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 the Urdu language in the post-Independence period, an examination of the roots of the language is required. The Urdu language within India has faced many turbulent times, pressure brought upon by the Indian government, Hindi chauvinists and sometimes the ineffectiveness of Urdu literary education. In 1947, when Pakistan gained its Independence from British rule, a great shift was made in the maintenance of the Urdu language in India. Many of the experts on the Urdu language may argue that within India, during the time period immediately following Independence, the maintenance of the Urdu language has been a difficult task in many respects. Many organisations and individuals with and without the support of the Indian government have worked to preserve the Urdu language and ensure its education to younger generations. However, there are many roadblocks to progress. Following a brief description of the historical climate and context in which the Urdu language thrives, a close examination of some of the key issues affecting the modern use of Urdu will be undertaken.
Among Urdu writers of the 19th century, the most renowned was Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) whose poetry is 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”.
Another famous literary figure is Muhammad Iqbal (1878-1938), one of the most influential and controversial Urdu poets of the early 20th century. In the field of the short story, one of the most powerful modern Urdu writers was S.H. Manto (1912-55). Although since the agony of the Partition of India in 1947, Urdu has become more and more restricted to use in Pakistan and among Indian Muslims, it is still the primary literary language for 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 and Bihar, the state governments of these areas were working to discontinue the use of Urdu. The somewhat twisted interpretation of the three-language formula, devised by the Government of India, was the device by which the state governments attacked Urdu. The three-language formula recommended that in every state three languages should be taught in schools: the language of the state, another modern Indian language and one other language. In Uttar Pradesh, the language of Urdu should have been chosen as one of the three languages, as it was the language of most inhabitants after Hindi. The state government of Uttar Pradesh and some other Hindi-Urdu speaking states chose Sanskrit as the modern language, and so the Urdu language, which was taught in schools before Independence, was discontinued.
From Indira Gandhi’s time onwards, the Government of India has had its own political reasons for supporting Urdu literature. During her time a committee was set up in 1972 headed by I.K. Gujral to consider how the cause of Urdu could be advanced. Due to vigorous opposition the report was sidelined. Later, in 1990, Ali Sardar Jafari investigated the committee reports, and they found that 95 per cent of the recommendations made by the Gujral committee report had not been adopted. However, in 1989, the state government of Bihar, and shortly after, Uttar Pradesh, recognised on paper Urdu as an official language of their states. Warsi in his paper 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 Urdu written script, and giving these people access to Urdu literary works in roman Urdu and in the Devnagari script would further the cause of Urdu. Tariq Mansoor, vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, once very rightly said that “knowledge of many languages is the doorway to succeed and expand the horizon of wisdom”.
One of the great scholars when it comes to Urdu literature, 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, which was taken up by scholars, must also be adopted by the organisations created to preserve Urdu — they should focus their resources and attention to the accurate writing of Urdu classics and translation into the Devnagari script. Mr Narang feels that the politicisation of the Urdu cause has caused harm to 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 the Devnagari script the reading of Urdu literature would grow tremendously. Although many scripts have been reproduced in the Devnagari script, major organisations have not yet made it their own 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 Urdu 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 language has taken the initiative in bringing out publications in/about Urdu language and literature. However, within India, the use of the Urdu language is a cause for which many people and organisations have been working to uphold — 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.