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Estranged Siblings: Urdu and Hindi

From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History by Tariq Rahman (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan), 2011; pp 456, Rs 695.


However, he fails to discern that even in

Estranged Siblings: Urdu and Hindi

secular India Muslims are marked by their absence from such soaps, or if present are portrayed in stereotypical and clichéd Ather Farouqui terms. In fact, the Indian Hindi soaps

ne of the unprecedented phenomena in the history of the subcontinent – in fact in the history of language itself – and covering more than 150 years, spanning a period from undivided to post-Partition India, is the breakup of what was once the nation’s lingua franca into two languages, namely, Urdu and Hindi, both of which have become, in the hands of narrow-minded zealots, instruments of divisive politics. The book under review deals with this phenomenon and its aftermath. What is unique about this phenomenon is that protagonists of both these languages claim independence from each other and tussle over which language can be deemed the other’s superior. On one side of the divide are ranged the Hindiwalas of post-independence India and on the other, Urduwalas from both India and Pakistan. From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History subverts this perception and seeks, by highlighting their shared history, to bridge the gap between the two languages in order to ultimately transcend the mutual hostilities between the two nations – India and Pakistan.

Historical Grounding

The author of the book under review, Tariq Rahman, is a formidable Pakistani scholar who left his job as an army officer perhaps because he could not reconcile himself to the necessary violence that this calling entailed and opted for academics instead. The present work is a product of rigorous research on Urdu reflecting his years of extensive study and prolific repertoire and stems from his love of the language.

In terms of structure, too, the book is well-organised. It covers a study of the language as an entity in itself and its identity, which is dealt with in the first half of the book till Chapter 5. Chapters 6 and 7 deal with two themes religion and erotica from the opposite ends of the spectrum as far as Urdu is concerned. Their juxtaposition brings forth the dichotomy of how

Economic & Political Weekly

september 17, 2011

From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History by Tariq Rahman (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan), 2011; pp 456, Rs 695.

Urdu was used both as a medium to spread Islam and as a vehicle of poetic expression, which continues to flourish in the Ghazal albeit in its more populist avatar. He goes on to document the role of the British regime in furthering Urdu and its education in Chapter 8, which logically connects to the next chapter that tackles the difficult subject of the political reasons behind Urdu gaining the unjustified official status in the two states of Kashmir and Hyderabad, both of which had Muslims rulers. Chapters 10 to 15 examine Urdu as a functional language used in education and employment and its application in various mediums, such as print, radio and screen.

He has done a good job of accumulating an extensive and exhaustive amount of data on the language and has given it a thorough historical grounding in order to create what he calls a “social history” of the language. He sets off right at the outset to delineate this social history of the language.

While the book is no doubt a fine document of the history of Urdu and a rigorous one at that, whether it is social one is another matter. He states that his intention is to examine the use of Urdu in the social domains of governance, judiciary, education, media and entertainment. But take his chapter on television and cinema for instance. It is an admirable chapter in terms of the wealth of detail that is provided but does not give us a real sense of the usage of Urdu or Hindi for that matter in Indian and Pakistani television and cinema. For example, during his examination of the Indian soaps, he observes that: “In India, as there are many Muslims, the uses of words associated with them are not tabooed. In Pakistan, however, words like chintƗ, being associated with Hindi and the Hindu identity, are beyond limits”.

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primarily cater to a very north Indian, traditional and Hindu audience, with only a scattering of shows representing other regional and religious categories. The values that these soaps espouse are so regressive that a large chunk of the Indian population either cannot identify with them or feel left out.

The title of the book is slightly misleading and could confuse those who are not well versed with the history of the two languages. “From Hindi to Urdu” would indicate that one is the precursor of the other and that they are mutually exclusive. One must admit that quite contrary to the general perception, the term “Urdu” came to be used only at a very late stage in the languages’ development, “Hindi” being one of the earlier terms used for its nomenclature. Hindi in the given context

– and grammatically as well – would seem to be the more appropriate term for the wide range of the so-called dialects and variations that come under the ambit of this Indian language.

Nefarious Agenda

However, the word Hindi became anathema to Urduwalas, especially Muslim politicians of north India, in the 20th century and continues to do so right into the 21st century. Hindi chauvinists, of course, are not far behind in exploiting the term Hindi in the name of Hindu politics but they lack a convenient tool such as pan-Islamism to fall back upon. So, their constituency remains confined mainly to north India – the “cowbelt” or the Hindi heartland as they fondly term it. There is near unanimity, if not in black and white, amongst Hindi protagonists that Urdu is nothing but an offshoot of Hindi. This could be perceived as true academically as Hindi is one of the names of Urdu, so Hindi and Urdu are the same, but no Hindiwala who invests in politics will agree with the argument.

The issue of Urdu versus Hindi, in fact, gives fruition to the nefarious agenda of both parties to manipulate their electorate and gain political momentum via language


politics. It is interesting to note that until 1990, communal riots were also played out in the name of Urdu and Hindi. So the issue of which language precedes the other is complex and definitely not linear as the title seems to suggest. Given the shared history of the two languages, it is important to tread carefully and to read between the lines while examining this complex history.

Urdu and Hindi are, to borrow a phrase from Christopher King, “one language [in] two scripts”.1 Both share more or less the same linguistic roots. On the issue of Urdu’s relationship with Sanskrit, noted Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has stated quite categorically, “Sanskrit has always been an overt presence in its [Urdu’s] linguistic structure, and a covert, though by no means inert, presence in its literary domain.”2 The legacy of imperial rule in India, however, with its influence on our linguists has left very little scope for an academic work assessing the dynamics of Indian languages and prospects for their growth, putting Urdu and Hindi in sharp perspective.

Although this is an excellent book in terms of research, it lacks a certain amount of contemporaneity as it does not really reflect the harsh realities vis-à-vis Urdu. One cannot ignore the fact that the author has chosen to work on a language in which, incidentally, the literature, in contemporary India for sure, is produced just for the sake of promotion and advancement of university teachers. The common Urdu reader in the country of its birth has unfortunately disappeared after the 1990s, following the Islamophobia and the dominance of madrasa alumni in Urdu literature. This and such similar topics are not really tackled head-on by the author, which is unfortunate as we do not really gain a true picture of the language as it actually functions in India and Pakistan.

To save Urdu in India, the minimum that is required is to do away with institutions claiming to deal with the so-called “cultural aspect of Urdu”, such as state Urdu academies and the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), and concentrate on the promotion of Urdu education under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

New from SAGE!

The raison d’être of setting up cultural Urdu organisations was a clever Nehruvian strategy in the wake of the hatred generated against Urdu after Partition, a policy which was continued by Indira Gandhi through the establishment of several Urdu academies. In contemporary India, however, with the wheels of change turning fast, such Urdu institutions are the symbol of a redundant, obsolete and irrelevant policy. There is also an urgent need to change the Urdu syllabus at the primary and secondary level to make it more attuned to the needs of contemporary times apart from changing its ethos, which is presently Muslim.

Urdu in Pakistan

Urdu, in the case of Pakistan, is a different and a sad story. The language was one of the influential elements in the movement for Pakistan and the claim was made that it reflected Muslim sensibilities. Rahman claims that, “if the choice of language to write inscriptions is an indicator of the dissemination of Urdu, then it is certainly the most widespread language of Pakistan among ordinary people...”. This is a





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simplistic and definitely not inclusive perception because even though Urdu has become the national language of Pakistan, only a small fraction of Karachi’s population can truly claim it to be “their language”, with a fair sprinkling of mohajirs (Muslim immigrants from India who settled in Pakistan post-Partition) in this city speaking those very north Indian languages that we now dismiss as “dialects”.

Moreover, owing to the dominant status assigned to Urdu in Pakistan and the hegemony it entailed, several unwelcome developments transpired post-Partition, such as the breaking away of the Bengalispeaking East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which left even more unfortunate events in its wake.3 Interestingly, a small section of the then East Pakistani population, which was the supporter of the erstwhile establishment in Pakistan, belonged originally to the region now covered by Bihar and Jharkhand and actually spoke Maithli, Maghai, Bhojpuri, etc, and not canonised Urdu, a language that donned the attire of “sophistication” as the elite opted for it and attempted to distinguish it from other languages after the decline of Persian with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the subsequent decline and fall of the Mughal empire. These people are now termed as “Biharis” in Bangladesh and live in pathetic conditions in camps, with no sympathy or support forthcoming from the political establishment. Of course, for the political establishment of Pakistan they do not even exist. Such is the terrifying power of language!


Rahman has done a great job of surveying most of the contemporary and historical writings, but there is not much in the book that focuses on the understanding of the dynamics of the communal aspects of Urdu and Hindi in contemporary India and Pakistan, telling us how this problem could possibly be tackled. The book by itself is theoretically sound but obviates the discussion of these and some other unpleasant truths.4

Interestingly, for centuries Urdu has been producing fine literature, mainly poetry, which Rahman has covered in some detail in his chapter entitled “Urdu

Economic Political Weekly

september 17, 2011

as the Language of Love”. Although this chapter is commendable for its bold portrayal of erotic poetry, highlighting the evolution of this genre down the ages, yet it ends abruptly when the argument naturally progresses to the contemporary context. One discerns an overemphasis on the language aspect of Urdu poetry in this chapter. But language, of course, does not function in an academic vacuum. It is a living, breathing organism. One is curious to know how a language which is employed for divisive and hateful tendencies can produce such great poetry. Of course, there is a vast quantity of great literature in India which both Urduwalas and Hindiwalas claim as their own, but only on the condition that the said literature subscribes to their “religion” – the script in which it is written. Till the work of Ghalib is not written in the Devnagri script and till the Urduwalas give up their sole claim to him, he will not be included into the Hindi canon.

The other side of the coin is revealed by the experience of Rahi Masoom Raza, who in the second half of his life opposed the Urdu script to the hilt as part of a conscious strategy. Success came to him easily when he started scripting everything in Devnagri. He became very vocal, claiming that he was writing in Hindi and not Urdu. So now he is part of the Hindi canon and Urduwalas have excommunicated him, even with regards to his earlier writing in the Urdu script. Such social ramifications of the use of the language are missing from the book.

Tariq Rahman, of his own volition has placed more emphasis on “British India than upon medieval or post-Partition South Asia”, which is unfortunate as there is a definite lack of a comprehensive and exhaustive work on the dynamics of the two languages, especially of Urdu, in post-Partition India and Pakistan. He would do well to rework his book for the next edition examining the contemporary social and political dynamics of both languages. He could even pen another work analysing the factors that have made both Urdu and Hindi a very strong tool for division and hatred, as he seems to have collected a lot of material on the subject. Rahman’s work is a labour of love and no one writing in English alone has ever surveyed and

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marshalled so much material, so we should expect more scholarly works from him in future.

Ather Farouqui ( is a commentator on contemporary Muslim politics and the Urdu language.


1 King, Christopher, One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1994.

2 Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2001.

3 Interestingly, Urdu was also imposed on the largely Bangla-speaking population of East Pakistan. In his seminal biography Jinnah of Pakistan (New York: Oxford University Press), 1984, Stanley Wolpert detects this linguistic chauvinism in the creator of Pakistan:

He [Jinnah] had not even gone to the East, or set foot in Dacca, the second “capital” of his nation. Great leader that he was, Jinnah answered the call of cabinet and addressed a crowd estimated to be over 3,00,000 in Dacca’s maidan on March 21, 1948. This was his last major public address; ironically, he delivered it in English, though he spoke to a Bengali-language audience and informed them “in the clearest language” that “the State Language of Pakistan is going to be URDU and no other language”. This was, of course, the most volatile, divisive issue in Pakistani politics.

This linguistic chauvinism, among other things, was what ultimately sounded the death knell of the composite nation and led to the Bangladesh Liberation War and the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971.

4 To the best of my knowledge, one of the most remarkable articles on the theme of the evolution of Urdu and Hindi and their role in contemporary civic space has been penned by one of the best legal minds of India, justice Markandey Katju. In “What Is Urdu”, he has very cogently analysed, among other things, the factors accounting for the class character that afflicts Urdu due to political reasons and an elite hierarchy. Katju has worked on the theme for more than 15 years and his work makes for a valuable contribution to the subject. The fact that academia has largely ignored this, as it comes from a person who is a non-linguist, does not in any way take anything from its merit. The write-up, incidentally, is easily available on the web. Also noteworthy are two other works written by father and son – Amrit Rai’s, A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1984 and Alok Rai’s Hindi Nationalism (Hyderabad: Orient Longman), 2001. Although stemming from two divergent political positions

– the former purporting traditional views while the latter choosing to be more progressive – if read together they can provide a good sense of the evolution of Hindi as also Urdu in India.

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