The murder of linguistic history — I

Published: July 16, 2011
The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History

The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History

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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Reader Comments (13)

  • Jul 17, 2011 - 12:09AM

    Great and researched article. I am saddened by the fact that the above mentioned book was also read by me when I was preparing for CSS. And although I could never understand why British would want to throw out Urdu, I still had to read that non-sense. I wonder whether in all these years at school and later at university have I read history or pseudo non-sense. I just wonder if my teachers had been Dr. Ayesha, Ahmed Rashid and Dr. Tariq, I would surely have been a much more impartial person than I am right now.

    Thanks to Tribune for bringing such issues on its pages.


  • Max
    Jul 17, 2011 - 3:36AM

    It is, indeed, very sad that we have distorted the linguistic history of the sub-continent to suit our ideological convenience. Things did not stop at linguistic history; we have equally distorted the political facts to support the so-called “two-nations theory” and to give a bad image of the Raj.


  • Asad
    Jul 17, 2011 - 4:00AM

    Dr Rahman,

    This is a well researched article but I have a question for you. Have you ever published a book in Urdu (or any other Pakistani language for that matter)? Your website answers in the negative. This is the devastating legacy of language left upon us by the British.


  • Anwar M.
    Jul 17, 2011 - 4:43AM

    You sir, have more fire than I gave you credit for.
    Write on! Write on! Expose more of our state’s shennanigans.
    Tell us more of the truth, because our textbooks don’t!
    But more importantly, give our generations the words and ideas,
    with which to educate our compatriots, most of whom don’t read
    your columns because they are in English.
    You / your press agents must have your articles translated into Urdu.
    And secure the necessary column inches in the Urdu press,
    to broadcast these insights. Thank you very much.


  • Cynical
    Jul 17, 2011 - 5:05AM

    Popular history is always the history of the winner, whether the battle is military,political,econimic or even personal.


  • Sanjay Sharma
    Jul 17, 2011 - 1:55PM

    After study of the article I have slipped into poignant mood. I am trying to catch my past when I was student of class 6 in Centennial Higher Secondary School, Golaganj, Lucknow where Sadiq Saheb was my English & Urdu teacher both. I studied Pahla Qaida from him. But after class 6, Urdu was optional and I switched over to other language, Sanskrit, because Sanskrit was mandatory up-to class 8. This was the end of my learning process of great language Urdu in Persian script. But in common discussions we used to speak Urdu words without hesitation. My passion for Urdu was mainly due to poetry of great literary scholars like Ghalib, Josh, Firaq which I read in Hindi magazines for children like ‘Parag’ and ‘Nandan’. These two magazines were instrumental in making me interested in great story writers like Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander. Films like Mirza Ghalib, Taj Mahal, Mughl-e-Azam, Mere Mehboob, Pyasa and so on, had plenty of Sahir Ludhianvi – Shakeel Budaunyni written songs which were voiced by immortals like Bade Ghulam Ali Saheb, Talat Saheb, Rafi Saheb, Manna Dey and Lata Ji. Haunting music by Naushad Saheb, Madan Mohan Ji and Khayyam Saheb was really blessing of God. The era of magicians like these has diminished long back.

    Although it was language of masses till 60s and was still being used in offices and courts, particularly in Northern States of independent India, Urdu was deliberately faced out from child’s curriculum by the politicians and society both. Politicians wanted Hindi as supreme national language under tri-language formula, where Hindi, was considered as national language, English as the language of communication, and regional language as mother tongue. No doubt, this formula has worked wonders in allying fears in a regionally divided population, but in that process Urdu was sidelined and subsequently not considered as viable option for future jobs. Urdu was left like baby without parents. My grandfather used to read Urdu papers/magazines but I knew Urdu only in Devnagri script as the society gave up studying Urdu in Persian script. Since Urdu was not job-oriented, people started using plenty of other regional words in 70s & 80s and subsequently with the migration of villagers of Eastern UP to Lucknow, my city of Nawabs also lost its great linguistic culture. Migration of rural masses to city has created havoc on the softness of our attitudes and the language used in making Umrao Jaan is fast perishing in history (Please excuse me for giving examples of films as the great Urdu laureates do not have any space any more in our medium of studies). Only my few friends teach Urdu to their children so that the their identity remains intact.

    I have no words to express my deep sorrow of losing Urdu in our composite culture. Since we have not been able to preserve Urdu, the same is going to happen with Hindi one day. With the supremacy of English all over, Hindi is now considered secondary language amongst the elite class. As the English is main medium of getting jobs, children have no idea as to who was Premchand who wrote great stories like Namak Ka Daroga, Idgah, Bade Bhai Saheb and of course – Shatranj Ke Khiladi, all in Hindi or Hindustani. Waht a pity!

    Thanks ET for the highly researched article. Shukriya Dr Tariq Rahman Saheb.


  • Jul 17, 2011 - 2:48PM

    There was a subject called Civics way back in 1968 which was taught in class 7 – in that students were being taught the presidential system introduced by the great Field Marshal President Ayub Khan for the good of the country. About the transfer of power etc. A few months later the principal called the students on the playground to listen to the speech made by General Yahyah who addressed the people of Pakistan about removing the Field Marshal. All the civic that we had learnt went down the drain.


  • Feroz I. Khan
    Jul 17, 2011 - 3:22PM

    Very well researched article. I plan to read your book “From Hindi to Urdu” on the plane, during my trip back from Karachi to New York.


  • Jul 17, 2011 - 3:46PM

    I didn’t realise there was this least in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa the British actively promoted Urdu at the expense of Pashto because the previous court language was Dari-Persian and they wanted the region to be less Kabul centric.


  • mind control
    Jul 17, 2011 - 10:08PM

    Looks like the establishment does not believe in taking a chance. The disinformation campaign through Pakistan Studies starts from school level and goes on right upto Graduate level. I have a sneaking suspicion that Post Graduate and even Doctoral students are not spared.

    When the finished product goes out in the real world, be it as a teacher, journalist, bureaucrat, army officer, diplomat, politician or plain citizen, no wonder, he is unable to come to terms with it.


  • Vicram Singh
    Jul 17, 2011 - 10:57PM

    Since I am not a Muslim, I do not have the need for a supposed Arabic or Persian origin, nor do I have an affinity for any script that looks like Arabic and Persian. Therefore, a posthumous thank you to all those who were in power at that time who replaced the Persian/Arabic script with local Indian scripts such as the Devnagri script.


  • S
    Jul 18, 2011 - 10:23AM

    @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!


  • abhi
    Jul 21, 2011 - 12:40PM

    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.


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