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URDU CONTROVERSY- is dividing the nation further.

Paper No. 675                                                  01/05/2003

by R. Upadhyay

Unfortunately, a fine language like Urdu has got enmeshed in communal politics.  Politicisation of Urdu by Muslim intellectuals and the reaction of the Hindu majority have further constricted the growth of this language.  Another misconception that Urdu is not compatible with liberal education has steadily gained ground.  This needs to be arrested and the language minus the politics should be allowed to grow.   -Director 

Protracted battle for revival of the medieval pride of Urdu since the early days of British establishment in India is one of the prominent Muslim issues, which is widening the Hindu-Muslim divide in this country.  Study of the cause and effect mechanism of Urdu controversy, which started from 1837 shows that since the establishment of Muslim rule in this country, this language of urbanised Muslim elite and of those Hindus, whose economic interest was linked with it was never acceptable to native dwellers. Gradually its communal, parochial and political influences made this controversy more and more complicated. 

If we look back to the history of Urdu-it was born out of the socio-administrative requirement of Muslim conquerors, who after repeated plunder, pillage and loot preferred to settle down in regions around Delhi.  Initially at the instance of Muslim soldiers Urdu emerged as a synthesis of Khari Boli (Hindi), Braj Bhasha Rajasthani and Punjabi with some Persian and Arabic vocabulary. Thus, Urdu became lingua franca  (mixture of different languages used for convenience) for interaction between the alien soldiers and the native dwellers.  But gradually its Persianisation and Arbisation were motivated by the foreign rulers to establish their cultural and linguistic hegemony in the region. 

Over fifty percent vocabulary have been drawn from Turkish, Persian and Arabic in Urdu language and this shown shows that the Arab rulers in stead of winning over the hearts and mind of the native dwellers imposed their linguistic hegemony over the native languages without caring for the sentiments of the Indian society. Using Persian as the principal standard written language for administrative purpose, the Muslim rulers with intention to establish their permanent political, economic, cultural and linguistic hegemony in India pushed Urdu as a substitute of the native languages, which had Sanskrit origin and Nagari script. Urdu was gradually saturated with Perso-Arabic script, metaphors, similes, the forms of verse, prosody, about sixty percent of vocabulary, content of mannerism and poetic thought of Islamic and Persian tradition. The birth of Urdu therefore, created the first social division in Indian society. 

Till 1837 Persian remained the language of administration and Urdu was used only for literary discourse among the urban elite. But extra honourable status of Urdu in the literary courts of Muslim rulers made this new language a status symbol of the elite section of Muslims. At the initial period of British establishment in India when East India Company started exercising executive power on behalf of titular Mogul sovereign, they decreed (1837) to abolish Persian from official use and replaced it with English and native vernaculars. They however, accepted Urdu as lingua franca in northern India, where it had already established its dominating position over local vernaculars. The British also allowed Urdu to be the language of courts in northern India. Thus Urdu boosted the morale of the Urdu speaking Muslims and some Hindu elite, whose economic interest was linked with this language, when it got recognition in courts of the region. The Hindu masses however became restive, and demand for official status of Hindi, which was the vernacular in northern India, came to surface. The Muslim elite, who wanted the hegemony of Urdu to continue even though this lingua franca was confined to the urban elite, did not like this demand for Hindi. This was the starting point for Hindi-Urdu controversy, which gradually developed communal overtones. 

"Urdu never indeed took root in the soil of rural India. One reason for this was its snobbish aversion to the dialects of the regions, where Urdu was supposed to have deep roots" (Anwar Azim in his essay entitled 'Urdu a victim of cultural genocide' published in a book entitled Muslims in India edited by Zafar Imam, 1975, page 259). This observation of the Muslim writer shows that Urdu never became the language of rural India under Muslim or British rule.  In fact Sanskrit educated rural India had developed aversion against this language known to be the language of  'Yavanas' (the alien rulers). 'Na Badet Yavani Bhasham Pranah Kanthgatepi va' (One should not speak the language of Muslim rulers even at the cost of death) was the slogan often used by an educated section of Hindus. This aversion against Urdu particularly in rural India also affected the unity in Indian society. 

Wherever Muslim soldiers went and settled they carried Urdu with them, which also served their purpose of keeping the Muslim masses separated from the None-Muslims. Had the intention of Muslim rulers been honest, they would have allowed this lingua franca to develop in the linguistic tradition of this land as was done by previous invaders like Huna, Kushans and others. Development and growth of any language depend upon state patronage as well as of its acceptability among the native dwellers. Urdu enjoyed commanding status in the literary courts of Muslim rulers and Nawabs, and flourished under their patronage but common people hardy developed any emotional attachment with it as a result it never got the environment for its natural growth. Urdu pushed the Sanskrit, the language of intellectuals in Indian society to wall but it could survive only due to its inherent resilience. 

Linguistic supremacy of Urdu imposed over regional languages always remained a source of irritant for the common Hindus as it disturbed the homogeneity of Indian society. The Hindu masses of the country never accepted Urdu as their language, since it symbolysed as an instrument of Muslim barbarism even though a section of their urbanised group accepted this alien language for their economic interest. 

Argument that Urdu was developed as lingua franca during Muslim rule may be partially correct but its Persianisation and Arabisation at the cost of the native dialect shows that Muslim conquerors never cared for the sentiments of the subjugated natives in their attempt to impose their cultural hegemony over them. Without realising the emotional attachment of native dwellers with their vernaculars any argument in support of Urdu therefore never convinced the protagonists of Hindi. The supporters of Hindi argue that Urdu was not only developed as lingua franca but it was a part of the design of Muslim conquerors to establish their political and cultural hegemony in this region. By creating separatist influence of Persian, Arabic and Turkish tradition on Urdu the alien rulers permanently damaged the possibility of emotional integration of Muslims in the mainstream of Indian society.  Hindus developed aversion against this language because of its main vehicle Persian and Arabic, which were alien to their cultural tradition. 

Muslim thinkers often project Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) as a modernist Muslim leader and a staunch supporter of Hindu -Muslim unity.  It is said that Syed, the founder of Aligarh Movement was initially in favour of modern education to all Indians and not only to Muslims. But his obsession with Urdu was an indication that he wanted to maintain the supremacy of this language as a symbol of Muslim domination over the cultural and linguistic identity of this country. He got many books translated only in Urdu under the banner of Scientific Society established at his instance in 1863, even though this language was being spoken by only four to five percent of urban elite particularly Muslims. When he found that demand for Hindi language coming to surface, he looked the other way and confined his Aligarh Movement exclusively for Muslims. He was aggrieved to find that Hindus launched a first movement to revive their linguistic tradition for its recognition as the second official language of the North Western Provinces.  Urdu-Hindi controversy therefore, originated from the Muslim renaissance movement launched by him after the failure of Sepoy Mutiny in 1867. 

Taking advantage of his closeness with the British, Sir Syed requested the latter to establish an Urdu University as he held the view that this language to be "a common legacy of Hindus and Muslims" (Muslim Politics and Leadership in the South Asian Sub-continent by Yusuf Abbasi, 1981, page 65-66). This was really an intellectually dishonest view.  "Sir Syed's observation before the Education Commission (appointed by the British) that Urdu was 'the language of gentry and Hindi that of the vulgar', was repudiated by his contemporary Hindi protagonist Babu Harish Chandar. He retorted  that "Urdu was the language of dancing girls and prostitutes" (Ibid, page90). Sir Syed  was the first Muslim leader, who turned Urdu-Hindi controversy into a political issue at the cost of Hindu-Muslim unity. 

Hindi-Urdu controversy also cracked the unity between Hindus and Muslims last seen during Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.  Hindus and Sikhs of Bihar, United Province and Punjab got united to fight against imposition of Urdu on the majority population of the region. Organisations like Arya Samaj, Punjab Brahma Sabha, Sat Sabha and Sikh National Association joined the Hindi movement and placed their opposition to Urdu before the respective units of Education Commission set up by the British to frame the education policy for India. 

Realising the gravity of situation the British Government introduced Hindi with Devanagari script in Bihar in the year 1880 despite protests of Muslims. Though some Hindu employees in the Government and those whose economic interest was linked with Urdu had also joined the Muslims to oppose Hindi, they could not create any significant impact due to the vast majority of Hindu was in favour of Hindi. The aggressiveness of Hindi movement "affirmed that for Hindus Urdu was a pure and simple survival of Muslim tyranny" (Ibid, page 90). Introduction of Hindi in Bihar "quickened the pace of Hindi movement in North West Provinces and later in United Province"(Ibid, page190). 

In the fury of Freedom Movement Urdu became one of the issues, which kept the Hindus and Muslims, divided. Sir Syed died in 1898 but the followers of his Aligarh Movement under the leadership of Shibli, Hali  Mulk and others carried forward the legacy of battle for supremacy of Urdu even after his death to counter the movement for Hindi. On April 18, 1900 MacDonnell, Chief Commissioner of Oudh abolished Persian script from the language of courts and replaced it with Devanagari by adopting Nagari resolution. This resolution worked as a catalyst to provoke the educated Muslims of northern India. They took this change as a challenge to the pre-British status of their dominance over Hindu subjects. 

The followers of Aligarh movement under the leadership of Mohsin-ul-Mulk launched aggressive agitation to oppose Nagari resolution. They converted the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental Defence Association (an outfit of Aligarh Movement) into Urdu Defence Association, which was a starting point to corrode the unity of the national Freedom Movement. A number of similar associations sprang up in United Province (Present Uttar Pradesh) and ironically, Devaband Movement, which was opposed to Aligarh movement joined the Urdu Movement by identifying it as a threat to Islam. In 1903 Mawlawi Abd al - Haque formed an organisation called Anjuman-i-Tarakki-i-Urdu for the cause of Urdu. This organisation got wide range of patronage from Muslim Nawabs from all over India. Such move of Muslims however accelerated the intensity of Hindi movement in North India and consequently widened the gap of communal mistrust between the two communities. 

Urdu remained the official language in the state of the Nizam of Hyderabad.  The Muslim ruler of the state for the first time founded Usmania University at Hyderabad in 1918. The state was though predominantly of Hindu population with Telugu as their language, Urdu was made the language of instruction for higher education in the university. Similarly, in 1920 Jamia Millia was established at Aligarh, but later shifted to Delhi. This was another move to start higher education through Urdu medium. It "was a secession movement from the official, imperialist-entangled Muslim university of Sir Syed" (Modern Islam in India by W.C.Smith, London,1946, page 28). All teachings except English were done in Urdu.. Both the institutions played a major role in educating the Muslim middle class through Urdu medium and kept them separated from the mainstream educational system of the country. 

Persianisation and and Arabisation of Urdu with Perso-Arabic script made this language so complex that it became a foreign language for Indian society. "The Urdu employed has been much Persianised and Arbised; for the sake of communalism" (Ibid, page 96). Had Muslim thinkers been honest to develop Urdu in the literary tradition of this land with local script, Indian masses would have perhaps lapped it. Urdu Ghazal printed in Devanagari script is much more in sale than its print in Perso-Arabic script.  In ancient India Sanskrit was initially written in Brahmi script but due to its complexity Devanagari script was developed, which is easier to learn. But obsession of Muslim thinkers to carry forward Perso-Arabic legacy of Urdu identified this language with the identity of Muslims as a separate social entity and created major hindrance for it to become a language of common Indians.  When the British realised the linguistic aspiration of vast majority of the locals, they had to introduce Hindi in the regions, where it was a popular vernacular.


Over identification of Urdu with Islamic cultural and religious expressions and its politicisation right from the days of Sir Sayed Ahmad marred its natural growth. These two factors did not allow this language to take root in rural India. Without realising the ground reality the middle class Muslims associated with Aligarh movement and lower strata of the community associated with the fundamentalist Deoband movement joined together and converted the Urdu issue into a separatist movement. 

When the battle for the linguistic hegemony of Urdu was lost the issue was politicised by the then Muslim leadership and Urdu became a part of communal politics during Freedom movement. With two-nation theory of Iqbal coming to centre-stage of Muslim politics, Urdu was linked to Muslim identity.

"Jinnah, who could not write his own name in Urdu, included it in his famous fourteen points and cynically used it as a tool to forge a Muslim identity" (Muslim Politics in India by S.K.Ghosh, 1968, page 15). He exploited Urdu to widen the gap of cultural divide between Hindus and Muslims though "he could not speak a word of Urdu" (The Widening Divide by Rafiq Zakaria, page 105). At the height of Partition demand by Muslim League the Muslims repudiated the slogan  - 'Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan' with  'Urdu-Muslim-Pakistan'. 

After the partition of the country most of the educated Muslims and protagonists of Urdu migrated to Pakistan, where Urdu became its national language. This move of the migrants made the Muslims, who stayed back in India demoralised and Urdu issue was kept in back burner. Protagonists of Hindi were in no mood to allow equal status to Urdu with other Indian language. But despite countrywide revulsion against the Muslims for their role in partition, and strong opposition of sizeable number of Congress leaders like Purushottam Das Tandon and others, Urdu was included in VIII schedule of Indian constitution along with other national languages. This was an honest approach and good will gesture of Indian leadership towards Urdu. 

Ironically, in stead of responding to the goodwill gesture of Indian leadership the then Muslim leadership revived their battle for Urdu. Ignoring the problem of the economic backwardness of the Muslims they raised the issue of the cultural identity of their community, which provided emotional satisfaction to them. When the issue of national language and re-organisation of states on linguistic basis became the political agenda in India, Muslim leadership took up the issue of Urdu, which provided the Indian Muslims an issue to keep their separatist attitude alive.  If their tone and tenor about the alleged injustice to Urdu is any indication, it reminds the Indian people the days of Urdu movement during British period. "The defence of Urdu and of family law offered political delinquents a rationale for reviving the League (Muslim League)" (Legacy of a Divided Nation by Musirul Hasan, 1997, page191). In early Nineteen fifties Dr.Zakir Hussain drafted a memorandum on behalf of Anjuman-i-Taraqqi-i-Urdu with 2,050,000 signatures in support of Urdu, which was submitted to the then President of India on February 15, 1954 (Ibid). 

Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in his report to the Congress President on July 6, 1966 said:"The failure to give recognition to Urdu as a regional language in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar,and Delhi was among the causes of  the alienation of Muslims from the Congress" (Muslim Political Issues and National Integration by H.A.Gani, 1978, page38). Even after Urdu got the status of second official language in those states Muslims are found alienated from Congress. 

Urdu got the constitutional protection like other Indian languages but it could not become the main official language of any state after re-organisation of states on the basis of language. Very low percentage of Urdu speaking people scattered in various states could not fulfil the criteria for making it the official language of any state. This was a major set back to Urdu movement. The Muslim thinkers called it a cultural genocide of Urdu. "The treatment meted out to Urdu in India amounts nothing less than cultural genocide" (The Muslim Situation in India by Iqbql A.Ansari, 1989, page 11). Muslim thinkers allege that Urdu is deprived of its rightful place. They may have their own interpretation of 'rightful place' but for common Indians it meant that Muslims want the status of Urdu as it had during Muslim rule. In a democratic polity the rightful place for Urdu may not be restoration of its status under imperial Muslim rule. "For Muslims to cherish Urdu as their language is a delusion and a snare and those who encourage them for the sake of Muslim vote are doing no service to Muslim voters.  Muslims are more than a vote bank" (The Muslim Dilemma in India by M.R.A.Baig, 1974, page111). 

There is hardly any Muslim writer, who does not have any grievance against the alleged injustice done to Urdu in post-colonial India. With a microscopic exception there is conspicuous absence of unbiased, self-critical and rationalist intellectuals among the Indian Muslims, who could discuss fruitfully with pragmatic approach on the issue of Urdu. They want the non-Muslims to forget the medieval bigotry but instigate the Muslim mass to fight for the cause of Urdu, which is still a symbol of its linguistic hegemony imposed on the native dwellers of this land during Muslim rule. 

 Philologically, the status of language changes according to time and circumstances and people accept the change for the overall interest of the society. India before medieval era had linguistic domination of Sanskrit. This traditional Indian language was the repository of Hindu thought but the Muslim rulers pushed it to wall. Now Muslim writers boast that it was Urdu, which freed Hindi from the shackle of Sanskrit. But it is a biased approach. Factually Sanskrit is the mother of almost all the languages of Indo-Vedic origin perhaps with the exception of Tamil. Both the Muslims rulers and the British declared it a dead language. But if Sanskrit has survived today, it is because of its inherent resilience. Even today its survival is confined to academic interest only.  State patronage to this language is now only to maintain its identity of a traditional Indian language and nothing more. 

The Urdu press is still more interested in the issue of Muslim world and the cultural as well as religious identity of Muslims than their economic backwardness. Such attitude of Urdu media adversely affected even the academic growth of this language. Even Urdu knowing Hindus gradually developed an aversion with this language because of its cultural identification with the followers of Islam.  Over reaction of educated Muslim middle class of North India on Urdu issue made this language a symbol of Islam. 

Indian society accepted the change both during Muslim and British rule. Even after Independence people accepted English because of the change of the global environment in scientific mode for which this language was necessary. For administrative purpose the states were allowed to have their regional language. Accordingly most of the states in north India accepted Hindi as state language. As Urdu had no root in rural India, it could not get the place of state language except in Kashmir. But Indian constitution provided equal status to it in eighth schedule. Thus, academic interest of Urdu got protected. 

Urdu has neither been the mother tongue of majority of Muslims nor it is the language of this community exclusively. Contrary to the ground reality Urdu has been projected as language of all the Indian Muslims, which is factually incorrect. Despite the fact that Urdu is not spoken by more than five to six percent of Indian population and that too all of them are not Muslims, whose population is above twelve percent its projection as the language of entire Muslim community is untrue.  Such shortsightedness of Muslim nobility provides handle to anti-Urdu forces to ridicule their claim. Thus, projecting it as a language of Muslim community and linking it with cultural identity of Muslims have only perpetuated the feeling of separatism among the Muslim mass. Had Urdu been the part of the cultural identity of the Muslims of Indian sub-continent, there would not have been any conflict between the Urdu speaking Muslims of West Pakistan and Bengali speaking Muslims of East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. 

Language without a grassroots level regional base may survive academically but cannot have a natural growth.  We have seen that how Sanskrit could not flourish without being its roots among the common people. Similarly, Urdu never became the language of common people. Thus, the demand for its extra official patronage does not justify the democratic norm of Indian society. 

Today, whatever may be the argument in favour of Urdu, for non-Muslims it is seen only a symbol of Muslim conquerors of this land. Who is responsible for the plight of Urdu? 

Politicisation of Urdu by Muslim leadership and their demand for its status of second official language reminded the Hindu masses of the Hindi-Urdu controversy during British period and the issue developed a communal overtone. Linking Urdu with Islam by Muslim orthodoxy provoked their Hindu counterpart, who vehemently opposed this language. Everyone understands that Urdu may not be relevant to higher studies in science and technology but demand like establishment of Urdu medium university caused great hindrance to its natural growth. 

Assurances of political parties for development of Urdu but linking it to the vote bank politics has damaged the prospect of its development to the full satisfaction of the Muslims. 'Gagan' an Urdu weekly suggested in 1973:

"If Urdu has to beccome widely accepted, it must give up narrow mindedness and unhesitatingly adopt local Indian references both religious and historical" (Muslim Political Issues and National Integration by H.A.Gani, 1978, page 83). Rafiq Zaqaria suggested: "The future of Urdu is connected with strengthening the forces of secularism" (Ibid, page 81). 

Since Independence the protagonists of Urdu are battling for the cause of Urdu.  However, Muslim orthodoxy by equating the alleged declining status of Urdu as threat to the Islamic identity of Indian Muslims has communalized this.   

One can understand the anguish of Urdu speaking Indian Muslims but demand for its official status pushed it into the arena of vote bank politics. Urdu therefore, could not get the natural environment required for its growth even though the Government has all along been sympathetic to its cause. Urdu was made second official language in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh only for vote bank politics, which hardly gave any push to its natural growth. Except a few Government jobs to a couple of Urdu knowing Muslims this status of Urdu could not encourage the people of these states to have any emotional attachment with it, which is the required environment for its natural growth. 

In course of my study of Urdu controversy I have rarely come across any Muslim writer, who does not have grievance against alleged injustice to Urdu language in post-colonial India. How far this grievance of Indian Muslims is genuine may be a debatable issue but the so-called plight of this language as projected today is not an academic one.  Instead of adopting a rational approach on this issue, its politicisation has caused more harm not only to this language but also to the Hindu-Muslim problem. 

Urdu may not be a repository of Islamic culture, but its identification with Islam by Muslim orthodoxy has complicated the problem.  Had Urdu been the cultural legacy of Islam, Muslims all over the world would have adopted it. The combined Muslim psyche created by both the 'liberal' and radical Islamists gradually turned Urdu into a political battle. Keeping the Indian Muslims agitated over this issue may further affect the emotional integration of Muslims in national mainstream. 

Time does not wait for anybody and hence Muslim thinkers of varied talents and professional skills are expected to come forward collectively to de-identify the peripheral Muslim issues from Islam. Urdu literature and poetry were created mostly by the Muslim intellectuals due to some social and political compulsion with the patronage of state. In the present social and political environment such compulsion may not be relevant. Nation building is the main issue before the Indian society and Muslim thinkers' contribution is not less than anyone but by supporting the peripheral issues including Urdu they are simply helping the Muslim orthodoxy, which is not ready to free the Muslim mass from their bondage. Urdu had coined a vibrant slogan of 'Inqilab Zindabad', which freed India from alien rule. Let Muslim thinkers  use Urdu to coin similar slogans to de-identify the peripheral Muslim issues for the unity of Indian society.

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