The murder of linguistic history — I

State and powerful interest groups distort textbooks of history to indoctrinate students to support their narrative.

Dr Tariq Rahman July 16, 2011

KK Aziz’s landmark study of the distortion and falsification of history in textbooks entitled The Murder of History: A critique of history textbooks used in Pakistan, was first published in 1993. Since then, a number of people, including myself, have written on this subject. In India, too, the saffronisation of textbooks was opposed by well-meaning people and Krishna Kumar’s book Prejudice and Pride: School Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and Pakistan (2001) is a major study on this subject. The gist of all these works is that the state and powerful interest groups distort textbooks of history so as to indoctrinate students to support their narrative and the policies emanating from it.

While some form of indoctrination goes into the deliberate construction of identities — mainly nationalistic identities — all over the world, it is rarely as crude as in the textbooks one comes across in our educational institutions. Even so, I was surprised when looking at the guidebooks students study for Pakistan studies at the BA level. I found versions of linguistic history which are simply untrue. Let me expatiate upon some of these untruths in a series of articles, of which this is the first.

The book in question, published by a shadowy publishing house in the Urdu Bazaar of Lahore, is used by students of Pakistan studies, history, politics, international relations as well as those preparing for their civil service examinations. The book claims that the British were enemies of Urdu. The facts, however, are that the British taught Urdu, which they mostly called ‘Hindustani’, to their officers in Fort William College. The first department of Urdu was, in fact, established by them there under the supervision of John Borthwick Gilchrist who wrote A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language in 1796. Urdu was later spread in the lower schools of present-day Utter Pradesh (UP) by British officers, notably James Thomason (1804-1853) during the 1850s. In 1853, the authorities made the knowledge of Urdu necessary for employment so it spread faster. Later, when the British conquered Punjab in 1849, they spread Urdu to the schools in both Punjab and present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Again, as in UP, they also made Urdu the language of lower jobs and hence, people learned it in their pragmatic interest.

The second major lie in the textbook is that during the Urdu-Hindi controversy, the British drove out Urdu from the courts and imposed Hindi instead. In fact, while individual British officers were divided amongst themselves, the British government did not drive out Urdu from its major strongholds i.e. present-day UP and Punjab. The guide mentions Lt Governor AP Macdonnell (1859-1925) as the man who threw Urdu out of the lower courts and offices of the North Western Provinces (NWP, present-day UP). Macdonnell’s papers are available in a special collection at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford. I read them first in 1993 and again in 2010 for my recently-published book From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History (2011). Macdonnell received petitions from the supporters of Hindi — about 86 per cent of the population — to replace Urdu by Hindi in the courts. He sat on them for three years and eventually decided that (1) petitions could be received in both Urdu and Hindi scripts (2) summonses and proclamations will also be in both (3) only people who could read both scripts would be given government service (April 18, 1900). In short, Hindi was allowed but Urdu remained the language of the courts and lower offices.

Macdonnell wrote to the viceroy, Lord Curzon, that it would be politically dangerous to remove Urdu. In his own words of May 18, 1900: “A political danger of considerable magnitude here intervened. The dethronement of Urdu, and the enthronement of Hindi, would mean an embittered war between Mohomedan and Hindu and the excitement of Mohomedan hostility against the government.”

The British government wanted peace and order, of course, and could not afford a civil war (our present governments do not seem to mind that though). Hence Urdu remained the court language till September 1949, two years after the departure of the British, when it was replaced by Hindi in the Devanagari script by the Legislative Assembly of India.

Apart from pure ignorance, one wonders where this notion of the replacement of Urdu by Hindi comes from. My guess is that it comes from developments in Bihar and the Saugor and Nerbudda territories (present-day Madhya Pradesh) and the hill tracts of the NWP, which are confused with the rest of north India. In 1835, FJ Shore, officiating commissioner of Saugor and Nerbudda, replaced Persian by Hindustani in the Devanagari script. Officials in Kumaun and adjoining hilly areas were also doing this. Yet, at least in the Saugor and Nerbudda areas, the Persian script (Urdu) was introduced 10 years later. Thus, when this area was amalgamated with Central Provinces (CP) in 1861, Urdu came to predominate.

Only in Bihar, two governors, Sir George Campbell and Sir Anthony Eden, removed Urdu. The former attacked Persianised Urdu in 1871, and the latter ordered the use of Hindustani in the Kaithi or the Devanagari scripts to the exclusion of the Urdu script. Later, because of Hindu resistance to Kaithi, it was excluded and Devanagari triumphed.

Yet, in the cultural heartland of UP and the Muslim-majority areas of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, it was Urdu which was officially supported and promoted — even at the expense of the indigenous languages of the people — by the British. Hence, to claim that British rule was inimical to Urdu is either ignorance or misleading propaganda. In any case, I would urge authorities to pay more attention to textbooks to create less biased minds than we have done in the past.



Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2011.

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COMMENTS (13)

abhi | 8 years ago | Reply | Recommend

@S Sikh religion is also Indigenous. Main problem with Urdu is its script which is totally foreign and infact not suitable to depict many words spoken in native languages correctly. Having foreign influence is different but adopting anything just because it is foreign is another thing.

S | 8 years ago | Reply | Recommend

@Vicram Singh: If you feel so strongly about adhering to pure "Indian" culture, why not go the whole way, and ditch a syncretic religion like Sikhism? Surely Hinduism or Buddhism would be more "indigenous" and "pure" to India, unlike Sikhism, which is as much a result of the influence of Islam on local Indian religions as Urdu, which is the result of Persio-Arabic influence on Indian laguages!

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