Urdu becomes poll issue again. But, will it deliver good to Muslims?

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By Danish Ahmad Khan
 

With parliamentary elections round the corner, Muslim politicians become active and start raising emotive issues with a vengeance. This time round the language of Urdu is again threatening to become a poll issue at least in a couple of Indian states. Recently, representatives of various Muslim organisations under the banner of Anjuman Taraqqui Urdu (Hindi) staged a demonstration in Kolkata to press for their demand seeking second official language status for Urdu in four subdivisions of Kolkata, Garden Reach, Asansol and Islampur in the state of West Bengal. The four subdivisions where Muslim organisations want Urdu to be declared as an official language have nearly 20 per cent Urdu speaking minority population. Presently, there are about 100 Urdu medium schools in the state. "Once Urdu is declared as an official state language then our children will have the opportunity to pursue their studies from primary to Masters level in one language. The students will be able take any state-level competitive examination in Urdu and this will open a number of employment opportunities for them. We want an Act to be passed in the Assembly declaring Urdu as the official state language. If our demand is not met then its effect will be seen in the elections. There are more than 60 Assembly seats where minorities play significant role during elections," said Mohammad Sulaiman Khurshid, general secretary, Anjuman Taraqqui Urdu (Hindi). Besides declaring Urdu as an official language, Muslim organisations also want question papers of every subject in Madhyamik (matriculation) examinations to be printed in Urdu. Earlier, the state government had promised to recognise Urdu as an official state language in the form of a Chief Secretary Executive order in 1981. However, no initiative has been taken in this regard ever since. The move has come at a time when Left Front government in the state is struggling to keep its minority votes intact. Besides West Bengal, Urdu also remains an emotional issue for Muslims in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Muslims in these two states rue the step-motherly treatment being meted out to Urdu and have threatened to vent out their anger during ensuing polls.

Urdu – Demography & Scope


As it is now in independent India Urdu is widely perceived to be a language that remains exclusive preserve of the Muslim population. However, defying the popular notion Urdu is only spoken in tiny enclaves across a handful states of India. A report by M.A. Siraj published in Deccan Herald (15 September 2007) cites the latest Language Atlas of India published by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner which undertook a special exercise that cross tabulated the Urdu and Muslim population in the country. The report says: “The significant aspect of the outcome of the exercise is the fact that only a little half of Muslims (i.e. 51.5 percent) residing in Uttar Pradesh have recorded Urdu as their mother tongue. In the case of Bihar, this proportion is about 66.8 percent. In contrast, a vastly preponderant majority of Muslims living in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra have registered Urdu as their mother tongue. Other states where proportion of Urdu speakers among Muslims is significant are Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.” The report further adds: “To sum up the position of Urdu vis-à-vis Muslims, it would be sufficient to point out that while there were 101.5 million Muslims in India (1991 Census which excludes Jammu and Kashmir), 42.72 percent recorded Urdu to be their mother tongue. This is to say that less than half of Indian Muslims speak or use Urdu.”

Providing details about the linguistic composition of Muslims in India, the Language Atlas of India points out that at least is three more states – Kerala, Assam and West Bengal – Muslims make up a good chunk of population. In Kerala there are 23 percent Muslims, Assam 28.43 percent and West Bengal has 23.61 percent. However, in contrast Urdu-speaking Muslims are merely 0.19 percent, 0.06 percent and 9.05 percent respectively in these three states. In states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana the proportion of Urdu-speaking Muslims constitute 27 percent, 37.40 percent and 34 percent respectively.

With the available data at hand at least one thing can be said that Urdu remains greatly confined to the Muslims of north India. In south Indian states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala Muslims are least concerned about Urdu and give more preference to their respective regional languages i.e. Tamil and Malayalam. The scope of the development of Urdu and its speakers therefore also remains quite limited.

Urdu and Muslim identity
 
The association of Urdu with the religious identity of Muslims dates back to the days of struggle for India's independence. With an eye on establishing British rule in India, the East India Company upon setting its foot started exercising executive power on behalf of titular Mughul sovereign and abolished Persian from official use and replaced it with English and native vernaculars through a decree in 1837. Urdu, which already had established its dominating position over local vernaculars, was however accepted and retained as lingua franca in northern India by the East India Company. Urdu was also allowed to remain the language of courts in northern India. The imposition of Urdu was however opposed by the Hindu masses who demanded that the vernacular of northern India Hindi be accorded the official language status. The Muslim elite, to whom Urdu was confined as the lingua franca, vehemently opposed the official status demand for Hindi. This gave birth to Hindi-Urdu controversy which gradually acquired communal overtones over the years.

The two-nation theory propounded by renowned poet Mohammad Iqbal brought Urdu to the centrestage of Muslim politics. The then Muslim League leadership politicized Urdu and exploited it to the hilt. Prominent Muslim League leader and founder of Islamic Republic of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who could not even write his own name in Urdu, included it in his famous fourteen points and cynically used it as a tool to forge a Muslim identity. Jinnah exploited Urdu to widen the gap of cultural divide between Hindus and Muslims though he could not speak a word of Urdu. The Muslim League at the height of its partition demand repudiated the slogan 'Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan' with 'Urdu-Muslim-Pakistan'.

Later after partition and India’s independence, the founder of the Aligarh movement Sir Syed Ahmad Khan called for the adoption of Urdu as the language of Indian Muslims. The move also won considerable support from Muslim religious activists of the Deobandi and Wahabbi schools. Organisations like the Urdu Defence Association and Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu were formed to advocate the cause of Urdu. Muslim religious leaders such as Maulana Mohammad Ali, Maulana Shaukat Ali and Maulana Maududi emphasised the knowledge of Urdu as essential for ordinary and religious Muslims. Even Muslim political and social organisations like the All India Muslim League and the Jamaat-e-Islami projected Urdu as essential for the political and cultural survival of Muslim society in India. Shibli Nomani made extensive efforts resulting in the adoption of Urdu as the official language of the Hyderabad State and as the medium of instruction in the Osmania University. Nomani's campaign drew widespread criticism for making the use of Urdu as a political issue that further deepened the divide between Muslims and Hindus. Notwithstanding, Urdu has today become an integral part of political identity and cultural separatism for Muslims in northern and western India.

Role of Urdu

The language of Urdu took birth in India with the advent of Mughal conquerors. Urdu emerged as a synthesis of Khari Boli (Hindi), Braj Bhasha Rajasthani and Punjabi with some Persian and Arabic vocabulary. Being a socio-administrative requirement of Mughal conquerors, the Urdu language became lingua franca in course of time primarily for interaction between the Mughal soldiers and native dwellers. However, the gradual Persianisation and Arabisation of the Urdu language by Mughal conquerors to extend their hegemony over India started playing spoilsport and became the root cause of dividing the Indian society on purely religious lines. Natives viewed the move with suspicion and saw it an attempt to establish the cultural and linguistic hegemony in the region by the Mughal rulers. Native languages had Sanskrit origin and Nagari script, but the imposition of Urdu with Perso-Arabic script was vigorously opposed by the native dwellers. It can be said that the birth of Urdu created the first social division of the Indian society.

From the aspect of language and literature, Urdu is sweet in its essence. It is owing to the Urdu language that a vibrant slogan of 'Inquilab Zindabad' was coined during freedom struggle, and which played a crucial role in freeing India from British rule. However, on the other hand things have been gloomy insofar as social and political role of the Urdu language is concerned. The language of Urdu which was flagrantly used as a political tool by Muslim politicians to create a social and religious divide between Muslims and Hindus and ultimately played a nefarious role in the partition of India, however could not keep Muslims themselves together. After India's partition on two language-two nation theory, the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have been rendered to live under the subjugation of Punjabi-majority rule as second class citizens forever. Once during a visit to India, prominent Mohajir leader and MQM chief Altaf Hussain had to acknowledge and declare that the partition of India was the greatest blunder in human history. The situation with Urdu-speaking Bihari Muslims in Bangladesh is equally pitiable. Around 2.5 lakh Urdu-speaking Muslims have been suffering a worse fate and forced to live in 160 refugee camps under the supervision of the International Committee of Red Cross for over three decades. Only recently these Bihari Muslims accepted Bangladeshi citizenship and were registered as voters in 2008.

To date, the Urdu-speaking population in these three countries – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – continues to face a crisis of identity. Urdu-speaking Muslims in northern and western India are still struggling for their identity as a majority of Hindus still refuse to forgive them for demanding the partition of India. In Pakistan, the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs continue to be nostalgic about their land of origin and therefore the local communities in the country are unwilling to forgive them for this. Similarly, for Bihari Muslims the existence is tough as Bangladeshis are not ready to forgive them for having opposed the struggle for liberation from West Pakistan. The language of Urdu also played a divisive role here since Muslims in Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) refused to accept the hegemony of West Pakistan and therefore the domination of Urdu language. This ultimately resulted in the partition of Pakistan itself on two language-two nation formula and a new nation of Bangladesh took birth.

What have Muslims gained from Urdu?
 
The biggest question one is forced to ask is that has the language of Urdu benefitted Muslims in any way at least in terms of employment opportunities with handsome earnings. For this big question the answer too is simply a big NO. The bitter truth is that privileged Muslims prefer to send their children to study in convents or missionary schools instead of Urdu-medium schools. And, why not? They already know the pitiable conditions that Urdu-medium schools are usually found in. Forget this. Even the champions that advocate the cause of Urdu and are occupying top positions in Urdu in various universities and government offices also prefer to send their children to study in English-medium schools.

Only the wards of Muslims below the poverty line are left with little choice and are forced to go to Urdu-medium schools. Even those Muslims who are slightly better off prefer to send their children to Hindi-medium schools instead of Urdu-medium schools. For them education in Hindi-medium schools mean better employment opportunities. One cannot overlook the fact that the bane of Urdu-medium schools is non-availability of teachers, particularly in Mathematics, English and Science subjects. Besides, Urdu-medium textbooks are not generally available in the market and has been a problem for ages. The problem is such grave that when the English and Hindi books of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) are sent to the market, the translation of Urdu books begins and by the time the translation ends, either the session is over or the text is changed. In comparison to other schools, Urdu-medium schools neither promote nor inculcate extra-curricular activity to motivate students. I have rarely found a Parent-Teacher Association body existing in Urdu schools. As a corollary the rapport between the principals, parents, teachers and students is abysmally low. Also, in most of the Urdu-medium schools the principals and teachers are appointed hailing from an English or Hindi background thus resulting in a lacuna of understanding as also a language bias in day-to-day activities of the schools. A visit to Urdu-medium schools in India is a tell tale in itself. The ghettoized Urdu-medium schools have extremely poor infrastructure and environment – sparsely-lit dilapidated classrooms, poor sanitation facilities, broken and decrepit furniture, unhygienic drinking water or no water. The absence or co-curricular activities, lack of teachers, unconcerned parents and uninterested students are other remarkable features of Urdu-medium schools in India.

In terms of higher education, even if some concerned Muslims want to adopt Urdu medium for their studies one seldom finds Engineering, Medicine and Information Technology books in Urdu. This strictly limits the scope of the language itself and also those of its practitioners. Undoubtedly, the language of Urdu is known for its richness, sweetness and immense literary value. It has been kept alive by Hindi cinema, few Urdu radio and TV channels, the madrassas, the occasional recitation of couplets from Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz in Parliament, and of course, the routine Mehfil-e-Shayari on the occasions of Independence Day and Republic Day. But it’s saddening that the language of Urdu doesn’t open up many avenues on the professional front.

Saving Urdu from politicians and Muslim radicals

The above facts make it obvious that the language of Urdu continues to be used as a political tool both in the hands of politicians and Muslim radicals. As part of planned conspiracy the Indian National Congress introduced Urdu as a medium of study utilizing Articles 14, 19 (1) (g), 24, 29 (2), 30 (1), 38, 39 (F), 41 and 61 of the Indian Constitution with an eye on Muslim votes. The nefarious move over the years pushed Muslims on the fringes and into the dark ages. Keeping in view the votebank politics, the state governments in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi accorded Urdu the second official language status. The demand for making Urdu the second language status in four subdivisions of West Bengal is part of the gameplan of selfish, narrow-minded Muslim politicians to keep the community backward and always struggling for an honorable existence. Only a handful of Urdu knowing Muslims could succeed in getting low-paid government jobs. The motivation has not been such that even the people in these states have never been able to get emotionally attached to Urdu. The state governments occasionally sanction millions of rupees in the name of Urdu and uplift of minorities to Urdu promotion institutes like the Urdu Academies, Anjuman Taraqqui-e-Urdu, the National Council for Promotion of Urdu and State Minority Commissions. However, the move has proved futile and these institutions remain white elephants and left into the hands of corrupt administrators. The fate of Urdu and the minorities thus remains to be imagined. The Muslim clergy has also done a great disservice to Muslims by linking Urdu with Islam. Time and again the Muslim clergy has sought to equate the alleged declining status of Urdu as threat to the Islamic identity of Indian Muslims thus communalizing the whole issue.

The height of the politicization of Urdu and its linkage with the Muslims is such that the Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter in Urdu and sent it to as many as 15,000 Muslims in an attempt to reach out to the Muslim electorate during 2007 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh making a strong plea to extend support “in her fight against forces of casteism and communalism”. Not only this, even arch enemy of the Muslim world the State of Israel assessing the importance of Indian Muslims launched its official website in Urdu in July 2008. While launching the Urdu website Israel’s Ambassador to India Mark Sofer said, "India is known for its moderate and forward-looking religion of beauty that is Islam. There is no reason why we should not address a large section of a strong community."

The so-called Muslim leadership doesn’t have any pragmatic and serious agenda for the betterment of the community. When elections are due to take place these so-called leaders resurface just like frogs out of the wells during rainy seasons. For these self-serving leaders instead of economic, social and educational uplift of Muslims, the important electoral issues are Urdu, Osama bin Laden and Babri Masjid. I remember during 2005 Bihar assembly polls a Osama bin Laden lookalike Mullah used to do rounds with Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav during election meetings across the state. Later on, this Osama bin Laden lookalike Mullah switched sides with ease and used to accompany Lok Jan Shakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan during election meetings. We can simply assess the state of mind of Muslims and how these leaders and clerics play with their emotions.

The need of the hour is that Muslim masses should be awake from their slumber. The Muslim youth have a special role to play. It is the youth who is made the sacrificial goat – whether it be playing with their careers or turning them into suicide bombs and terrorists. It is the Muslim youth who is left to take the bullets during an encounter with the police, fake or otherwise. The so-called Muslim leaders only play with their emotions and meet their own selfish ends. It will be too late if the innocent Muslim masses continue to remain tools in their hands. The time has also come to take the Muslim clerics head on and put an end to their dangerous and evil designs of dividing the Indian Muslim society.

Posted by Unknown on 4/04/2009 12:23:00 PM. Filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

2 comments for "Urdu becomes poll issue again. But, will it deliver good to Muslims?"

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