The attitude of denigrating the sources of a major part of Urdu vocabulary has rendered us incapable of figuring out our actual historical linguistic identity
Literary Cultures in History: Reconstruction from South Asia (University of California Press, 2003), edited by Sheldon Pollock, is a major compilation, a treasure of information and insight on the subject. Urdu is represented in the book by two chapters, one of them written by famous critic and fiction-writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, under the title "A Long History of Urdu Literary Culture, Part 1: Naming and Placing a Literary Culture".
In the chapter he writes: "For the average Hindi user today, it is a matter of faith to believe that the language he knows as "Hindi" is of ancient origin and that its literature originates with Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), if not even earlier. Many such people also believe that the pristine Hindi or "Hindvi" became Urdu sometime in the eighteenth century, when the Muslims "decided" to veer away from Hindi as it existed at that time and adopted a heavy, Persianized style of language, which soon became a distinguishing characteristic of the Muslims of India." (p.805)
Faruqi points out in a footnote to this statement on the same page: "In recent times, this case has been most elaborately presented by Amrit Rai [in his book A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi, OUP, 1984]. Rai’s thesis, though full of inconsistencies and tendentious speculation rather than hard facts -- and of fanciful interpretation of actual facts -- was never refuted by Urdu scholars as it should have been." In the same footnote appearing in the Urdu version of his text, titled Urdu ka Ibtida’i Zamana (Aaj ki Kitabain, 2003) he further elaborates his point thus: "As far as I know, only Mirza Khalil Ahmad Baig wrote a refutation of Rai’s book but it is not completely effective. The reason is that the minds of Urduwalas themselves are not clear about the original sources of their language."
Examining the bulk of writings dealing with Urdu’s origin and development, one is left with little room to disagree with Faruqi’s observation regarding the clouded minds trying to figure out (in fact, concoct and falsify) historical trajectory of the language. What will it take for someone to perform this task honestly and competently?
Gyan Chand Jain, the highly regarded teacher, author and researcher of Urdu, says in his 2006 controversial book Aik Bhasha, Do Likhawat, Do Adab: "What one needs in order to know the old history of Urdu is not the knowledge of Arabic and Persian but that of Prakrits and Apabhransha. If one cannot access these sources directly, at least the material available in Hindi can be made use of.… The beginning of Urdu-Hindi is not the question of mere terminology; it’s a matter of a good knowledge of Hindi and its ancestors, i.e. Apabhransha, Prakrit, Sanskrit and the language of the Vedas. Urduwalas have a distaste for, even abhorrence of, these languages."
This indeed is what a language historian or a cultural anthropologist is supposed to be equipped with, if we are talking about the times before the advent of the Muslim conquerors from across the North-Western border of the subcontinent, with whom Persian (and through it Arabic) might have taken hold in the region where Urdu was born. Those who have taken this task upon themselves, however, do not usually display such knowledge. Most of them seem equipped with little more than sheer ignorance about this whole thing -- and quite proudly so.
Jain further observes, rather pointedly, "But the Urdu movement of the first half of the twentieth century has taught nothing but to ridicule the Hindi language and old writings. The result is that the Urduwalas have remained completely ignorant about their genealogy."
This unthinking attitude of denigrating, even ridiculing the linguistic sources of the major part of Urdu’s vocabulary and grammar (not to mention the abandoned literary canon), has rendered the Urduwalas patently incapable of figuring out the real contours of their historical linguistic identity. Writing of language history was a part of the modernisation project which was being undertaken in other languages as well under the British rule; the impetus for it being a quest for cultural roots and group identities. As far as the language -- and its literature -- was concerned, other parts of this project were the compilation of dictionaries and grammars, translation and coining of terms for objects and concepts that were hitherto non-existent in the region and the community, and of course the defining of a literary canon of the language.
In the case of Urdu, the individuals -- and, later, organisations such as the Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu -- working on these were, it seems, equipped with a short-term political zeal to get more resources for the language movement and little else. These resources included jobs with the colonial administration and the so-called ‘princely states’ and funds from both. It is interesting to see that the Hyderabad state was persuaded to fund not only the Farhang-e Asafia and the Anjuman’s dictionary (published under Moulvi Abdul Haq’s name although it was the work of another individual of matching linguistic skills) but a rather big translation project as well, which was launched at the Osmania University for the translation of major works of physical and social sciences mainly from English into Urdu.
Devoid of a live link with the original sources of the language, the translators at the Osmania Dar-ut Tarjuma relied unreasonably heavily on Arabic and Persian and produced texts and terminologies which could only be understood by a person if he knew English and had in front of him the English version as well. Needless to say, the coinages of the project could never become a part of the language and the whole thing resulted in a lot of wasted expenditure from public money.
It is evident that the numerous universities, the so-called ‘learned bodies’ and individual scholars researching on Urdu language and literature, even after Pakistan came into being, have done so entirely without the knowledge of any of the linguistic sources enumerated by Prof. Jain. With the result that what has been produced in place of an essential sense of one’s own history and historical identity is a confused, uncritical, anachronistic attachment to a political position taken under specific circumstances by a particular class of people in a certain part of the geographical abode of Urdu. This is of a piece with how we have been treating our history as a people living in a real place.
A few examples are in order. When the University of Karachi was established in the Federal Capital -- after forcing the newly established Sindh University out of Karachi for questionable though fanciful motivations -- a Shoba-e Tasneef-o-Taleef-o-Tarjuma was established here, purportedly to bring Urdu to the level of developed modern languages. The department has been producing mostly unusable and often ridiculous terms such as Teelsan () for a bachelor’s degree and in-etaf pazeer qurs () for-- guess what -- a computer floppy disk!
Another learned body, established with the same lofty objective of accommodating privileged people in the public sector in the name of Urdu, was the Taraqqi-e-Urdu Board. Its name was later changed to Urdu Lughat Board and it was trusted with the task of compiling an Urdu dictionary ‘on historical principle’ in line with the great Oxford English Dictionary. While an entry in the OED tries to establish precisely when a particular word or phrase entered the language and how its usage developed over centuries, the Urdu dictionary -- recently completed after 50 years of careless work -- would give any date that is conveniently available to the ignorant, confused and lazy lexicographers working on it.
Leave alone an alive sense of history or a working knowledge of etymology of local and borrowed words, even common sense and general knowledge are apparently considered unnecessary, judging by certain inclusions. Only one example would suffice -- which was brought to my notice by the respected scholar Mohammad Salim-ur Rahman. Under the letter ‘be’ (ب), on page 679 (vol 2), "Box Office" has been defined as follows:
"The office in a cinema or theatre which is responsible for the purchase of stories." Isn’t that marvellous?
The source mentioned under the example given here is a daily newspaper carrying a date of 1966. Which goes on to show that according to the Dictionary Board mentioning any date is sufficient to make the entry fit the ‘historical principle’.
Equipped with this exemplary ignorance of almost everything relevant to the work, the ‘service-men’ of Urdu -- with their foggy minds according to Faruqi -- seem to be more interested in the politics of arbitrary inclusion and exclusion: The local has to be downplayed and imported privileged; anything that happened before the Muslim invasion of the subcontinent has to be strictly ignored based on the sacred belief that the Muslim conquerors had brought civilisation to an uncivilised land; the contribution of ‘non-Muslims’ has to be as good as omitted from history, and so forth.
Maulana Hali’s stipulation -- that only shareef Muslims from Dehli and around can be trusted in the matter of authentic Urdu -- is treated with a strange aloof acceptance by Urdu polemicists, and never analysed in detail in the context of the Urdu-Hindi controversy. According to Faruqi, the fact that Maulana Hali in his Muqadma-e Sh’er-o Sha’eri (1893) and Maulana Mohammad Hussain Azad (1831-1910) in his Aab-e Hayat (1880) hardly mention Hindu writers and poets is to be attributed to the influence of the British colonial rulers. However, he does not challenge in any fundamental way the authenticity of the Urdu literary canon that the two Maulanas helped identify.
The usual non-committing kind of attitude displayed by the Urduwalas on such matters makes it possible for opposite political stands to be taken under different circumstances about whether the trajectory of the Urdu language should be taken to represent a ‘coming together of the North-Indian Muslim and non-Muslim cultures’ or a point of divergence and separation between the two. We observe this Orwellian ‘doublespeak’ to be quite evident in the post-1947 discourse of identity politics in particular, as scholars of Urdu usually describe it as a clear marker of ‘the separate Muslim identity’ on our side of the border and a symbol of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’ on the opposite side.
Beyond these obviously self-serving positions, this collective conscious evasiveness has created the unreal space where the fiction of two distinct languages can be kept alive.