chaste Urdu, written in 1946. I have lost the document in 1971.

 

In feature photo: Saadat Hasan Manto and Jawaharlal Nehru

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