Will Urdu’s future be brighter than its glorious past?

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Will Urdu’s future be brighter than its glorious past?

Friday, 08 November 2019 | MJ Warsi

If Government and State funding went into the production of texts of important and popular Urdu authors in the Devanagari script,the reading of literature in this beautiful language would grow tremendously in the country

Until the Partition of India, Urdu enjoyed tremendous cultural prestige among educated north Indian Muslims and Hindus, as well as among the more conscientious British administrators.

Urdu was also the first literary language for many of those who also wrote in Hindi. For instance, Upendranath Ashk and Munshi Premchand were famous Urdu authors before they even began to write in Hindi.

In order to fully grasp the state of Urdu in the post-Independence period, an examination of the roots of the language is required. Urdu within India has faced many turbulent times, pressure brought upon by the  Government, Hindi chauvinists and sometimes the ineffectiveness of Urdu literary education.

In 1947, when the country gained its independence from British rule and Pakistan was formed, a great shift was made in the maintenance of Urdu in India. Many Urdu experts may argue that within India during the period immediately following Independence, keeping the  language alive was a difficult task in many respects.

Many organisations and individuals, with and without the support of the Government, worked hard over the decades to preserve the language and educate the younger generations.

However, there were and still remain, many roadblocks to progress in preserving and spreading the language in modern India.

Among the Urdu writers of the 19th century, the most renowned was Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) who was described by Muhammad Sadiq in his book A History of Urdu Literature as a visionary who “broke away from the past both in thought and style. He stands at the threshold of the modern world.” Other famous literary figures were poet Muhammad Iqbal (1878-1938) and short story writer SH Manto (1912-55).

Although, since the Partition, the use of Urdu has become more and more restricted to Pakistan and among Indian Muslims, it is still the primary literary language of many Hindus and Sikhs in India.

In the early years of Independence, in the area which one might call the heartland of Urdu, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, the Governments of these States were working to discontinue its use. The somewhat twisted interpretation of the three-language formula devised by the Government was the device by which the State Governments attacked it.

The Centre recommended that three tongues be taught in all schools, the language of the State, a modern Indian language and one other tongue. In UP, Urdu should have been chosen as one of the three languages as it was the most widely used means of communication there after Hindi. However, the Government of UP and some other Hindi-Urdu speaking States chose Sanskrit as the modern language, and so Urdu, which was taught in schools before Independence, was discontinued.

However, from Indira Gandhi’s time onwards, the Government had its own political reasons for supporting Urdu literature. During Indira’s time, a committee was set up in 1972 headed by IK Gujral to consider how the cause of the language could be advanced. Due to vigorous opposition the report was put on the back burner. Later, in 1990 when Ali Sardar Jafri investigated the committee report, he found that 95 per cent of the recommendations made by the Gujral committee had not been adopted.

However, in 1989, the State Governments of Bihar and UP recognised Urdu as an official language. Warsi, in his paper titled, History and Prospects of Urdu Print Media, made an observation that, “in the early stages of the post-Independence period the Urdu print media was mainly being affected by the tragedy of Partition. Consequently, the Urdu Press suffered the most. However, the Urdu media is still struggling for its survival in different Indian cities.”

Many of the Urdu speakers in India, who are not limited to the Muslim community, do not know the its written script, thus giving them access to literary works in Roman Urdu and in the Devanagari script would further the cause of the language.

Tariq Mansoor, Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University once very rightly said that “knowledge of many languages is the doorway to success.”

One of the great Urdu  scholars Gopi Chand Narang, was quoted as saying that “Urdu is not the language of Muslims. If at all there is any language of Muslims, it should be Arabic. Urdu belongs to the composite culture of India. Hindi and Urdu are supplementary and complementary. They are like sisters strengthening each other.” This viewpoint must also be adopted by the organisations created to preserve it. They should focus their resources and attention to the accurate writing of Urdu classics and translation into Devanagari script. Narang feels that the politicisation of the cause has harmed the language, which should function as a bridge between the Hindu and Muslim subcultures within India.

If Government and State funding went into the production of texts of important and popular Urdu authors in Devanagari script, the reading of Urdu literature would grow tremendously.

Although many works have been reproduced in the Devanagari script, major organisations have not yet made it their duty to help publish such works. The translation of classical Urdu texts into English is another venture, which has been undertaken, but still needs to be done on a larger scale.

The language has seen many shifts in support throughout its long history, as the times change the people, led by their Government, fall in and out of favour of certain languages.

The National Council for Promotion of Urdu has taken the initiative and is bringing out publications in and about Urdu language and literature.

Within India the use of the language is a cause which many people and organisations have been working to uphold. However, these efforts are not without their flaws. It is the mix of these efforts along with popular interest developed by films and ongoing research, which will ensure that classical Urdu texts will be preserved and promoted in the country so that the language does not die and future generations are not the poorer because of this laxity on our part.

(The writer is a well-known linguist, author and columnist)

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