Jamia Milia’s Professor Shahzad Anjum provides here not just a short history of the
language, but also sheds his opinions on the politics and misconceptions that Urdu as
a language is tainted with in today’s times. His rich and eclectic interview can
perhaps help us in forming independent views on the tradition of Urdu language,
and of other languages as well.

The students who opt to study Urdu at Jamia, are there any international/non-Muslim students who also come to study?

There are two-three things I want to make very clear. Because I do not understand the purpose of the question…

Because nowadays Urdu is perceived as a distinctly Muslim language… Does the language of Urdu, as a mother tongue, transcend religion?
This is such a misunderstanding, such a misunderstanding! How do I even start this conversation with you…And I feel such dejection that there are such ignorant people who have gone ahead, who are creating a ruckus…do they not know anything?

Let me tell you, that in Urdu, there have been, at least, one thousand poets…no, ten thousand poets, who have been non-Muslim, or Hindu. Not one or two thousand. Ten thousand! Every week I write a column for Dainik Jagaran, for their Inquilab Urdu edition. And they also want this misconception to be removed.

The thing is, the problem is that a language has no religion. I know Hindi, so I have become Hindu? You know English, so you have become English? What is this? This is a way to marginalize people, that such things are being spread. Every person in my household knows Hindi. Every person in my household knows English. What difference does this make? Initially, it was a joint culture. Nowadays, the kind of craze that is being created, and its spread…this kind of wailing is only poisoning one’s understanding. If I ask you, who was Farak Gorakhpuri? Raghupati Sahai? I can give you thousand names of poets … Now this column that I am writing, I want to use that as an example.

I went to Patna for a lecture a few weeks ago, and I will recite to you a small part
of that lecture…it is on Chakbast, Kamana Prasad, Ratanaath Sharsad, all of whom
were great fiction writers…It is about the fiction writers in Urdu. It is a long article,
but I am going to read just a few paragraphs from it, so that it becomes clearer.

“Study the instances of non-Muslims in Urdu fiction writing….
Before writing on the instances of non-Muslim fiction writers in Urdu, a few questions came into my mind. I am still searching for these answers. Is it fair to divide the body of Urdu fiction writers into Muslim and non-Muslim? My thoughts are that it is mighty unfair to divide artists. When we choose to read Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabir, Mir, Ghalib, Tagore, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Khusrao, Hafiz, Gopi Chand Narang, Chetan Bhagat, we don’t ever think what religion they come from. Yes, they belong to a region, to a community. They do follow some religion or the other. Maybe they don’t too. This sort of hollow thinking only eats away at their excellence. It is the text of these interesting artists that calls to us….

There have been critical commentaries lauding the works of non-Muslims…

A language has no religion. A language has no religion. A language has no region. A language has no caste. Then why such a division between a Muslim and a non-Muslim writer? I never think that I will analyse the text of – Ratan Nath Sharshak, Premchand, Devendra Satyarthi, Sudarshan, Upendranath Ashk, Krishnchand, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Balwant Singh, Harcharan Chaula, Jitendra Baloo, Devendra Isar, Shamsher Singh Nirula, Mulk Raj Anand, Ramlal, Joginder Paul, Ratan Singh, Braj Kamal, Surendra Prakash, Balraj Nirdas, Gulzar etc, etc., – based on whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims. All these writers come from the same
region and culture as did Manto, Ismat Chughtai, etc, etc,. If it is the same society, the same region and neighbourhood, then why these false lines? Premchand’s story ‘Kafan’, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Rajvati’, Devendra Satyarthi’s ‘Neel-Gai’, Balwant Singh’s ‘Chand Aur Tara’, Joginder Paul’s ‘Pole Ka Telegram’, Surendra Prakash’s ‘Dard’, etc., stories brings people together, brings minds and hearts together, so does that mean that Ali or Suzaini etc., stories are disparate from the above? The lament of the writers are disparate from each other?”

What I am trying to say is that these divisions that this is a Muslim and that a Hindu, but that all the writings that we have, such as marsiya, short stories, etc., all these have been written by Hindus as well.

I once went to a debate, and one woman stood up and asked me – I want to learn Urdu, but my parents do not allow it, as they say that it is a Muslim tongue. Now what can we do of such biases? The way this poison has been spreading….

Did you know, that earlier, during the British Raj, people used to learn Persian in school? Why don’t you ask your grandparents, if they know Urdu or not? I will give my word, that they did know. I say this with great pain; do not give a language a religion. Show me any Urdu writing where there is a phrase of partition, of division of sects, of dividing Muslims and Hindus. You will not find even a single couplet where this is written. And I can show you lakhs of poets who have written about their love for the country, of brotherhood (especially of poets from Lucknow). I challenge you to show my anything else. The talk has always been of secularism, of patriotism, of respect towards women and elderly, of love towards children, of sacrifice – these are the values that are being propagated and taught.

Will one not call a murderer a murderer? In India, and in all religions, the punishment is the same.

I am telling you, you learn Urdu, and read for yourself. All this talk is airy, it has no basis. I want you to immerse yourself in its study and learn for yourself. Give it a month, and you will be able to read Urdu. Then you can make your own decision, of what is good or bad. Even today, around fifty poets are non-Muslim.

When we make our children learn German or French at school, why not Urdu? What is the truth, you accept, and what are lies you throw away.

Talking of the Muslim nature of the language, critic Ather Farouqui says “An extensive survey through Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra discloses, surprisingly, that there was not even a single non-Muslim student enrolled for studying Urdu, even as an optional subject, at the primary or secondary level, or opting for Urdu as the medium of education.” She says “In almost all states in India, except Maharashtra, Urdu education has reached the verge of death.” Is this an exaggeration, or is there truth in what Farouqui says? What do you think are the reasons for this decline?

This is her own survey. But things have definitely changed. I have taught Urdu at Rampur. When I left, in my place, the lady that was appointed was non-Muslim. When I came here, then since then, there are a few foreign students that are still there. Most come from Mauritius. One or two even from Japan. They take the ICCR Fellowship, and search on the web, and then they get direct admission. Yes, non-Muslims usually take up the certificate course more. When I was studying at DU, the most famous course that was there was the certificate course, wherein around 300 students used to be enrolled, and learn with great interest. Here, at Jamia, in the certificate course, all are non-Muslims. But the desire to learn is definitely there.

There are other aspects to this as well. Nowadays, people want job-oriented courses. There aren’t many who are veering towards Hindi or Sanskrit language studies as well. Everywhere, the Sanskrit departments are closing down. But there are a lot of fellowships for Urdu and Hindi language learning. But still, people want job-oriented courses. No one is making their children do this. But in school, our children are taught these languages.

But in my family, they are also having a mullah come to teach them to read the Quran, and this adds to the advantage of learning Urdu. My daughter is pursuing engineering, my son is in 11th science, and neither will take Urdu. But that does not mean that they don’t know the language, how it is written, its poetry etc.

Everyone wants a job-oriented course. The lessening of people knowing this language – one of the main reasons is this. The biggest example of this is Sanskrit. At Jamia, crores of rupees was given to open up a Sanskrit department, but it is all a failure. And this is true in every university. This shows that just by governmental support no language is more capable of thriving or reviving. No matter how much Urdu is bashed – and I am hearing this since fifty years – but Urdu is proliferating faster than ever. Perhaps non-Muslims do not take up the language. But these isn’t a single region in India where you will not find people who speak Urdu. We listen to their stories, to the songs. In films, we listen to the ghazals and the songs that have so many Urdu words. We listen to the language, and we think – this is a beautiful
language. Sometimes, Urdu and Hindi get mixed too, and it should be so as well.

In my region, I speak Magadhi. But when I enter my house, I change to Urdu. But in the villages, when you talk to the people, then I have to adopt their language. This statement by Ather Farroqui, it is her statement, it is her study, and perhaps there is some truth in it. But I have no comments. But it is true that the numbers of non-Muslims taking up Urdu in the universities has declined for sure.

Calling Urdu the “most beautiful, cultivated and sophisticated expression of the Indian creative mind”, G.C. Narang is sad to note the present “communalisation” of Urdu, whereby it has come to be seen only as the language of Muslims. “This is a fallacy, an aftermath of the partition of the subcontinent,” Narang observes. But he is confident that Urdu will survive. “Language is like a river, it keeps changing its banks. Right now, Urdu is coping with the challenges of segregation and communalisation. Since it reflects the lingual genius of the Indian psyche, I am sure even in difficult circumstances, it will adjust and survive.” In extricating Urdu from the confines of orthodoxy and highlighting its past, scholars have a huge role to play, and Narang has devoted his entire career to it. Your comment.

The Partition has various consequences. But perhaps you don’t know, since you are very young still, but they used to say – ‘Hindu, Hindu, Hindustan…Miya Chale Jao Pakistan.’ In those days a lot of slogans used to say this, and this still continues. How many years have passed since then? Even today…

And now there is a propagation of Hindutva philosophy. My belief is that why are we even getting into all this? Get prosperity, development and justice into the regions – the work should be done in these matters. Why do you have to stretch it and get it to religion all the time? Perhaps this is the effect of the Partition, it has bound to be. But the thing is, in Pakistan, though they have made their official language Urdu, there no one knows Urdu! They don’t speak in Urdu.

Yes, only 7% of Pakistan’s population speaks Urdu as their mother
tongue….

They have the Baloch language, Punjabi language, Sindhi. If Urdu writers sit amongst themselves, they will talk in Punjabi. They manner in which we speak the exquisite Urdu here, they don’t have that there. They have their own languages…One of the reasons a country declines is when they make religion important at every level of society. Whichever nation veers a bit too heavily towards religion – their downfall is certain. They did not make their nation secular. They have only used Urdu as a official language on the surface. But they have not been able to place it in their hearts. No wonder people think Urdu is Pakistan’s official language. But this is a misconception.

It is so only on paper.

Every language spreads on its own. A language has no religion, it has no region,
even if everyone loves the language of their region .