COLUMN: Dishonesty, thy name is Urdu scholarship

Published September 13, 2015
Ajmal Kamal
Ajmal Kamal

DURING the past several months, I have tried to study in this column space the historical process of creating a linguistic identity for a significant chunk of the Muslim community residing in the northern part of South Asia. This huge undertaking has played itself in the course of more than a century and a half, and the cornerstone of this effort has been the event of inventing a new, foreign-sounding name — Urdu — for a local language — Hindi — which had been used and shaped during the past several centuries by common people inhabiting a specific geographical region called ‘Hindustan’.

This undertaking has involved the manufacture of a specific view of the history of the origin and development of ‘Urdu’ which, driven by the exigencies of identity politics, has its basis more in emotions than facts. The propagation of this officially sanctified version of history — to the exclusion of every other possible view, and disregarding the unsettling questions altogether — has resulted in a certain degree of confusion among the general ‘Urdu’ public living on opposite sides of the 1947 borders as to their linguistic identity.

It has also resulted in a laidback and unprofessional attitude among the typical scholars of Urdu — lexicographers, grammarians, historians, college and university teachers, researchers and research supervisors — who seem to think that a public display of an emotional attachment to the ‘cause of Urdu’ can be legitimately regarded as a substitute for academic competence and honesty.

As has been shown in the case of the large Urdu dictionary being created purportedly on historical principle — on the pattern of the great Oxford English Dictionary, no less — those entrusted with this academic task have hardly proved themselves equal to it in terms of linguistic capability, the basic discipline of consulting existing old dictionaries while compiling a new, supposedly improved one, and a reliable system of editing the entries before they get printed and bound.

For one thing, the manpower handling this work obviously and starkly lack the basic knowledge of the traditional linguistic sources of more than three-fourths of Urdu words and phrases — Sanskrit, the various Prakrits and Apabhramsha, and the whole range of specific local dialects beginning from Haryanvi and Khari Boli of the area bordering Punjab to Bundelkhandi, Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Maithili as you move eastward in the direction of Bengal. They also lack a working knowledge of the modern languages that constitute the source of about a fourth of Urdu lexicon — Persian, Arabic and English.

Also, more alarmingly, there has been no system in place to invite and address public and academic criticism of this work. All this has resulted in the production of thick volumes that do not come up to the generally accepted standards of such work at a considerable cost to the public exchequer and the wastage of more than 50 precious years.

The universities, similarly, are used as a source of employment to the ‘lovers of Urdu’ and little else. The faculty manning the Urdu departments of our universities seem to be secure in the belief that nobody expects them to display any real academic scholarship or even honesty of purpose. I would like to illustrate this by looking at a recent publication called Tareekh-e Adabiyat-e Urdu brought out by the Pakistan Study Centre of the University of Karachi (KU).

This book has been presented as the Urdu translation of the French book titled Histoire de la Litératture Hindoui et Hindoustanie by Garcin de Tassy (1794-1878). De Tassy was a French Orientalist who researched and wrote extensively on the languages, literatures and social context of northern South Asia, especially of the 19th century. The translation was done by one Liliane Sixtine Nazroo as the requirement for a PhD in Urdu from the Urdu department of KU.

Nazroo conducted this work under the supervision of Dr Abul Lais Siddiqui (1916-1994) who, it can be presumed, was considered capable of supervising a work of translation from French into Urdu although there is nothing on record to testify his credentials regarding this. According to Dr Moinuddin Aqeel, the editor of the present Urdu publication, the translation was submitted to the department sometime in 1960 and Nazroo’s registration for a PhD was approved (from an unspecified back date) on Sept 28, 1960 — the degree was awarded on Jan 16, 1961.

Nazroo, Dr Aqeel tells us in his introduction to the book, had studied Urdu at the Sorbonne and the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris, before becoming associated in some capacity with the Pakistani embassy in France. She is said to have met Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (1892-1963) during his short-lived stint as the prime minister of Pakistan, who encouraged her to get a doctorate from Karachi.

Dr Aqeel further informs us, “Since the translation of a book could not be accepted as sufficient work towards a PhD degree,” the translator had tried to corroborate the author’s statements using the contemporary sources, mentioned in the French original, and also added material that was not included by De Tassy. Furthermore, she had compiled a list of sources that the original author was supposed to have consulted during the compilation; in doing so, “it can be seen that the translator has mentioned the editions of the sources that she herself consulted, while most of them were yet to be published during the author’s lifetime”.

Besides, “although the translator is Lilian Nazroo, one can conclude from the idiomatic and natural flow of language at many places that this cannot be her work alone; the style of Dr Abul Lais Siddiqui is clearly evident at such places”. Dr Siddiqui, according to Dr Aqeel, may have been the originator of many notes and “critiques of the author’s notes” that form part of the translation.

However, these are small indicators to the fact that the ‘translation’ needs to be read with caution as it may be reflecting more the ideas and opinions of the learned professor of the KU than the French Orientalist who conducted his research by sending for all the source material from South Asia without ever needing to visit the place. But then shouldn’t it be published under the name of Dr Siddiqui instead of De Tassy?

The more serious problem reveals itself when we learn, through Dr Aqeel, that not only have the details of the discussions been omitted and the substance of the original been ‘summarised’ in the ‘translation’ but “the entire text dealing with Hindi language and literature has been expunged which formed an integral part of the original book.”

And, the title of the book has been changed from Histoire de la Litératture Hindoui et Hindoustanie to Tareekh-e Adabiyat-e Urdu. Would it be an exaggeration to call this academic work — ostensibly conducted with a purpose to award a PhD degree to a well-connected foreign lady who had decided to honour the ‘cause of Urdu’ by taking an interest in it — a shining example of gross misrepresentation of the work of a researcher and historian?

Not only the PhD supervisor of this work, but also the editor of the present publication, thought little of the fact that if De Tassy had decided to write the history of ‘Hindoui’ and ‘Hindoustanie’ literature together, he may have been holding an opinion about the origin and history of the language different from the official position of the Urdu department (and the Pakistan Study Centre) of the KU.

Is nobody, notwithstanding his level of academic competence, allowed to have an independent opinion on the subject? And, is it alright to misrepresent every such opinion and force it to fit the moulds provided by the ‘cause of Urdu’ and the ‘Pakistan ideology’?


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

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