Panjab University, with its recent proposal, seemingly modified what ‘foreign’ means. Its suggestion to club the Urdu department with other departments of Chinese, Russian, French, German and Tibetan languages came as a bitter little surprise. The University’s Urdu department coordinator Ali Abbas objected, in a strongly worded letter, saying this is creating a “wrong impression” and misleading people to believe that Urdu is alien to India. “Urdu was born, nurtured and cultured in India during the first two decades of the 13th century by Amir Khusro,” he wrote.
At one time its popularity, political and economic dominance was such that the British had declared it as the state language. This administrative decision fanned many linguistic movements and even communal riots which sharpened the lines between Urdu and Hindi, and essentially between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi abhorred this cultural partition and sought out a syncretised confluence in his idea of ‘Hindustani’. Mahatma Gandhi believed in the idea of Hindustan, a land where the people spoke Hindustani which was a harmonic unification of Hindi and Urdu. As the nation celebrated his 150th birth anniversary, it is indeed a high time we reflect on where we stand today, in Hindustan, with the backdrop of such a move against Urdu as witnessed in Panjab.
As the decision, now rolled-back, came into the public consciousness, hard-hitting reactions poured in from all parts of the country. Rounak Mahtab Barua, Assistant Professor at the Department of Foreign Languages at Assam’s Gauhati University, who teaches French, spoke strongly about it. “What is a foreign language? To put it plainly, it is the language which is not native.. one that is foreign to the tongue,” she said. “Then, if Urdu is one of the native Indian languages of this country which has been born here, why has it been added to the department of foreign languages?” she demanded to know.
There is no denying the fact that divisive and polarising factors are at work in our country like never before. Is this actually an act of discrimination, I asked. “If not, then what is it?” she shot back. “It certainly looks like it. There could be other reasons which may be used to justify this and we need to look into that as well. But classifying a language which originated in India as a foreign language certainly shows a certain level of ignorance or indifference or both, if not outright discrimination,” Barua said.
Professor M.P. Pandey, Head of Hindi Department, NEHU in Meghalaya also felt that it was not a fair decision. “It would cause alienation of India’s culture. If Urdu is to be treated in such a manner then its belongingness will be lost and ultimately will lose its identity. Just like Hindi, Urdu was born in India and deserves the same attention and respect. There are of course non-native influences in it, just like any other language. But it is very much a part of Indian heritage which we must acknowledge,” he said
Naveen Chourey, who wrote ‘Vaastavik Kanoon’, a poem which went viral on social media for its powerful narration, said that there must equally be a growing conversation along with the growing violence on minorities in India today. Although he deplores the politics around language, he spoke heartily on the political climate in India. He felt that the questions on India’s crippling economy, the inquiry on rising atrocities on minorities, and the collective pursual on the government’s accountability should not be distracted by topics of communalism, polarisation and hatred. In the rush to hate those different than us, people have forgotten to talk about real issues. And one such case is also that of Urdu in India today.
If it is a question of managing resources, merging smaller departments must be the last resort. It would also lead us to a very thorny question–would the same treatment be meted out against Sanskrit and Hindi departments too? If one looks at some of the other states in India where Hindi and Sanskrit would not be as ‘dominant‘–say Nagaland, Mizoram, or Tamil Nadu, or where the number of students and faculty, or simply the demand, for these departments are relatively smaller than other states, then would the same resort be taken? If in a state, where Hindi or Sanskrit is not the popular lingua franca, will we see such treatment being meted out, or will we see these languages grouped with other smaller departments? The very thought of it is hard to digest.
In both strong and subtle ways, I would say that the threat to Urdu’s existence remains. A popular actor once remarked that these days even the Urdu title of the movie seems to be disappearing from many soaps and movies, unlike what used to be the norm at one time when opening credits were written in English, Hindi, and Urdu.
Today, the demand to learn vernacular languages and the ability to connect it with the market and with employment is there, but barely so. Although Hindi was adopted as one of the official languages in India and a compulsory language taught in many schools across India, the same cannot be said for Urdu. Whether this is the government’s way of establishing the dominance of Hindi over other languages or one masterstroke of marginalising the language is something to think about.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.