In 2006, Dr Manmohan Singh, who was prime minister then, constituted a seven-member committee to prepare a report on the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community in India. In its landmark report, the Sachar Committee remarked that even though Urdu is the language of the common masses, its association primarily with Muslims has marginalised it the same way as the community has been.
Fifteen years later, the statement still rings true – albeit in a much graver scenario.
The case of Urdu is a curious one – it is everywhere, but also nowhere. A simple scroll through Instagram would show pictures captioned with couplets from Urdu ghazals; events, organisations and businesses carrying Urdu names; budding poets reciting their compositions in Urdu; Bollywood singers humming Urdu songs; protesters shouting slogans in Urdu and so on and so forth. You’d argue, and rightfully so, that Urdu still maintains quite a dominance over our social and cultural lives, and the paranoia around its extinction and it being exclusively belonging to Muslims is just that: paranoia.
However, this is only half the story. The young poets writing in Urdu know only the vocabulary, not the script. The Instagram captions are transliterated into English or Hindi. Every second person can quote Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Habib Jalib, but only few have read them.
Writer and columnist Khushwant Singh believed that there needs to be an extensive effort to translate Urdu works else the language would die owing to the unpopularity of the script. The irony today is that these very translations and transliterations have become the bane of the language. Urdu might be the only language that is expected to survive sans the script.
The pseudo-representation of Urdu in popular culture is more harmful than erasure itself. It creates the illusion of normalcy, feigning reclamation of Urdu beyond the Muslim community. Unfortunately, it is a very superficial reclamation wherein the aesthetics and ostentations are reclaimed, bequeathing the burden of preservation to the Muslim community. Urdu, by which I mean the script, has been relegated to such margins wherein even though there is mass embrace of the aesthetics, there is mass abandonment of the script. In the few circumstances that people do learn the script, there is no material investment into Urdu.
The very romanticisation of Urdu has become its anathema. While other languages are given governmental support in form of promotion, funds and grants and communal support in form of enrolment of students in relevant institutes and creation of demand in market, Urdu is somehow expected to survive via social media captions, transliterated poetry and mushairas.
There is a critical need to realise that Urdu, just like any other language, cannot survive without the preservation of its script and economic investment into its development and maintenance.
This burden of protecting Urdu has squarely fallen upon the Muslim community while popular culture has built a hegemony of superficial aesthetics-reclamation. The Muslim community solely continues to invest into madrasas, maktabs, Urdu academies around the country; research work; enrolling their children into Urdu medium schools and higher education; sustaining Urdu publications, local Urdu newspapers and magazines; creating whatever little demand exists for jobs for teaching, typing, interpretation and so on.
At the largest book-market in India, the college street of Kolkata, I was left yearning for a single good Urdu bookstore. At international book fairs, that host stalls of books from languages all over the world, you may have to spend hours searching for one that deals in Urdu literature. Urdu departments are being steadily shut down in universities with no professor to teach the language. The market is emaciated and bookstores, dating back decades, are in ramshackle conditions with some even shutting down owing to lack of funds. Publication houses, too, are surviving on donations.
One of the biggest examples of how the pop culture Urdu reclamation is not mirrored in professional and official spaces is the NEET debacle of 2017 that was contested only by the Muslim community. As of 2017, NEET (or the National Eligibility and Entrance Test) – an all India examination for medical aspirants – was conducted in ten major languages of which Urdu was not a part despite being the seventh most widely spoken language in the country. Only after much uproar and petitioning was it included as one of the medium of examination.
Similarly, under the section of ‘Multiligualism and The Power of Language’ of National Education Policy (NEP), announced in 2020, a multitude of languages were specifically mentioned in order to be “preserved for their richness” and “to ensure these languages and literature stay alive and vibrant,” Urdu was not graced with even a single mention in the whole 66 pages of the NEP even though it is one of the only two language to register a fall in growth rate between the census of 2001 and 2011. The arbitrary elimination of Urdu from public spaces is assuming a far too consistent pattern to be dismissed as a mere series of coincidences.
Languages are integral cultural repository but are not limited to that. Languages also lend to the socio-economic backbone of communities and vice-versa. Post-independence Muslim politics of Bihar saw a mobilisation around the Urdu language as tool of empowerment for minorities especially coming from weaker socio-economic backgrounds. Some lessons that can be taken for the Urdu Literary movement of Bihar are that it de-exocitised Urdu from merely its image of tehzeeb and adab.
Urdu is a language of self assertion, the medium of education of millions of people, the route to livelihood of many more, the financial backbone of several families, a language that bears value beyond aesthetics. The Urdu literary movement of Bihar led to Urdu being declared the second official language of the state. Several Urdu medium schools were opened, students could opt for civil services exams in Urdu – it created jobs in translation, typing, interpretation in the government, and revived authorship and rebuilt publishing houses. None of this would be possible by mere ghazal recitations, mushairas or open-mics.
Urdu cannot be detached from its script. Post-Independence, the task of preservation of Urdu has been relegated to the Muslim community in toto whereas the vocabulary and aesthetics are for everyone to claim. Public mobilisation and material investment must be channelised from non-Muslim sections of the country in order to preserve the language.
The burden of Urdu must be shared.
Hanan Irfan is a student of engineering and independent writer from Kolkata. He is also a freelance Urdu teacher and Urdu translator. You can find him on Instagram @ibn__baatuti.
Featured image credit: Amr.Malik/Flickr