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Hindi and Urdu: A language divided, or a shared history destroyed?

Krisha Hirani reflects on the linguistic and sociopolitical histories of Hindi and Urdu after a chance encounter in Tesco.

CW: Violence

I was in Tesco last week, looking at the tomatoes. A man to my right commented on the ripeness of the peppers. I made a good-humoured reply – the tomatoes weren’t pakka hua either. He told me my Urdu was good; I told him I was speaking Hindi.

With the regime of Hindutva and the increasing tension between India and Pakistan, it’s now more important than ever to examine the linguistic history of the two languages that embody one of the largest, bloodiest mass migrations of human history.

Hindustani is a Persian term meaning ‘land of the Indus (river)’. The term was used at certain points in history to refer to all of the Northern Indian subcontinent. It is also the name given to the Hindi-Urdu language. This is a pluri-centric language, meaning a single language of two different standard varieties, that arose from the Hindustani region. A native speaker will likely separate the two and assert whether they speak Hindi or Urdu based on their national identity; in India and Pakistan, language heavily denotes culture.

Hindustani, or Hindi, or Urdu, areis/are (an) Indo-Aryan language(s), descending from Sanskrit and its evolved Prakrit. Yes, the grammar in that sentence is as confused as I am.

Between the 7th and 13th centuries, the subcontinent was ruled heavily by Central Asian Turkish invaders, who brought with them the Persian language, religion, and literary traditions. The Persian language of the elite and the Arabic of religion influenced the lay-person’s Prakrit and Hindustani was born in Delhi.

When the Mughal Empire was established in 1526, uniting most of the subcontinent, Hindustani became the lingua franca. The degree of influence that Arabic and Persian had over the language varied between local areas. Muslim communities grew to write in the Perso-Arabic script, nastaliq, whilst Hindu communities favoured the devanagari, derived from Sanskrit. By the end of the Mughal rule in the 18th century, Hindustani had replaced Persian amongst the society’s elite.

This was the period in which the literary language flourished, with the emergence of revered writers like Amir Khusrow and Surdas. The Persian variety of Hindustani came to be associated with fine art and literature, and this still holds true in culture today.

When the British colonised India, the language of the East India Company was chosen to be English and Hindustani, of the Persian variety. They gave it the name ‘Zaban-e-Urdu’, the ‘language of the [army] camp’ because it is said to have been created through communication between the Persian soldiers and the native merchants.

When the British made the official script the nastaliq, they established religious and linguistic borders between the population through the Hindi-Urdu controversy of 1867. They enforced this segregation 80 years before establishing the hard country border.

And so, even before the country was split, the tongue was split.

Hindustani, alongside an estimated two million people, became caught in the crossfire of Partition. Nationalist ideologies encouraged linguistic purism, with India’s Hindi purging itself of Perso-Arabic influence and Pakistan’s Urdu purging itself of Sanskrit (in the standard written form at least).

In 1973, The New York Times wrote about how a ‘Decline of Urdu [is] Feared in India’, recognising the ‘political and religious ties’ of the language to an Islamic Pakistan. The article reported on the politicisation of the language in post-Partition India. It ends on a quote from Professor Anjum stating that the British “resorted to every device that could create a gulf between the Hindus and Muslims”, not even sparing language in their attack.

The decrease in the prevalence of Urdu persists to this day. Between 2001 and 2011, Indian census reports show a further decline in Urdu speakers with less than 4.2% claiming it as their mother tongue.

The article from The New York Times  fearing a rise in ‘intolerance’, for lack of a better word, still rings true. The Islamophobic shunning of the language is reflective of the political stance India takes towards its Muslim population and neighbours.

It is strange to think that there are fewer and fewer people in the Indian subcontinent who could read and understand the literature that traces India and Pakistan’s shared history. Take for example the Urdu poetry of Bismil Azimabadi, whose Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna (1921) became a war cry for Independence. The poem reflects on the wake of British atrocities, one of the most painful of which was the Jallianwala Bhaga massacre of 1917. During the Jallianwala Bhaga massacre, Colonel Reginald Dyer emptied 1,600 rounds of ammunition into an unarmed congregation.

The poem is an ode to young freedom fighters, often associated with those belonging to the inter-war period, like Ram Prasad Bismil and Bhagat Singh. Indeed, Ram Prasad Bismil sung the poem in the gallows on 19 December 1927, before being hanged for mutiny. It is written as a gazal, a Persian poetic form, and uses heavily Persianized vocabulary, including the phrase ‘shaheed-e-mulk-o-millat’ to praise the country as a ‘nation of martyrs’.

I could not understand it without a translation.

I wonder whether India’s government, with its growing intolerance, would still claim it as a patriotic poem.

This said, it should be noted that language does not immediately correspond to religion. Not all Muslims in the subcontinent speak Urdu. Not all Hindus speak Hindi. But the variations of the language that is spoken does suggest the cultural and religious identity of the speaker. An Urdu speaker would identify more greatly with Islamic and Persian heritage and literary traditions than the Hindu Sanskrit traditions of Hindi.

Urdu is not the Pakistani language, nor is Hindi the Indian. Urdu and English are the official languages of Pakistan, but only 8% of the population claim to be native speakers of Urdu. In fact, Punjabi is much more widely spoken across the country. Hindi and English are the official languages of India, but each state and union territory is free to choose their own official language; eight have chosen Urdu.

What I hope to bring to the forefront here — and what I’ve been thinking about since meeting that man in Tesco — is how much Hindi and Urdu appear to me as conjoined twins. Neither would exist without this incredible fusion of Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit. Both languages exist in a spectrum with the ‘shudh’ (pure) Hindi and Urdu existing on the extreme ends, and the colloquial in the mutually intelligible centre. They have the same beating heart. To separate the twins would be a major surgical operation, through which both countries would lose an incredible amount of their shared history.

In terms of script, what haunts me is that the middle ground might be the English transliteration. This would be one way that the Urdu and Hindi literate, with their different scripts, could communicate by the written word. Maybe even language cannot heal from colonial trauma.

I hope to meet that man again in Tesco. Maybe we will talk about the ripeness of the tomatoes and peppers again, but I know for sure that I will think twice about being so quick to assert my Hindi linguistic identity, as though it proves my Indian cultural identity.

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