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