From love songs to kurta advertisements, Urdu is popular with Indians. Why do Hindutva’s followers hate him so much?


Even by the criteria of Hindutva outrage, what happened on Tuesday looked ludicrous: Some Indians, including top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, were angry that clothing brand FabIndia had named a Diwali collection in urdu. They claimed that the Urdu language simply cannot be associated with a Hindu festival.

A nervous FabIndia quickly withdrew the publicity for the collection and issued a statement that assured anyone outraged that the Urdu phrase “Jashn-e-Rivāj” (celebration of tradition) would not be associated with her Diwali collection. Instead, it would have a Hindi name: Jhilmil sÄ« Diwāīi (a sparkling Diwali).

In every way, the controversy was both ridiculous (how could festivals be associated with language?) And frightening (the crowd had enough power to force companies to bend to their will). But perhaps the greatest irony was that the two sentences, Jashn-e-Rivāj and Jhilmil sī Diwāīi would be perfectly intelligible to Indian Hindi speakers.

The Persian loanwords “jashn” and “rivāj” would, in fact, be considered common Hindi words, the only explicit “urdu” element being the genitive marker “-e-” rather than the postposition “kā” (which is shared by Hindi and Urdu). Nonetheless, even “-e-” is so common in Indian popular culture like Bollywood that Hindi speakers would encounter it all the time, even if they rarely used it in their personal speech.

The Fabindia ad that sparked outrage

Hindi and Urdu

Because of these incredible similarities – Hindi and Urdu share almost all of their grammar and most of their daily vocabulary – most linguists would often classify Hindi and Urdu as literary registers of the same language (the Khari Boli of medieval Delhi). Registers are styles of language used depending on the occasion or identity. All languages ​​have it, even English.

Think academic English and the English used for hip hop lyrics. They differ considerably in the lexicon but with largely the same grammar. More importantly, an English-speaking academic and a rapper can, if they wish, be mutually intelligible and have a conversation. It’s almost the same as Hindi and Urdu speakers, except that the choice of who speaks which register is based on religion – a bit more sclerotic identity than that of a teacher or a rapper.

As academic Christopher King says in his book One language Two scripts, Hindi and Urdu are “considered two different languages ​​for political and cultural reasons, not linguistic”, so only “vocabulary and writing are the main difference between the two”.

Urdu has the merit of borrowing words primarily from Persian, the elite lingua franca of medieval India (even Arabic and Turkish words in Urdu go through Persian). Hindi, on the other hand, ensures that these same borrowings come from Sanskrit, a language which enjoys immense prestige in India for its position as the liturgical language of Hinduism.

Notably, the vast majority of the Hindu and Urdu lexicon, their basic vocabulary, is generally inherited from its ancestor Prakrit. So often whether a person speaks “Hindi” or “Urdu” depends on the identity of the speaker or, in the case of written language, the writing.

The split

Modern Hindi and Urdu literary cultures are relatively new, contrary to the claims of their supporters. Persian, in fact, remained the administrative language and lingua franca of the elite long after the decline of Mughal power and the rise of the British star. As an academic Francesca Orsini Explain, it was not until the 19th century that “Urdu took over from Persian”. At that time, Urdu was not considered a Muslim language, as it is today, but it had an explicit class element: like Persian, it was like the ‘language of the service elite and refined and urban literary exchanges ”.

In Uttar Pradesh, for example, this meant that Urdu was used almost exclusively by Muslims in Ashraf or higher castes, as well as by some Hindu castes traditionally part of the Mughal bureaucracy, such as the Kayasths and, in to a lesser extent, the Khatris and Pandits of Kashmir (most famous, the Nehrus).

Even though Urdu is very subdued in India today, with only a small section of very poor Muslims, mostly madrassa educated, using it as a medium of instruction, an echo of this class element still survives and Khari Boli stuffed with Persian will often encode luxury. – as in the Fabindia advertising.

Likewise, it also survives in cultural forms such as songs and poetry. Even in the absence of Urdu education, songs from Hindi movie songs will often use, to quote Salman Rushdie, the “thunderclap sound of Urdu” to encode strong emotions such as romance or patriotism. As historian Mukul Kesavan has it argued in his essential essay on the roots of Bollywood, urdu is the “language of war and martyrdom in hindi films.” It is the language in which men die.

Resuscitating a 19th century policy

But if so many Indians love to sing about war and buy kurtas in Urdu, then why do Hindutva followers hate it so much?

Part of the answer dates back to the politics of Uttar Pradesh in the late 19th century, when a new elite, mostly Hindu, emerged that had no connection with the old Mughal elite – and therefore Persian and urdu. In 1882, a campaign was launched to get the British government to accept Hindi written in Nagri characters as the official language in the northwestern provinces (which now corresponds mainly to modern Uttar Pradesh), alongside the English and Urdu.

Part of the struggle was economic. Urdu rule meant that this new elite, largely Hindu, was excluded from government jobs.

Part of it was linguistic. Congressman Madan Mohan Malviya, one of Hindi’s main supporters at the time, complained that the Urdu used in the courts was so stuffed with Persian that the official documents were only “partially intelligible”. (However, as Christopher King pointed out, ironically, given that much of this new literary language was piloted by Brahmins knowing Sanskrit, it ultimately produced Sanskritized Hindi, itself a far cry from the mainstream language. ).

However, like almost all other language issues, it also became a question of identity, given that this new Hindi elite was, in this case, Hindu. “During the [1882] campaign, however, the Hindi in Nagari script has been successfully transformed into a matter of Hindu cultural affirmation, and the united Muslim-Kayastha community of Urdu has been shaken, ”Orsini explained.

As king argued, “More and more Hindus had started to accept the twin equations Hindi = Hindu and Urdu = Muslim”. This campaign was so successful that even Hindus in Punjab saw a significant tendency to identify with Hindi. At the time, MP Lala Lajpat Rai himself promoted Hindi as the language of the Hindus in Punjabi despite, ironically, that he does not know it himself.

Legal victory

In the end, of course, the Hindi supporters won a fantastic victory. While in North India in 1900, Urdu was, in the words of the researcher Alok Rai, “Largely the language of public discourse”, in barely half a century, the new Indian Constitution has recognized only Hindi as the official language of the Union government, with English being endowed with a provisional status.

Urdu was incorporated into the constitution in a largely superficial process list of official languages only because Prime Minister Nehru insisted on it.

However, so complete was the community association of Hindi and Urdu at that time, Rai says that “a Hindi friend” asked Nehru what the Urdu language was. “Yeh merÄ« aur simple bāp-dādā’oñ kÄ« bhāshā hai,” Nehru replied. It is my language, the language of my ancestors. Thereupon, the “Hindi friend” retorted: Brāhman hote hue Urdu ko apnÄ« bhāshā kehte ho, sharam nahīñ ātÄ«? Are you not ashamed, being a Brahmin, to claim Urdu as a language?

Uttar Pradesh, the heart of the Hindi-Urdu struggle, has gone even further, prohibition Teaching in Urdu altogether. As Urdu writer and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi Put the, there was an effort to “wipe out Urdu” in Uttar Pradesh after independence.

A poem in the popular Hindi children’s magazine, Balsakha printed in 1948. Quoted in “Hindi Nationalism” by Alok Rai.

Pyrrhic victory

Orsini, however, maintains that this victory for Hindi was actually somewhat Pyrrhic. On the one hand, it could never replace English at the top of the linguistic food chain. English still remains, by far, the language with the most linguistic prestige with immense amounts of economic and social capital.

While education in Urdu was severely restricted with its writing as well as its high and ultra Persianized register, demotic Urdu as well as a substantial part of its Persian loans still live in India. Its 19th century status as a register of elite society means that North Indians still look to Urdu in their cultural consumption.

In contrast, Sanskritized Hindi – which Alok Rai conspicuously calls “Hindi” in spooky quotes to differentiate it from its spoken forms – has a fairly restricted life outside of government and is virtually absent from Bollywood, by far the biggest producer. of Hindi-Urdu content. in the world.

Of course, Hindutva is currently an ascendant activist and is not afraid to use intimidation in an attempt to resuscitate the Hindi-Urdu debates of the colonial era. However, even as these political controversies erupt, it must be borne in mind that changing the language habits – especially the natural spoken language – of millions of people is a difficult feat to achieve.

In fact, ironically, the Bharatiya Janata party also uses what one might call “Urdu” in slogans such as “Modi hai to mumkin hai” (mumkin comes from Arabic via Persian) or “āzādÄ« kā amrit mahotsav »(Ä€zādÄ« is a Persian loan). Even such basic words as “Hindu” and “Hindi” are borrowed from Persian, taken up by Indian languages ​​in medieval times. Therefore, in the reductive lens of Hindi (Sanskritized) versus Urdu (Persianized), they fit into the latter silo.

This, of course, does not mean that the language change cannot occur. In fact, as the medieval Khari Boli absorbed Persian words into their daily lexicon, so does the English of today, which, given its prestige and linguistic power, exerts a significant influence. even on non-English speakers. Open any newspaper in Hindi, for example, and it’s steeped in words borrowed from English. Informal and spoken speech will likely have even more.

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