Language can unite

Published June 14, 2011

MORE than six decades after Partition, India and Pakistan continue to be locked in disputes which even take them to the brink of war.

It is difficult to believe that people who had lived side by side for centuries now refuse to recognise the commonalities in their culture and languages. Against this backdrop comes a breath of fresh air in the form of a new book that focuses on social harmony rather than cultural discord.

Dr Tariq Rahman, a professor of sociolinguistic history at the Quaid-i-Azam University, has published his 11th book titled From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History (OUP) that should make many scholars sit up. Some have already challenged his findings.

After going through this voluminous 456-page book, I was struck by the meticulous research the author undertook to produce this comprehensive socio-political history of the language that, to my knowledge, no other scholar has done. Until now, all research on Urdu has focused more on literature. From Hindi to Urdu is different. It does not dwell on the literary writings of men of letters but on how the language as it developed affected society. Thus the close connection between the development of Urdu and what Francis Robinson terms the reification of religion is quite clear. Many historians have traced the roots of Urdu to the Muslim military camps in northern India with the arrival of the Turkish armies.

By exploring the issue deeply, Dr Rahman reaches the conclusion that there was an Indian language — actually a collection of mutually intelligible dialects — that was spoken in the areas stretching from Peshawar to the border of Bengal. “All these dialects picked up words from the languages of the newcomers — not only soldiers but also merchants, religious figures, mystics, mendicants and camp followers — but the one around the Delhi area (khari boli) probably picked up more words than the others.”

This was dubbed ‘Hindvi’ — the language of Hind. In the last decades of the 18th century, the elites of Delhi and Agra came to patronise this language. As has been the wont of elites they refined and embellished their language to give it exclusivity. A highly Persianised idiom was injected into the sociolect of the high society which was called Zuban-i-Urdu-i-Mualla — the language of the exalted city (Delhi).

The author is very categorical in his assertion that the word ‘Urdu’ has no connection with military language or Muslim armies. “The language had been a product of Hindu-Muslim cultural synthesis from the 13th till the 18th century. In these 500 years, it had never been seen as a purely Muslim preserve or a marker of Muslim identity,” he writes.

Then how did the divide come about? Conventional belief so far has been that the British introduced the division to split the Hindus and Muslims. But Dr Rahman is again very conclusive in his finding: “By the end of the 18th century, influential linguistic reformers — who were all poets of Urdu — started making it an elitist class marker. To do this they purged the language of Dakhni words … and words of Sanskritic … (Hindi) origins.” Abstruse and unfamiliar words of Persian and Arabic were introduced thus making Urdu a Muslim identity marker.

According to him, modern Urdu is a Muslim cultural product created artificially by a movement of linguistic reform in the cities of northern India. Hindi linguistic reformers reacted by creating modern Hindi by purging the language of words of Arabic and Persian origin and substituting them with Sanskritised expressions. They used the Devanagri script as opposed to the Persian-Arabic script of Urdu. Thus the divide was total.

Linguistic historians on both sides have been at loggerheads in their bid to prove the superiority of their own respective language which for 500 years happened to be the same as their rivals’ until their literati stepped in to make them two languages. The common past is not acknowledged now.

This divide has encouraged a chauvinistic approach on both sides and has led to alienation. Dr Rahman is of the opinion that in Pakistan the historical narrative on the language is most damaging. It sacralises war and conquest, describing it as the language of the Muslims. Conscious efforts at Islamisation have also made it impossible for a writer to choose a non-Muslim style to express himself.

Dr Rahman’s profound observation is that since Hindi and Urdu parted ways, Muslims and Hindus of South Asia have lived in perpetual strife. They have drifted apart and so have their languages. “Is it possible to arrest this trend and promote peace, harmony and give-and-take?” he asks. Political disputes can only be resolved by governments but the author appeals to scholars to debunk myths which link Urdu to military origins and disowns its Hindi heritage.

The author has a point when he asks who would deny that spoken Urdu and Hindi are the same language even today. Some chapters of the book such as the one on Urdu as the language of employment, in education, on the screen, on the radio and in the press confirm this fact amply as would those who have travelled to India. “It is only by not losing sight of the continuities and shared cultural features among Pakistanis and (north) Indians that we can transcend the mutual hatred which threatens to annihilate this ancient land,” the author says. He could not be closer to the truth.



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