I had wanted to learn Urdu since I was a teenager. There were no political or ‘practical’ reason behind this desire. I found Urdu incredibly romantic. Gulzar, AR Rahman and Shah Rukh Khan were to be blamed for my romantic associations with the language. The day Shah Rukh Khan described his dream woman as someone who speaks like Urdu (Jiske Zuban Urdu ki Tara), my teenage heart associated the language with love. Almost two decades later, when I discovered Fawad Khan, the desire to speak his tongue came back.
The opportunity to learn Urdu came during the COVID lockdown. Association SNAP – a Kolkata-based NGO working for students and youth belonging to minority communities – begun an online course to teach basic Urdu. I enrolled.
The decision raised curiosity among some friends and family members: “Is it true that Urdu is written in the wrong direction,” asked someone innocently; “Are you the only Hindu in the class,” was the most common question that I faced. A well-meaning relative even warned me: “Be cautious, do not tell too many people. They may think of you as anti-national.”
Why Is Urdu Treated As An Alien Language?
Some did ask “whether I needed to learn Urdu for some professional reasons”. Couple of years ago, I had tried, unsuccessfully though, to learn Spanish. That attempt had generated no curiosity. Learning a European language was seen as a ‘good career move’, Spanish was chic. Learning Urdu, on the other hand, was deemed unusual: written from right to left, the language of Musalmans, with ‘no job prospect’. In every sense, it seemed the opposite of French, German or Spanish.
How does one explain such perceptions about Urdu? Why is it treated as an alien language in India, where, according to the Census of 2011, it is the mother tongue of 5.07 crore people? The answer perhaps lies in the chequered past of the language.
As Christopher King explains, in the second half of 19th Century, Hindi written in Nagri script and Urdu written in Urdu script became symbols of Hinduism and Islam in Oudh and the Northwestern Provinces. Initiatives were taken by the Nagari Pracharani Sabha of Banaras and Hindi Sahitya Sammelan of Allahabad to purge Arabic and Persian words from Hindi and replace them with Sanskrit.
In poems, tracts, plays, Hindi was imagined as the mother language, sometime as a mother goddess. Urdu, in this imagination, was the vulgar ‘other’, the erotic language of courtesans. Sometimes, Urdu was accused of being ‘effeminate’, sometimes it was seen particularly unsuitable for women. Urdu was also seen to be too close to the foreign Persian, and hence inadequate in expressing Bharatiya sensibilities.
Mainstreaming of Hindutva Politics Has Further ‘Otherised’ Urdu
Urdu received regular flak from Bharatendu Harishchandra to Arya Samaj educators to poet Mahadevi Verma. Such associations between language and communal consciousness became more widespread in the 20th century. Partition further marginalised Urdu in India. Urdu became associated with Pakistan, where it was declared the national language much to the agony of Bengali Muslims of its eastern wing. While the Bangla-Urdu conflict shaped the politics of East Pakistan in the decades after its creation, India witnessed the strengthening of Hindi at the expense of Urdu.
Urdu departments were opened in universities and colleges; the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu was set up. But funds were paltry and that too they were often misused. In a 1999 essay, published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Syed Shahabuddin tersely wrote: “[the National Council] is meant not to promote Urdu but to put the Urduwallah's conscience to sleep.”
The mainstreaming of Hindutva politics in the first two decades of the twenty-first century has further ‘otherised’ Urdu. In Rajasthan, for instance, the previous BJP government merged Urdu medium schools and Hindi medium schools, stopped the recruitment of Urdu teachers, removed Ismat Chughtai from Class VIII text book and made question papers in Urdu unavailable.
In Uttar Pradesh, several members of the legislative assembly were stopped from taking oaths in Urdu. Several other examples are there to illustrate this point. This historical and the contemporary contexts perhaps explain, though not justify, the reactions of my relatives and friends to my learning Urdu.
The Many Reasons Behind Learning Urdu
In my class, however, I am not an exceptional presence. Seven of my classmates are Hindu by birth, and only one is a Muslim. Except one, we are all Bengalis. Five of us are women, and there are four men. It is, but, a remarkably heterogeneous group if we take age into consideration. The youngest of the lot is Bibhabori, a Class Six student. She just read a book on the magnificent Humayun’s Tomb. But it had a few Urdu words that she could not read. To solve this pressing problem, her parents enrolled her in this course.
Sukti Sircar, one of the senior members of the group, also has a definite reason for learning the language. She is learning Urdu to keep her mind active.
It was partly her children’s idea, she says: “My son and daughter have told me that learning a new language, engaging in Sudoku, taking up new activities help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s”.
Remaining mentally agile is Sukti’s priority, who has retired recently after working at a bank for almost forty years. But why Urdu and not any other language, I asked her one day. She told me that Urdu fascinates her as it is written from right to left. Urdu also belongs to her familiar universe because of the popular Bollywood songs. But learning the language in a systematic way will help Sukti comprehend the lyrics better. An avid reader herself, Sukti hopes to read Urdu fiction in the original after the completion of the course.
Why Many Chose To Learn Urdu Over Other Languages
While her other retired friends have taken up new hobbies like gardening, embroidering, and painting, she has decided to give Urdu a shot. Her son, a heritage consultant by profession, has also enrolled with her. Two of my fellow classmates are learning the language because their academic research involves reading Urdu sources. Rakesh, another classmate of mine, is a poet and a translator. He is well versed in Urdu literature that is written in Devnagari script. Learning Nastaliq script, he believes, will help him explore the treasures of the language further. For Srijanee, who has a master’s degree in English literature, the lockdown provided the much-needed time to learn a new language.
Urdu was the preferred choice for her because of her interest in postcolonial South Asian literature. Most of my classmates also have said that they find the Nastaliq script beautiful and they are aware of its rich literary tradition.
Urdu in its spoken form is comprehensible to almost all of them, but they want to read and write it as well.
The script is generally seen as a difficult one and there have been suggestions from some of the Indian Urdu experts to promote the writing of the language in Roman or Nagari. But Urdu without Nastaliq will probably lose its shine to a group like this.
The instructor, Dr Noushad Momin, also thinks that Urdu in Roman will be detrimental for the language. He, however, often tell us that there is a resistance from a group of Urduwallas in India towards the modernisation of the writing of the language. “In Pakistan, they do not put so much emphasis on joining the letters and that makes it easier for the new learners. In India there are people who are not ready to take that step,” he said one day when we were struggling to understand the joining rules.
Normalisation Of Urdu By A Few Brings Hope
Some of my classmates did face bizarre questions from their families and friends about their decisions to learn Urdu. Sukti and her son, for example, had to explain their decision to some surprised relatives.One of their acquaintances thought Urdu to be a Pakistani language, no longer used in India as such. The mother-son duo has been largely successful in clearing their doubts and misconceptions. One classmate of mine is yet to tell his family. Others’ families are mostly indifferent; but in some cases they are encouraging.
My classmates themselves do not see learning Urdu as an overtly political act. While they appreciate the visual beauty of it, they do not exoticize the language. To them this is a choice informed by several other considerations.
Last year, Firoze Khan, a Sanskrit scholar, was appointed as an assistant professor in the Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Department of Banaras Hindu University. Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of RSS, organised a massive protest against this appointment. A Muslim, they said, was ineligible to teach in a department which combines the study of Hindu religion and Sanskrit language. A colleague of Khan was harassed because he condemned ABVP’s position. But a month-long protest forced the Sanskrit scholar to resign and join the arts faculty of the university to teach the language. In a world of shrinking diversity and reductive understanding of faith, Sukti, Bibhabori, Srijanee, Rakesh and others’ “normalisation” of learning Urdu brings hope.
Gupta, Charu. ‘The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: 'Bharat Mata', 'Matri Bhasha' and 'Gau Mata'’, Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), 36:45, 2001, pp. 4291-4299.
King, Christopher. ‘The Hindi-Urdu Controversy of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh and Communal Consciousness’, Journal of South Asian Literature, 13: ¼, 1977-78, pp 111-120.
Shahabuddin, Syed. ‘Urdu and its Future in India’, EPW, 34:10/11, 1999, p.566.
Haque, Shahzaman. ‘India’s War on Urdu’, The Diplomat, July 15, 2019.
(Anwesha Sengupta teaches history at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
. Read more on Opinion by The Quint.Sunday View: The Best Weekend Opinion Reads, Curated Just For YouIs Urdu A ‘Pakistani’ Language? No. Here’s Why I Chose To Learn It . Read more on Opinion by The Quint.