Two languages or one?

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Ajmal Kamal

In his remarkable book on the growth of Urdu’s literary culture, titled Urdu ka Ibtida’i Zamana, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi maintains that at some point in time between the lives of Mir Taqi Mir and Asadullah Khan Ghalib, what was called Hindi was first given the name — actually the title — ‘Zaban-e-Urdu-e-Mu’alla’, or the language of the exalted court or camp, and later started being called ‘Zaban-e Urdu’ and gradually ‘Urdu’. However, Faruqi throws little light on the social conditions and the actors responsible for this change of names. Neither does he elaborate on who might have felt the need for this change. We can start by safely presuming that it was not the local people who lived outside the area jealously defined as ‘Urdu-e-Mu’alla’ and who had devised the language in the first place during the past several centuries.

It is interesting that the word ‘Urdu’ in the original coinage mentioned by Faruqi meant not the language itself but the place it was purposefully attached to. It denoted the area in the royal city of Delhi which housed the Red Fort and the abodes of the nobility associated with the royalty in one form or another. Before the local language of the area was appointed as the language of the Urdu-e-Mu’alla area or the privileged people residing there, Persian had enjoyed this status for the past several centuries.

Some strands of the story of Urdu emerging out of the original Hindi have been described by Tariq Rahman in his book From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History. But let us look at the phenomenon here from the angle of actors involved in it.

This interesting set of Shurafa Muslims — more than one generation of whom may have been collectively involved in the process of ‘re-christening’ a local language — invariably claimed for themselves a foreign, imported origin. Indeed the colonialist view was prevalent among them that they had brought ‘civilisation’ into the hitherto ‘uncivilised’ land of South Asia. Taking such an aggressive, snobbish position was perhaps considered necessary to maintain a privileged cultural status, not to mention the occupation of agricultural land and other resources.

Taking substantial help of the caste system firmly governing the Hindu societies on the one hand, and the division of the populace into free men and slaves in Islam on the other, the Shurafa Muslim community had imposed a hierarchy of ‘graded inequality’ on the people — raiyyat — professing different creeds, and professions mainly connected with agriculture. This privileged class had good reasons to insist on their non-local origin as that was what set them apart from the local people tilling the land occupied by the conquerors. The agricultural castes were supported in their task of working for the conquerors and their cohorts by artisans and others belonging to ‘service castes’, or in the words of Chaudhry Mohammad Ali Rudaulvi ‘khidmati qaumain’. These people (obviously constituting a vast majority) were supposedly born to serve those who occupied land and its resources.

However, when it came to the local language of Hindustan, adopted (or rather captured) by the Muslim rulers and members of their ‘exalted’ court — all claiming an imported lineage — it was difficult to claim a foreign origin for it. Hindi was a language which had developed, exactly the way other local languages did, in a real geographical location and social context by real, local people. It was unlike the trajectory of Persian which was undeniably of a non-Indian origin but which had grown into a local language of intellectual and cultural expression and discourse — and still kept its genealogy intact — during the centuries-long rule of the dynasties of Muslim invaders from the north-west.

The need to detach the ‘Urdu’ language from its real geographical and social context, however, seems to be the reason why a supra-local origin was concocted for it. This clumsily invented, kaleidoscopic history therefore allows ever new imaginary locations to be added to the fiction — Deccan, Bengal, Punjab, Balochistan and so on, although nowhere can it be shown to have ever been present in any form that could be reasonably connected to the ‘Zaban-e Urdu-e Mu’alla’.

This produces such absurd genealogies that imagine a link between Dakani and Urdu to be more plausible than that between Urdu and the language employed by Kabir, Mirabai and Malik Mohammad Jaisi for instance. This was in line with the carefully remembered fact — or fiction — of the foreign origin of the Shurafa themselves who had been using Persian for their political and social undertakings.

How the original ‘Hindi’ language, spoken in ‘Hindustan’, was turned into ‘Urdu’ — the language of a particular social class of a non-Hindustani origin residing in a small part of a city — by whom, under which circumstances, using what authority, and to achieve which purpose, is a string of intriguing questions which have not found their due place in the public discourse about the origin of Urdu.

It should at least be a matter of everyday curiosity for the readers of Urdu literature why, for example, Mir, who had known this language by its commonly recognised name — Hindi — is considered an Urdu poet at all. But it isn’t. In the reams of paper consumed for pleading the ‘case’ of Urdu against Hindi, the questions regarding the need for this change of names found no mention, let alone any attempt to find answers.

However, it has had some discernible consequences. One, it changed the way the history of Urdu was to be conceived and presented since the 19th century. As discussed in this space earlier, this invented, unreal history effectively disassociated the language from the geographical area — and indeed the community — that constituted its natural origin.

Two, in line with the practice of privileging the foreign and shunning the local, not only were the geographical variants of the language disrespected and excluded from the ‘standardised’ Urdu, the local sources of its vocabulary — Sanskrit and various Prakrits — were also neglected in favour of Persian (and, through it, the Arabic) influence. It must be noted that the same kind of influence is found in other local languages — Sindhi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bangla and so on — but nowhere else is it given such fundamental importance as is the case in Urdu. One routinely hears and reads such naïve, absurdly serious assertions about Urdu being a ‘lashkari’ language and taking in words and phrases from different sources — as if it is something unique to Urdu. Unmindful of the same process going on in every language in a natural way in the course of historical and political developments, it is claimed that Urdu contains words imported or derived from diverse sources such as Persian, Arabic, Portuguese, and even Hindi.

This point is worth pondering. As the example of Maulvi Syed Ahmed Dehlvi has shown earlier, this conscious choice on the part of the inventors of history did not change the fact that his Farhang-e Asafia still had about three-fourth entries of local origin. One is amused to see that these entries have been specified by the good Maulvi Sahib as ‘Hindi-ul Asl’ (‘of Hindi origin’). No one seems to have ever raised the question: if such an overwhelmingly large part of the Urdu vocabulary has ‘come’ from Hindi without any change, should these be treated as two separate languages or one and the same?

This is apart from the more obvious and undeniable fact that the grammar as it appears in the construction of sentences and phrases is identical in Hindi and Urdu. Also, the way we count is the same. And so forth.

The latter lexicographers took this work to an even more absurd level. Waris Sirhindi’s Ilmi Urdu Lughat has changed the origin of the local words, from Maulvi Sahib’s Hindi-ul Asl to simply Urdu.

Although a foreign origin is not claimed for Urdu, its local sources are not considered necessary for the study of this language. The result is that a scholar of Urdu may be able to enlighten you on the difference between muntazir and muntazar, (the latter as in Iqbal’s “kabhi ae haqiqat-e muntazar, nazr aa libas-e majaz mein”) but would be typically unaware of the origin of a local word such as hartal or oak (the latter as in Ghalib’s famous line: ‘pila de oak se saqi jo hum se nafrat hai’). A working knowledge of Persian (and the Arabic found in it) is generally considered necessary for someone claiming to know ‘good’ Urdu. In fact the examples showing a lack of such knowledge are the main argument used between quarrelling individuals and groups over the question of the ownership of ‘achhi’ Urdu. A similar kind of privilege is not, however, accorded to Sanskrit for instance. On the contrary, the use of Sanskrit is shunned and it is considered un-Islamic because of the fact that it is of local origin.

This takes us to another major consequence of the act of choosing a new name for an old language. By indicating, as Maulana Altaf Husain Hali did, that for someone to be proficient in ‘authentic’ Urdu, he is required to be from Delhi or the area around it — and a Muslim — a hitherto unknown religious identity was imposed on the language. It is interesting to note that Hali pushed the geographical boundary of the language-area seemingly to include Panipat where he hailed from, but at the same time excluded non-Muslims living in the same, freshly defined area. One can do no more than speculate here about the motivations of this twin strategy of inclusion and exclusion, but the results are evident for everyone to see. This important, decisive trend will be discussed later in this space.

Ajmal Kamal, “Two languages or one?,” in Dawn, April 26, 2015. Accessed on April 26, 2015, at:

The item above written by Ajmal Kamal and published in Dawn on April 26, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on April 26, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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