Language can unite

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

MORE than six decades after Partition, India and Pakistan continue to be locked in disputes which even take them to the brink of war.

It is difficult to believe that people who had lived side by side for centuries now refuse to recognise the commonalities in their culture and languages. Against this backdrop comes a breath of fresh air in the form of a new book that focuses on social harmony rather than cultural discord.

Dr Tariq Rahman, a professor of sociolinguistic history at the Quaid-i-Azam University, has published his 11th book titled “From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History” (OUP) that should make many scholars sit up. Some have already challenged his findings.

After going through this voluminous 456-page book, I was struck by the meticulous research the author undertook to produce this comprehensive socio-political history of the language that, to my knowledge, no other scholar has done. Until now, all research on Urdu has focused more on literature. From Hindi to Urdu is different. It does not dwell on the literary writings of men of letters but on how the language as it developed affected society. Thus the close connection between the development of Urdu and what Francis Robinson terms the reification of religion is quite clear. Many historians have traced the roots of Urdu to the Muslim military camps in northern India with the arrival of the Turkish armies.

By exploring the issue deeply, Dr Rahman reaches the conclusion that there was an Indian language — actually a collection of mutually intelligible dialects — that was spoken in the areas stretching from Peshawar to the border of Bengal. “All these dialects picked up words from the languages of the newcomers — not only soldiers but also merchants, religious figures, mystics, mendicants and camp followers — but the one around the Delhi area (khari boli) probably picked up more words than the others.”

This was dubbed ‘Hindvi’ — the language of Hind. In the last decades of the 18th century, the elites of Delhi and Agra came to patronise this language. As has been the wont of elites they refined and embellished their language to give it exclusivity. A highly Persianised idiom was injected into the sociolect of the high society which was called Zuban-i-Urdu-i-Mualla — the language of the exalted city (Delhi).

The author is very categorical in his assertion that the word ‘Urdu’ has no connection with military language or Muslim armies. “The language had been a product of Hindu-Muslim cultural synthesis from the 13th till the 18th century. In these 500 years, it had never been seen as a purely Muslim preserve or a marker of Muslim identity,” he writes.

Then how did the divide come about? Conventional belief so far has been that the British introduced the division to split the Hindus and Muslims. But Dr Rahman is again very conclusive in his finding: “By the end of the 18th century, influential linguistic reformers — who were all poets of Urdu — started making it an elitist class marker. To do this they purged the language of Dakhni words … and words of Sanskritic … (Hindi) origins.” Abstruse and unfamiliar words of Persian and Arabic were introduced thus making Urdu a Muslim identity marker.

According to him, modern Urdu is a Muslim cultural product created artificially by a movement of linguistic reform in the cities of northern India. Hindi linguistic reformers reacted by creating modern Hindi by purging the language of words of Arabic and Persian origin and substituting them with Sanskritised expressions. They used the Devanagri script as opposed to the Persian-Arabic script of Urdu. Thus the divide was total.

Linguistic historians on both sides have been at loggerheads in their bid to prove the superiority of their own respective language which for 500 years happened to be the same as their rivals’ until their literati stepped in to make them two languages. The common past is not acknowledged now.

This divide has encouraged a chauvinistic approach on both sides and has led to alienation. Dr Rahman is of the opinion that in Pakistan the historical narrative on the language is most damaging. It sacralises war and conquest, describing it as the language of the Muslims. Conscious efforts at Islamisation have also made it impossible for a writer to choose a non-Muslim style to express himself.

Dr Rahman’s profound observation is that since Hindi and Urdu parted ways, Muslims and Hindus of South Asia have lived in perpetual strife. They have drifted apart and so have their languages. “Is it possible to arrest this trend and promote peace, harmony and give-and-take?” he asks. Political disputes can only be resolved by governments but the author appeals to scholars to debunk myths which link Urdu to military origins and disowns its Hindi heritage.

The author has a point when he asks who would deny that spoken Urdu and Hindi are the same language even today. Some chapters of the book such as the one on Urdu as the language of employment, in education, on the screen, on the radio and in the press confirm this fact amply as would those who have travelled to India. “It is only by not losing sight of the continuities and shared cultural features among Pakistanis and (north) Indians that we can transcend the mutual hatred which threatens to annihilate this ancient land,” the author says. He could not be closer to the truth.

21 thoughts on “Language can unite”

  1. It is good to read that there are people in the subcontinent who are trying to break the jingoism associated with Hindi / Urdu. I heard in some American Universities, where South Asian Languages are taught, common classes are conducted to teach both Urdu & Hindi

    I would attribute the division of Pakistan into Bangladesh & Pakistan to the statement of Jinnah that " Bengali is a Hindu Language and Bengalis in East Pakistan should adopt Urdu, a Muslim Language as their official language. Imposition of Urdu, brutal suppression of student agitation in support of Bengali are the main reasons.

  2. I wish it was so easy to resolve issues because of shared spoken language. None of the English speaking or Arabic speaking countries would ever had a conflict by applying the same argument.

    1. At least language is not an additional factor in the disputes that divide the Arab speaking or English speaking world. Governments cause more dissensions. When people speak the same language they come closer but governments are more powerful than the people and promote their own agendas.

    2. I am a polyglot Indian, can read & write four Indian Languages – Tamil, Telugu, Hindi & English. I can easily chat up and become one among the communities speaking any of these languages. I live in Singapore and I have many Pakistani friends, because I can speak in Hindi. Most of the Pakistani & Bangladeshi restaurants are located in an area called Little India. It wouldn't have been possible, if we didn't ahve these commonalities.

      With a common language, atleast we have one barrier less to overcome to forge a better future for South Asia

  3. I enjoyed reading this opinion piece as much as I've done all the ones you've written in the past. You write clearly and incisively and an avid reader like myself always comes away with a nugget or more. .

    Having grown up in the former Awadhi capital with Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs and others, I don't remember that we noticed too much difference between spoken Hindi and Urdu except for the Arabic script, a major barrier to picking up a book written in Urdu. (Fortunately, several alphabetic adaptations were made to write Urdu words .in Devanagiri.).

    The popularity and ubiquity of Bombay cinema and its music ensured that neither religion or spoken language was not a divisive issue for most post-Independence North Indians. For most folks who had lived through the regrettable religion-based Partition and but had not personally experienced its horrors (except for the Sindhis and Punjabis we cal/led "refugees" then), the memories had begun to fade by the 1960-s and 1960s. As you probably know, Urdu-speaking song- and screen-writers (not to mention actors, directors, music directors, singers, musicians) were prominent and preeminent in that industry that united Hindus and Muslims and others alike.

    I should also point out that during those years, Jawaharlal Nehru and his dominant Congress Party were also key to keeping religious fanaticism in its place and to keep Indians more or less united as such.. The language apartheid against Urdu was not in place as to the ear there was little or no difference. (I am not sure but the trouble must have started in the 1970s – V.S. Naipaul was to chronicle the many mutinees that had broken out. I also think Indira Gandhi was a dour and divisive figure.)

    I am glad that someone with the caliber of Dr Tariq Rahman has delved into the matter of the North Indian language(s) and is setting the record straight. Over the years I've read a lot of crap in DAWN when it comes down to the origins of Urdu/Hindi, a lot of it coloured by politics and ideology, than science. I will try to ind his book on Amazon.

    As the author suggests, perhaps there is a lot of "mutual hatred" but I am not sure it has anything to do with language per se (after all Hindi/Urdu is spoken only among 40% of the Indian population). Your country's leaders, perhaps to differentiate their new nation from India and other South Asian nations, has done things officially and administratively (including militarily) over the years that has artificially made small differences seem like major ones (for example, the two-nation theory concept that seems deeply embedded in the national consciousness). Perhaps you can compare the Pakistani Muslims against contemporary Indian Muslims as sort of a control group to evaluate the distance travelled in 64 years. Anyway, we do not step in the same river twice.

    I believe that people of goodwill and good sense on both sides outnumber the fanatics, the militants and the execrable loudmouths in their respective communities. Maybe the beginning of a strong trading relationship – propsect for making money seems to do wonders; even bringing China and India together – can be the catalyst for lessening of "hostilities." Imagine, little Indian kids yearnign to learn Urdu in the Arabic script so they can do business with their Pakistani counterparts when they grow up and little Pakistani kids eager to learn Hindi in the devnagairi script so they can communicate better with their North Indian partners. (Most Indian kids are crazy about learning English these days for the simple reason that they can get a good job with a good Indian or foregin firm.)f
    Thanks so much for bringing Professor Rahman's book to our attention in your column!

    A. K. Singh
    Pittsburgh, PA
    USA

  4. SALAM. I read most of your articles in daily dawn which is really give me a lot of knowledge and new vision.i have deep respect for you. sher jan kabul Afghanistan.

  5. I read your article on Urdu language and I was really impressed. Specially how you made the point – 'emphasize the continuties' rather than dwell upon differences is very nice !

    Urdu has its own charm and someday i hope to master this beautiful language

  6. Salaam

    Majority of British Muslim children are from Pakistan. They need to learn and be well versed in Urdu language to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry. They also need to learn and be well versed in Standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity.

    Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental period. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.
    IA http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

  7. If we look at it from a deeper perspective, the only Partition that exists today, 64 years from the political one, is that of people from the sub-continent, who live in the West, and those who continue to live in the sub-continent. The latter, whether in Pakistan or India, or other nations in South Asia, generally detest the pontificating from the kin settled " out there ".
    Having said that, with all due respect to our founding fathers, your repeat of the words from the text ( " the mutual hatred which threatens to annihilate this ancient land,” the author says. He could not be closer to the truth ), is obviously too horrific to contemplate, for those who continue to inhabit it.

    As a schoolkid in Calcutta, I vividly recall how Sheikh Mujib, a day after the birth of a new nation, delivered in the Maidan by what was then known as Ochterlony Monument, and now Shaheed Minar, his speech starting with the words of Rabindranath Tagore " Amar Shonar Bangla " ( My Golden Bengal ), and the thunderous roar that came from the throats of a million Bengalis of West Bengal assembled there, shook the earth that one stood on.

    On the lighter side, when the popular writer Javed Akhtar was asked by a friend " Yeh Urdu ki zubaan kab aaya, Babar ke saath ? ", he replied, " Nahi, Babar ghodey pey sawaar aaya, aur Urdu burqa pehnky unkey saath aayi "

    We owe it to our people to extricate themselves from poverty, and access better healthcare, education and lifestyle. It's for us that the bell tolls.

    G Krishnan
    Chennai.

  8. If we look at it from a deeper perspective, the only Partition that exists today, 64 years from the political one, is that of people from the sub-continent, who live in the West, and those who continue to live in the sub-continent. The latter, whether in Pakistan or India, or other nations in South Asia, generally detest the pontificating from the kin settled " out there ".
    Having said that, with all due respect to our founding fathers, your repeat of the words from the text ( " the mutual hatred which threatens to annihilate this ancient land,” the author says. He could not be closer to the truth ), is obviously too horrific to contemplate, for those who continue to inhabit it.

    As a schoolkid in Calcutta, I vividly recall how Sheikh Mujib, a day after the birth of a new nation, delivered in the Maidan by what was then known as Octherlony Monument, and now Shaheed Minar, his speech starting with the words of Rabindranath Tagore " Amar Shonar Bangla " ( My Golden Bengal ), and the thunderous roar that came from the throats of a million Bengalis of West Bengal, shook the earth that one stood on.

    We owe it to our countrymen, access to better healthcare, education and environment. It's for us that the bell tolls

  9. As a Canadian of Pakistani origin, and one who fully agrees with the proposition that, "it is only by not losing sight of the communities and shared cultural features among Pakistani and (north) Indians, that we can transcend the mutual hatred…".

    I will go a little further and add that while belonging to the South Asian diaspora right here in Brossard, near Montreal (5910 Bergevin, J4Z 1Z2, Canada), I find that even English language has the capability of becoming a uniting medium of communication among the various South Asian communities living in this city and this country.

  10. Thank you Zubeidaji for an interesting and enlightening article. It is generally accepted by linguists that Hindi and Urdu are the same language. Gulzar sahab also expressed the same opinion in an interview published some time back. Gulzar sahab and other well-known lyricists like Sahir sahab and Majrooh sahab freely chose words of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian origin to suit the needs of a song. It is unfortunate that politics and religion are trying to bring about a partition of the language as well.

    Urdu-Hindi is a rare example of a language that can be expressed using two different and well-developed written forms. As mentioned by Mr. Rao, both these forms should be taught in order to give the learner a better understanding of the etymology of a word and also its talaffuz/ucchaaran.

    1. I have found it intriguing that religion should divide a language and then the scripts should also be bifurcated to give each of them a different identity. Dr Rahman has done well to bring out this aspect of the matter.

  11. I am not a scholar of urdu/ hindi. However, your excellent article revealed to me the story behind this strange phenomenon – how is it that the street language spoken in Bombay and Dehli on one hand and Karachi and Lahore on other is pretty much the same. Particularly interesting is the fact that so much of street expression in the Indian bazaars is Persian based just as you would expect from spoken Urdu. And yet it is almost impossible to understand the officially broadcast news from either country. India has too heavily sanskritised and Pakistan too heavily persianised what is the same language by syntax.

  12. Hi Zubeida,

    I have read in internet that "A team of historians from South Asia will jointly write a history text suitable for middle and high school students. This will be put on the Internet at different sites"

    Some of the well known independent historians of South Asia are trying to compile school history books which will remove the distortions that are seen in history text books of India, Pakistan & Bangladesh.

    I suggest that you write an article on this subject, so that the wider public can read it

    Thanks in advance

  13. Comments on the article – Language can unite
    Your observations that “It is only by not losing sight of the continuities and shared cultural features among Pakistanis and (north) Indians that we can transcend the mutual hatred which threatens to annihilate this ancient land,” is not supported by Indian history. You are right that Punjabi Muslims and Hindus do share the same language and culture, just as Bengalis in India and Bangladesh share same language and culture. India and Bangladesh even share the author of their national anthems. However, you are mistaken in thinking that this sharing of language and culture will unite the two communities, because the history of the Indian subcontinent shows that there appears to be one overriding factor that divides the communities and that is religion. Despite sharing the same language and culture, Punjabi and Bengali Muslims supported, articulated and voted for the demand for separate homeland for Muslims and that is how Pakistan was born. Despite sharing the same language and culture, Punjabi Muslims had no hesitation in creating a hostile atmosphere which resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs, and forced more than million Punjabi Hindus to leave Pakistan and take refuge in India, Ethnic cleansing is the modern day expression for what happened at the time of partition. Even after 60 years, Punjabi Muslims, who dominate the Pakistan Army, continue to show hostility towards India and many Punjabi Muslims are prime supporters of terrorist activities in India. Similarly, despite sharing the same language and culture, Bengali Muslims were responsible for “Direct Action” carried out in 1946, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Bengali Hindus, and the immediate acceptance of the demand for Pakistan. Direct Action was a result of Jinnah’s call for action. Harassment and Persecution in Bangladesh also created a hostile atmosphere that led to forced emigration of Bengali Hindus to Indian Bengal, which continues even now. Similarly, Muslims in Kerala had no hesitation in killing hundreds of Hindus when the Khilafat movement collapsed in early 1920’s, even though Keralites shared the same language and culture. Hindus had no say or part in the removal of the Caliph in Turkey, but bore the brunt of Muslim frustration.

    If language is a possible glue for unity, as you suggest, then both India and Pakistan would have split into ten or more countries soon after partition, because there are so many languages spoken in Indian subcontinent. Certainly southern states would have seceded from India. On the other hand, people from Kerala to Jammu and from Gujarat to Assam believe in tenets of Hindu religion and believe in its ideas.

    Clearly religion has been more important in creating identity in the subcontinent than shared language and culture.

    It is only when identity is no longer based on religion that unity is possible. People are united when they not only share common culture and heritage, but also have common interests and have a political and social system that provides for equality of opportunity and a share of the pie, as in United States. Pakistan split into two parts because Bengalis did not feel that they were getting equality in Pakistan.

  14. The concept is very RIGHT and Practical too. But it is a mere DREAM FOR US. AT present, even at Home, India is not united on language , Hindi or Hindustani as advocated by our Constitution. Each State wants his own language. Thus even the different States in India are not united by a Language.

    Mohan Siroya

  15. Excellent analysis, I wish I could get the book “From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History” by Dr Rahman. We must support every effort to bring people of two countries closer .

    1. The book has been published by Oxford University Press and I am sure you can get it by writing to OUP.

  16. absolutely! but what to do about the Hindi and Urdu wallas.. no matter how convincing the arguments –backed with undeniable linguistics of course– they just just never get it.. like the proverbial rubber duck, it never goes down..

    working on a Language Planning enterprise, i felt that we need to broaden the Hindi-Urdu appeal and reframe the case for reform if its ever to come out of communal/national shadow cast upon it. The South Asian Subcontinent is home to 400+ language subgroups. and Hindi-Urdu is the most widely spoken and used language in the region. Just like Mandarin, Hamari Boli is the most widely spoken and used language in the Indo-Pak subcontinent and With 900Mn+ speakers worldwide, ranks only 2nd to Mandarin. Just as Arabic is the language of the Arab World, Hamari Boli is the "lingua franca of the Desi World"! Not just Indo-Pak but entire South Asia indeed i.e. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius, Srilanka, Afghanistan and the 30Mn+ Desi Diaspora worldwide.

    The "Hamari Boli Initiative" is a full scale "Language Planning" endeavor aimed at 'Hindi-Urdu' Script, Style, Status & Lexical Reform / Modernization thru open-source content and software tools. currently executing;

    1. Hamari Boli Dictionaries project (http://www.hamariboli.com/p/hamare-projects.html)
    2. Khan Academy Hamari Boli (http://youtube.com/khanacademyhindiurdu)

    would appreciate your thoughts…
    http://www.hamariboli.com https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hamari-Boli-Hindi-

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