Urdu: Mind this Language, Please

- Salman Khurshid

(Late President of India, Dr. Zakir Husain is known as the Father of Basic Education. This is a tribute to his memory on his 106th birth anniversary that falls on 8th February. Salman Khurshid, former minister and a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, is the grandson of Dr. Zakir Husain.)

When contemporary scholars discuss the destiny of Urdu language in India, they often underscore the history of Urdu language and its uniquely secular character and traditions, reflecting its place in the common civic space as a functional language. We know of course that it was warmly cherished and spoken by Hindus and Muslims alike in pre-partition India. Less scholarly assessments emphasise Urdu™s linguistic melodiousness and sweetness. Most admirers of the language speak of Urdu™s decline with Partition. Of course such discourses prove to be inadequate exercises when it comes to reinforcing contemporary relevance of Urdu. What then would be a feasible strategy for the revival and survival of Urdu in the present socio-economic context including the current state of Indian Muslims? Essentially and expeditiously Urdu should be accorded its rightful place by inclusion in the syllabi of all secular educational institutions at every level. We would not only be giving Urdu the recognition it deserves, for having made a rich contribution to modern Indian culture but also laying the foundation for its continued participation in our future.

In South India, Muslims who migrated from north India, have begun to assert and flaunt their relationship with Urdu due to emerging socio-political reasons. This inclination is growing rapidly making Urdu speaking community potent pressure groups throughout the country. It surfaced in the contentious Urdu bulletin issue of Bangalore television in 1995 which resulted in communal tension and riots. The perceptive aggressiveness of traditional Urdu speaking as well as non-Urdu speaking Muslims for the language is not only an indication of their reaction to adverse socio-political atmosphere and government policies, but is also a reflection that state sponsored institutions like Urdu academies, Urdu departments of universities and sundry organizations are woefully inadequate to provide Urdu the support it needs. It can be argued that the decline of Urdu has largely been caused by insensitive policies. Since Independence and the accompanying partition, Urdu was undermined at all the educational institutions of north India, the region where Urdu was born, flourished and created an illustrious history. North India™s culture had already suffered a blow with the migration of educated elite and middle class Muslims to Pakistan. Contemporary Urdu speaking people of India are mainly lower middle class Muslims who obtain their education mostly at Dini madaris (religious learning centres). They learn Urdu not for its synchronic value, being part of their cultural heritage as well as a living reality of their social life, but because it appears to them to be the only avenue to the discovery of their religion. Their contribution to Urdu as a literary language remains negligible.

The sad tale does not end there. Even University departments of Urdu language have no happier news to tell. Most Urdu academics at the universities are products of minimal competition. Their degrees apart, they have little exposure or opportunity to develop and fime tune academic skills and competence. Successive Governments™ policy regarding Urdu is responsible for the piteous back drop. Urdu students at universities also learn Urdu as an optional subject at undergraduate level and barely know how to read or write simple language. Generally they opt for Urdu as a soft, last option having failed to secure admission in other subjects. These reluctant students in due course obtain master™s degrees and later even Ph.D. degrees in Urdu. Thus the vicious cycle of mediocrity permeates the world of Urdu learning. Clearly this situation will persist unless Urdu is included in the syllabi up to senior secondary level education and professionally taught, as well as attractive professional opportunities being offered at the other end. There is of course a consensus among Urdu speaking masses on advocating education through Urdu medium at least up to secondary level. This is perhaps an objective and sound opinion.

Some effort to understand the problem of Urdu has been made in periodic articles, which have appeared in the national press over the last decade. But unfortunately they suffer from paucity of data, field work and proper analyses, not to mention the absence of a theoretical framework or an objective and innovative vision. These articles have harped on traditional arguments but failed to indicate a strategy for revival of Urdu as a functional language in the common civic space. The State™s myopia has resulted in cultivating a whole breed of pro-establishment Urdu intellectuals and scholars now referred to as Urduwallahs. Most of these people are destined to miss the big time and spend their energies looking for a chance to enter the establishment and be absorbed. They are so preoccupied with their own survival that they unwittingly become indifferent to the survival of Urdu despite its being their raison d™etre. Urdu thus faces a threat not only from an insensitive bureaucracy but from the Urduwallahs themselves.

There are innumerable people, who love Urdu and are awfully concerned at the grim prospects for the language. Most of these are not necessarily part of the Urdu canon. Urdu makes its own converts. A person who once enters the world of Urdu gets lost forever under its magic spell. The intoxicating effect of its charm cannot be described in (non-Urdu) words. This enticing quality of Urdu has induced a large number of enlightened persons to think seriously about its future. It will be gross self deception, to hope that the use of Urdu language in popular films and Ghazal singing will be adequate in reviving and preserving Urdu culture, especially as the younger generations grow increasingly ignorant of the great literary tradition and heritage of Urdu. To save Urdu from extinction, we need to act on a war footing. To begin with, it is essential to introduce Urdu at every level of the education system. If the future generations remain ignorant of Urdu language and literature, it will result in an irrecoverable loss of our common cultural heritage. Survival of Urdu is necessary not merely for aesthetic reasons but also to save a valuable dimension of the secular character of the world™s largest democracy.

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