Whither Urdu?

The Urdu lan­guage is on the de­cline in In­dia. What are the rea­sons be­hind this and can it still be sal­vaged?

Southasia - - Culture Languages - By Atiya Ab­bas Atiya Ab­bas free­lances for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions and writes ex­ten­sively on ef­fects of mass me­dia.

Ques­tions about de­clin­ing lan­guages plague ev­ery civ­i­liza­tion. In the case of In­dia, the fall of a lan­guage be­comes a mat­ter of ur­gency. As the largest coun­try in South Asia, In­dia boasts of a vi­brant and di­verse cul­ture com­pris­ing many lan­guages. Le­gend has it that across the length and breadth of In­dia, the lan­guage changes af­ter ev­ery 800 miles. Over the last few decades, how­ever, In­dia has wit­nessed a de­cline in its sec­ond of­fi­cial lan­guage, Urdu. The city of Lucknow in Ut­tar Pradesh, the cen­ter of the Urdu lan­guage, has been home to some of the great­est Urdu po­ets like Mir Anees, Dabeer and Aatish. The slow phas­ing out of the lan­guage in school cur­ric­ula and re­li­gious cer­e­monies has thus be­come a press­ing con­cern for lit­er­ary Urdu en­thu­si­asts.

One of the main rea­sons for Urdu’s de­cline is its iden­ti­fi­ca­tion along re­li­gious lines, as it is termed as a “Mus­lim lan­guage.” Vested in­ter­ests have suc­cess­fully stamped it out of main­stream con­ver­sa­tion, for­get­ting con­cepts like “Sare Ja­han Se Achcha Hin­dus­tan Ha­mara” and “Sar­faroshi Ki Ta­manna Ab Ha­mare Dil Mein Hai,” dur­ing the free­dom strug­gle. The op­po­nents of Urdu have also failed to re­al­ize that many non-Mus­lim po­ets have used Urdu as their medium of ex­pres­sion. At the heart of this de­bate is the lack of ac­knowl­edge­ment that lan­guage does not be­long to any­one and tran­scends re­li­gion, cast or creed.

Inay­at­ul­lah Khan, prin­ci­pal of Mum­taz In­ter Col­lege, ar­gues that Urdu has been dis­carded by the In­dian so­ci­ety and those par­ents who choose to teach their chil­dren Urdu, are la­beled “back­ward.” Ban­ners and re­li­gious lit­er­a­ture ap­pear in Hindi and many Mus­lims read­ily adopt Hindi as Urdu rapidly loses its rel­e­vance as a job-ori­ented lan- guage. In a chang­ing mar­ket, the lan­guages you speak have a ma­jor in­flu­ence on your skills as a com­mu­ni­ca­tor. In that equa­tion, Urdu does not fac­tor in and par­ents are more con­cerned about their chil­dren’s success in a place as com­pet­i­tive as In­dia.

Urdu’s us­age is also de­clin­ing in the main­stream me­dia. G.D. Chan- dan, a prom­i­nent Urdu jour­nal­ist, found star­tling statis­tics re­gard­ing the de­cline of Urdu news­pa­pers in In­dia. Post-In­de­pen­dence, Urdu news­pa­pers con­tin­ued to flour­ish de­spite un­fa­vor­able cir­cum­stances. But by 1997, Urdu jour­nal­ism be­gan to de­cline. In 2001, there was an eight per­cent de­crease in the num­ber of Urdu pub­li­ca­tions from 6.1 mil­lion in 2000 to 5.2 mil­lion, just one year later.

Chandan finds that the trends in the de­cline of Urdu con­tinue to in­crease and this change is more no­tice­able in the states of Bi­har, Andhra Pradesh, Ma­ha­rash­tra and Pun­jab where Urdu was one of the main me­dia of ex­pres­sion. He out­lines two rea­sons for this de­cline: One is the mi­gra­tion of the main read­ers of Urdu news­pa­pers: the refugees in

West Pun­jab, whose descen­dants are not flu­ent in Urdu. Se­condly, the state government has also not taken any steps to­wards pro­mot­ing Urdu at the pri­mary level. Due to this, even the states which are con­sid­ered the birth­place of Urdu, such as UP, Delhi and Pun­jab, have gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren who are not as well-versed in Urdu as the gen­er­a­tions be­fore them be­cause they are not be­ing taught the lan­guage in school. its form, syn­tax and ex­pres­sion is con­sid­ered ex­otic. Po­lit­i­cal ri­val­ries have also re­sulted in the de­cline of the lan­guage. Saeed Naqvi, a prom­i­nent blog­ger, com­ments that the de­cline in Urdu is also due to the ad­vent of Bol­ly­wood which has given rise to a new lin­gua franca’ “Hinglish.” The Urdu elite are fac­ing a los­ing bat­tle in a com­pet­i­tive job mar­ket that re­quires com­mand over the English lan­guage and po­lit­i­cal

Though the In­dian government has en­forced a three-lan­guage for­mula, it is sim­ply just an agree­ment on pa­per. Most states have not im­ple­mented the for­mula hence con­tribut­ing to the de­cline of Urdu. Chandan notes that the Urdu press in In­dia can be a voice of change and bridge the gap be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan.

In Lucknow, the cen­tre of some of the great­est Urdu po­etry ever pro­duced, pa­trons of the lan­guage ex­press dis­may at the de­cline in the use of the lan­guage. Urdu was al­ways the lan­guage of the elite and fac­tions that hail the call of “HindiHindu-Hin­dus­tan,” thus marginal­iz­ing the con­nois­seurs of the Urdu lan­guage.

An in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tion pointed out by writer Murli Manohar Joshi of­fers an in­sight as to why Urdu is de­clin­ing. He ar­gues that a lot of new in­for­ma­tion, re­gard­ing sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, is not avail­able in Urdu and this lim­its its outreach to those who might be in­ter­ested in study­ing it. Sim­i­larly, many works in Urdu are not trans­lated into other scripts mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to ac­cess. Joshi trans­lated some great works of Urdu into the De­vana­gari script and re­ports that the re­sults have been pos­i­tive. An Urdu book fair, held in Mum­bai, was also or­ga­nized by the Na­tional Coun­cil for Pro­mo­tion of Urdu Lan­guage. Sim­i­lar ef­forts need to be un­der­taken in Delhi and Lucknow.

In his es­say ti­tled “Urdu in In­dia since In­de­pen­dence,” Ralph Rus­sell high­lights the steps taken by the government since the 1970s for the pro­mo­tion of Urdu. A com­mit­tee was set up in 1972, which submitted a report with 187 rec­om­men­da­tions for the ad­vance­ment of Urdu. How­ever, po­lit­i­cal rea­sons shelved the report and more com­mit­tees were made to take a look at those rec­om­men­da­tions in sub­se­quent years. It was dis­cov­ered in 1990 that 95 per­cent of the rec­om­men­da­tions had not been adopted at all. Since then, Urdu con­tin­ues to be on the de­cline.

The death of a lan­guage as sweet and melodic as Urdu will be a loss for later gen­er­a­tions. The need of the hour is to re­trace the steps al­ready taken and make sure that Urdu is prom­i­nent in the na­tional dis­course and aca­demic cur­ricu­lum. Both Pak­istan and In­dia can ben­e­fit from mu­tual dis­cus­sions about the lan­guage as it serves as a bridge be­tween both coun­tries.

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