COLUMN:The uses of language snobbery:Urdu & the identity politics

Published January 11, 2015
AJMAL KAMAL edits and publishes Aaj, an Urdu quarterly journal, from Karachi and runs a small publishing house and bookshop. He translates and occasionally writes for English and Urdu publications.
AJMAL KAMAL edits and publishes Aaj, an Urdu quarterly journal, from Karachi and runs a small publishing house and bookshop. He translates and occasionally writes for English and Urdu publications.

THE interesting phenomenon of the linguistic and literary culture of Urdu that I am going to talk about here, and which in my view is the key to the identity politics that has come to be associated with this language, is the strange and funny practice of some people pointing out to other people that their use of language is not ‘authentic’ enough; that these ‘others’ can neither speak nor write good ‘propah’ Urdu. This reminds me of the dear departed Amarat-e Islami, run by the Taliban for several years in Afghanistan, where it was the official policy to appoint gun-toting, stern-looking men who’d measure the lengths of beards and attires and issue verdicts, fatwas, on that basis about the authenticity and purity of the unfortunate common people’s faith.

This linguistic sectarianism has its roots in the freak and mutually contradicting ideas about the ‘origin’ of the Urdu language which, as far as I know, are not found about other languages, at least of our region. Every language is seen and acknowledged as belonging to a more or less defined geographical area where it is shaped during long centuries of social life in a particular form with characteristics that keep changing slowly, keeping pace with life. There is no ambiguity about any other language of our region as to where it originated and what its distinguishing features are. Punjabi, for instance, is the name of the language spoken in different hues and accents by the people living in Punjab. Even if people using the language in a specific form, such as Saraiki, wish their language to be given a separate identity, which seems a reasonable cultural aspiration, it nevertheless remains associated to a particular geographical area.

But the outlandish claims about the origin of Urdu are another story. An ongoing ‘research’ — informed by the exigencies of identity politics — tries to see it as having been born in geographical areas as diverse as, for instance, Balochistan, Punjab or Bengal, from where it is supposed to have been transported through a mysterious, seemingly metaphysical, process to Delhi’s Red Fort, populated by the descendants of the Central Asian conquerors whose original language was Turkish but who started using Persian for ruling their conquered subjects and — somehow — took the ownership of Urdu, while the local name of the language has been Hindi for centuries!

Nobody is surprised at this mindlessly invented ‘history’, because in our case history has patently been disassociated with geography anyway. What is called ‘Islamic’ history in our blessed Islamic Republic begins in a certain era at some faraway place, then starts travelling with Arab conquests, and via Andalusia (of all places) arrives in our hitherto ‘impure’ land with Mohammad bin Qasim. This must be the history with no parallel in any other country of the world as it does not care to tie itself to a geographical region. The same goes for the history of Urdu.

Whatever the ingenious ‘historians’ may say, it’s a fact that the Urdu (Hindi) language was spoken for centuries in a specific part of the subcontinent whose name was later abandoned by the politically driven Urdu-walas. The name was Hindustan. This name has been given to the whole of British-ruled India for some time now. Historically, it was the same part of the northern subcontinent which is now loosely called the ‘Hindi Belt’ on the other side of the 1947 border. In a Persian couplet, Shibli Nomani (1857-1914) writes this line:

i.e. when I reach Hindustan from Bombay. Which is to say that the port city of Bombay was outside the definition of Hindustan of those days. Similarly, people coming from that area used to be called Hindustanis in Rajasthan, Punjab and Bengal. (Those coming from the so-called Hindi Belt to Punjab in the aftermath of the Partition were initially referred to as Hindustanis; in Calcutta — now called Kolkata — they are still called by that name.) So, one problem was the usurpation of the name Hindustan by the whole South Asia, which is another intriguing subject for study. Then, the privileged class indulging in identity politics in the name of Urdu tried to give the impression as if it was the language of the entire subcontinent, which was as far from the real situation as you could get. The reasons for this position were nothing if not political, because the pre-British ruling elites of Delhi and its adjoining suburbs — with some outposts here and there — wanted to maintain their cultural domination over the newly imagined Muslim community in the changed circumstances.

Although Urdu had never been used in the Mughal court as an ‘official’ language, the said elites adopted, in place of Persian, the local language — called Hindi, Hindavi or Hindustani — and rechristened it at some point as ‘Zaban-e Urdu-e Mualla’ or the ‘Language of the Exalted Court’, that is, the language spoken in and around the Red Fort to which the ‘rule’ of the Mughal ‘emperor’ had been limited by 1857. Till he was sent by the new conquerors to Rangoon to await his demise, Bahadur Shah II, as well as the hangers-on of his court, had learned to speak and write the same Persian-infested language which was ‘standardised’ as ‘Urdu’.

Akhlaq Ahmed Dehlvi (1919-1992) mentions in his book of memoirs, Yadon ka Safar, a lady from the royal Taimuri (Mughal) clan who, according to his family lore, was given shelter by his grandfather when members of the legendary set were forced to flee the Red Fort. According to him, this lady lived in his parents’ home in the Koocha Cheelan as an elderly presence in his childhood days and was revered as the symbol of the Fort. He says that prominent personalities living in the neighbourhood, such as Maulana Mohammad Ali (Johar) and Hakim Ajmal Khan, used to visit her to listen to her tales of yore which she told from behind a curtain sitting in her cot. Once she used the word ‘tooti’ in the feminine gender. Somebody present there pointed out that Ustad Dagh Dehlvi (1831-1905) had used this word as masculine. Dagh was considered an authority in matters of poetry and language by the Delhi elites because he had grown up in the Red Fort. Also, he had enunciated his authority and the authenticity of his use of Urdu quite emphatically in his verses like:

The second line of the latter couplet was supposed to mean that according to him the whole world (the Urdu world that is) admires his use of the language; later this line was to become a famous quote indicating the alleged superiority of Urdu over all other languages too!

The elderly lady from the royal Fort reportedly retorted with patent ‘royal’ snobbishness that Dagh was a mere ‘laundi-bacha’ (a slavegirl’s child), what connection could he possibly have had with Urdu? We, the royal personages, will decide how Urdu must be spoken and written!

Since Akhlaq Dehlvi has a reputation of an unreliable narrator, the incident may not be completely true. However, it does underscore the belief in an absurd hierarchy in matters of ‘authentic’, ‘proper’ and ‘achhi’ Urdu that was quite common in those times and places, and is unfortunately still current in the so-called ‘ilmi’ world of Urdu to this day.

A little further on, Akhlaq Dehlvi tells us that his mother did not allow him to go to Khari Baoli neighbourhood to play with his friend Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi (1906-1967), the grandson of the prominent novelist Deputy Nazir Ahmed (1830-1912). Given that, despite getting himself married into a much respected high-caste religious family of Delhi, Deputy Sahib was originally from Bijnaur, playing with his grandson threatened to ‘spoil’ Akhlaq’s achhi Urdu!

That apart, it was taken as an established value that in the matters of muhavra, rozmarra and gender of nouns, adjectives etc. (which mark the beginning and the end of the ‘academic linguistic debate’ in the Urdu culture), the final word would be spoken by someone having close links with the Red Fort. This seems something peculiar to Urdu. Every other language is developed and shaped by common people using that language, and they are the ones who change it over time. Why is this not true for Urdu? Maulana Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914) was of the view that to be writing and speaking good Urdu, one must be from or around Delhi, and a Muslim. Now a language can hardly be associated with a religion. Punjabis speak Punjabi, whether they are Sikh, Muslim or Hindu. The same goes for Bengali, Sindhi and other languages. Not Urdu, no sir!

As the Mughal Empire gradually lost its grip over its possessions, different areas started becoming independent states, such as Oudh. Lucknow, which came to be its capital, became a centre in its own right in terms of language and literary culture. The Lucknow-walas — the elites including the scholars from and of the ‘shahi’ darbar — tried to monopolise the idea of an authentic language (which was baseless to begin with). Lucknow and Delhi were entangled in a drawn-out tussle as to who writes and speaks the correct idiom in an authentic way. This laughable tussle went on for very long even in the post-colonial period; for instance in Pakistan, as late as the 1960s, Josh Malihabadi (1894-1982) and Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi were seen at each other’s throats to decide whether the Lucknavi or Dehlvi Urdu should be taken as authentic. Josh considered the Urdu of Delhi, that is the Urdu of Deputy Nazir Ahmed, as something not to be taken seriously, while Shahid Dehlvi — the same lad from Khari Baoli with whom Akhlaq Dehlvi from Koocha Cheelan was disallowed to play — dismissed the Lucknavi Urdu as ‘poorab ke launde laparon ki boli-tholi’ (the gibberish spoken by the riff-raff from the Eastern UP).

After dealing with the 1857 Mutiny (or the War of Independence if you like), the British colonial authorities decided to replace Persian with English at the higher levels of education, administration and judiciary and with the local vernaculars at the lower levels of primary education, thana, kutchery, post office, land revenue, irrigation etc. At most places this did not create a problem, for example in Sindh and Bengal, respectively Sindhi and Bengali were adopted for this purpose. But it did create a problem in that portion of the ‘Hindi Belt’ which was later designated as United Provinces (called North West Provinces and Oudh then). A huge ruckus ensued as a result of associating the language to this or that script, although the public (which was till then referred to as ryot or subjects) was mostly illiterate and had nothing to do with either the Persian or the Nagri script. But since the area was close to Delhi, where the post-Mutiny Muslim elites still had economic and cultural clout, the knowledge of the Persian script was made compulsory for those wishing to be employed at different lower levels of administration etc. However, a vast part of the area’s population was learning the Nagri script. They too aspired for those sarkari jobs and found the doors shut to them because of the script condition. This led to a campaign which demanded that the knowledge of the Nagri script be also made a criterion of eligibility.

In 1900 an order was issued by the Lt. Governor of the NWP&O, Anthony McDonnel, which accepted this demand. The order did not remove the Persian script or replace it with Nagri, but the spectre of erosion of the Muslim elite’s monopoly over government jobs made this into a big political controversy within the province, and government jobs and ‘patronage’ came to be known as the means for ‘survival’ of the Urdu language. A strange phrase of ‘Urdu ki khidmat’ (service to Urdu) was invented, which is still current. (Have you ever heard a boatman claim that he is serving the river, or the boat?) The immediate purpose of this identity campaign was to make more jobs available to those who were proficient in reading and writing Urdu in the Persian script. The linguistic community was divided into the Urdu-walas and Hindi-walas and both camps began to make extravagant claims about their separate ‘languages’. Both bragged about their language being spoken in the whole subcontinent; a claim which was fraudulent from the point of view of those speaking Bengali, Tamil, Sindhi, Gujarati and so on.

It was during the same post-1857 era that the Punjabi Muslim elites chose Urdu to be the vernacular replacing Persian at the lower sarkari levels. This too stemmed out of the politics of identity; until its annexation with the British India in 1843, Punjab was ruled by the Takht Lahore or the Sikh darbar — a rule dubbed as ‘Sikha-shahi’ by the aggrieved Punjab Muslim elites. The Sikh rule was preceded by the Mughal domination which, among other things, meant repression of the Sikhs. Under the new circumstances, the Punjabi Muslims preferred Urdu in matters of education and employment over Punjabi as the latter was considered to be associated with Sikhs.

It should also be remembered that the undivided Punjab was a linguistically diverse region. Not only Haryana and Himachal but the NWFP (the present-day Pakhtunkhwa) too was a part of Punjab in those days; NWFP became a separate province in 1901 but people residing there and speaking other languages could not possibly have a reason to adopt Punjabi for their education and administration. So Urdu was considered suitable for the political purpose of creating a north-Indian Muslim identity.

As a result, Urdu was being taught and learned in the primary and high schools in Punjab since the 1860s. The same era saw the proliferation of the printing press and Punjab came to be one of the most important centres of Urdu publishing and journalism, shaping the Urdu language for the modern usage. When a community adopts a language the way Punjabis adopted Urdu, it acquires the users’ right over the language. Punjabi Urdu-walas were not supposed to follow those originating from Delhi or Lucknow in terms of idiom, accent and so on, and they gradually changed Urdu to its present shape and colour. Also, the vast province of Punjab produced a large number of significant journalists, writers and poets who legitimately dominated the modern Urdu scene and continue to do so. Nothing can be done to wish away this historical reality.

In the first phase of the politics of identity the Urdu-walas (ie Hindustanis) had separated themselves from the original language called Hindi in their bid to create a separate identity; the new reality threatened their ownership of Urdu. Thus began the rivalry between the Punjabi users of Urdu and those who called themselves ahl-e zaban (original speakers). Those who came from the ‘Hindi Belt’ or Hindustan to settle in Punjab (in West Punjab after the Partition) were sometimes derogatively called ‘Hindustauras’ (the word can be found in Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ as well); to return the compliment, the ahl-e zaban used to ridicule the accent and even the cultural practices of the ‘Punjabras’ or ‘Punjabi Dhuggas’. All this was connected to the politics of linguistic identity and the competition for sarkari jobs and patronage. This politics was to take another significant turn after 1947. 



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