RECENTLY, I ATTENDED a conference organised by the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad to commemorate 200 years of Urdu journalism in India. Initially, the invitation struck me as a bit odd since my knowledge of Urdu is less than basic. Like most people who have an elementary knowledge of spoken Hindi, I can broadly follow what is called Hindustani, but this gives way to incomprehension when a speaker lapses into more classical Urdu. I also freely admit that when some people in northern India try to drive home a point by falling back on Urdu couplets, my stony face gives the game away.
My invitation was explained by the fact that the organisers needed some practitioners of journalism in other languages to both expose them to the issues confronting Urdu speakers and writers and, at the same time, be exposed to other national and international trends.
I am glad to have attended the event because it gave me an insight into the minds of a small but extremely erudite community that sees itself as extremely beleaguered in contemporary India. The declining importance of Urdu in post-Independence India has, however, nothing to do with the election of the Narendra Modi government in 2014. Urdu’s importance has been declining steadily since a mass of Urdu speakers and writers migrated to Pakistan from northern India and the erstwhile Hyderabad state after Partition. Although Urdu had an appeal beyond the Muslim community, the critical mass of Urdu speakers was Muslim. When the strategic clout of Indian Muslims declined after 1947, Urdu was an early casualty. Today, a significant section of young Muslims may be Urdu speakers, but they have been tutored in school in Hindi in the Devanagari script.
The champions of Urdu make it a point to stress that the appeal of the language goes beyond religious boundaries. To some extent, they are right. However, it is undeniable that through much of the first half of the 20th century, the Hindu-Muslim tensions in the subcontinent were played out in the Urdu-Hindi tussle. The proponents of Muslim separatism equated Urdu with Islam and identified other Indian languages with the Hindu inheritance. The Urdu-Bangla clash that erupted soon after Partition in East Pakistan and culminated in the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 owed almost exclusively to the Pakistani perception that Urdu was the language of Islam. Urdu has forever been haunted by this legacy and its implied political identification has proved a big liability in today’s India.
However, there is an undeniable soft power of Urdu that extends far beyond its formal popularity. The Urdu-ised Hindustani that is often the hallmark of dialogue in Bollywood films is a testimony. However, when an attempt is made for the spoken and written language to converge, the enterprise falters. Over the years, various attempts were made—outside the state sector—to establish Urdu TV channels, not least by the legendary Ramoji Rao who controlled the market of undivided Andhra Pradesh. It never got the necessary commercial traction and had to shut shop. The situation hasn’t changed fundamentally.
The future of Urdu as a spoken language, if it is not excessively Persianised, is assured in India because its catchment area is the Hindi-speaking population of northern India. Those who speak Hindi, but not as a mother tongue, are more familiar with the Sanskritised Hindi that All India Radio once broadcast the news in. However, in today’s rush to make Hindi more colloquial, Urdu has secured a new lease of life. This wouldn’t have been the case had the language in the Arabic script been on offer. If the Urdu establishment can make the mental leap into accepting the Devanagari script, its future will be assured in India. However, the political implications of that switch may prove a bit too hard for a minority community to digest. However, it would be an acceptance of reality. The students who graduate in journalism having been instructed in Urdu will, most likely, secure employment in TV stations and digital media platforms that communicate in Hindi.
There is, however, the literary Urdu tradition that needs to be preserved and nurtured. Just as classical Sanskrit requires patronage of the state and religious endowments, the organised study of Urdu as a literary language will need subsidies. This is where universities, such as the one in Hyderabad, or more established institutions, such as the Aligarh Muslim University, come in.
In sum, the future of Urdu in India is inextricably tied up with certain key strategic choices that the Muslim community must exercise, but dispassionately. Rhetorical flourishes may secure thunderous applause but will also guarantee the further marginalisation of an Indian language.