Tabitha Spence is a young environmentalist from Texas and married to Ammar Jan from Pakistan, a graduate student at the faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Tabitha’s passion, apart from her profound interest and engagement in environment protection, is the Urdu language. Her prowess in Urdu is remarkable, lacking only the subtleties of the language, which comes after regular practice and reading. She was the part of a group coming to me for instruction in Urdu on a weekly basis.
Then I came to know that she had managed to wangle a scholarship from the USA to learn advanced-level Urdu and that she was, therefore, instructed to go to India. This was a non-negotiable precondition of her funding. Thus, Tabitha was asked to report to ‘Zaban’ (language or tongue), a language institute, which functions under the auspices of American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). It not only runs courses in Hindi, Brij Bhasha etc. but also in Urdu, Persian, Pashto, Dari and even in Arabic. It is located in Kailash Colony, New Delhi, and has earned an extraordinary reputation for imparting instruction in more than twelve languages to international students, businessmen and, most importantly, State Department personnel.
US citizens make up the largest group at the institute, constituting 34 per cent of the total Urdu learners, followed by the British with 10 per cent. This left me flabbergasted because to me the home of Urdu is my country, Pakistan. I was really nonplussed due to the fact that India has now, besides her supremacy in the realms of politics and economy, started appropriating cultural means and modes, language being central among them.
Indian historians like Mushir-ul-Hasan and Syed Irfan Habib are quite emphatic in asserting that India is the central site for Islamic learning too. Mushir maintains that the belt starting from Mussoorie and going up to Delhi contains seminaries which provide the best education on Ilm-i-Hadith. Islamic education in India is a subject that requires a separate disquisition; therefore, we will confine ourselves to the question of language(s) in this particular piece. Interaction with these students, eager to learn Urdu, prompted me to reflect on the role of Urdu as the epitome of a pluralist socio-cultural ethos.
When I tried to impress upon Tabitha and a couple of others that they should go to Pakistan instead of India to improve their Urdu, the security situation in Pakistan was presented as the main impediment. A country created ostensibly to secure ‘Urdu’ and ‘Islam’ from possible ‘extinction’ seems precariously poised to represent either. Consequently India has attained, whether we like it or not, cultural hegemony not through its own efforts but by our wrong-doing and reckless policies.
Ironically, the way Urdu was appropriated by the state, which did all it could for its promotion as a national language, has in fact worked to the detriment of Urdu as a multi-ethnic and multi-communal vehicle of expression, particularly in North India. Culturally, Urdu was amenable to both Hindus and Sikhs for the expression of their finer sensibilities, at least until partition.
People like Raja Kalyan Singh Ashiq (1752-1821), Raja Raj Kishan Das (1781-1823), Daya Shankar Nasim (1811-1844), followed by luminaries like Ratan Nath Sarshar (1846-1903), Jvala Parshad Barq (1863-1911), Shankar Dayal Farhat (1843-1904), Lala Sri Ram (1875-1930), Master Ram Chandra (1821-1880) and Master Piyare Lal Ashoob are only a few of the many who give the lie to the impression that Urdu caters to the cultural needs of the Muslims only.
Even in Lahore, laureates like Arsh Malisiani, Pandit Hari Chand Akhter, Jamna Das Akhter, Lala Ram Parshad, Deondar Satyarthi, Gopal Mittal and Tilok Chand Mehroom prove that point even further. Krishan Chander and Rajender Singh Bedi’s contribution as prose laureates in Urdu can hardly be overemphasised. And yet, Urdu, after being fomented as a political tool, was divested of it diverse character.
Urdu’s deployment as an instrument of cultural exclusion persisted after Pakistan’s creation as it had fissiparous effect in East Pakistan and tangibly so in Sindh too. The state authorities’ ill-considered policy of forging unity among highly disparate cultural entities through Urdu has made it into an imperialist tool, used relentlessly to muzzle local languages and dialects.
In the current scenario, the divide between Urdu and English has become far too pronounced. Unfortunately, Urdu has been used with impunity to spawn a reactionary ideology. With the virtual demise of the progressive movement of Urdu writers, the language has become a hostage to extreme right-wing ideologues. It is also a great pity that it has not been developed enough to transmit the theories of science, technology or even social sciences. Poetry, journalism or religious literature, heavily punctuated with Arabic and Persian vocabulary, continue to be its salient feature.
Over the decades, it has been subjected to the deluge of words and phrases borrowed from Arabic and Persian, which has impaired its very own character. It would have been far better, had it interacted more with the local languages and dialects than being consigned to the slave-status to Arabic and Persian. One must not have any doubt about these two languages ever imbibing any influence from Urdu. After its international projection has been taken over by India, the new challenge for the fate of Urdu is that its further evolution will be out of bounds for Pakistanis, which will be highly regrettable.
The writer is a noted Pakistani historian, currently the Iqbal Fellow at the University of Cambridge as professor in the Centre of South Asian Studies