Urdu has been a controversial language in Pakistan despite its official and holy status. The Bengalis rejected it way back in the 1940s when Jinnah, advised by a bureaucracy, with imperial moorings declared in that it would be the official language. Subsequently, Sindhis, Baloch and Pashtuns have also resisted the one-size-fits-all Urdu formula. Admittedly, in the past few decades, Urdu has emerged as a functional lingua franca that connects the various federating units of Pakistan but its conflation with Islam and Muslim ‘nationhood’ remains the paramount narrative in Pakistan.
It takes arduous scholarship and infinite courage to author a book like “From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History” (Oxford University Press, 2011). Dr Tariq Rahman ironically has worked as the Director of the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at the Quaid-i-Azam University and therefore his challenge to the mythical dimensions of ‘Pakistan Studies’ comes from within and not as an outsider. Sixty-four years after the creation of Pakistan, we have not arrived at any conclusion about our ‘national’ or cultural identity. Dr Rahman’s book if anything shatters the myths that we have built around Urdu; and therefore presents a valid alternative to Goebbelsesque tone of our official history.
Urdu, according to Rahman, evolved out of the various mutually intelligible dialects across India. Muslims who landed in India as soldiers, merchants, mystics, and camp followers enriched the native dialects. Especially the one that was spoken around Delhi called Khari Boli. A language known as Hindi, Hindvi or Dehlavi came into being. It spread towards the south and by the 18th century it was called Rekhta and Hindustani, among other names. The elites of Delhi Persianised it and renamed it as Zuban-e-Urdu-e-Mualla (the language of an exalted city).
Far from being a separate identity marker, Urdu represented the complex Hindu-Muslim exchange during the 13th-18th centuries. Therefore, as Rahman rightly says, Urdu is a common heritage of Hindus and Muslims for at least 500 years if not more. By undertaking detailed research into subject, he shows instead of being an elitist language it was the language of common men and women. Urdu language essentially is rooted in the Indian soil and a manifestation of osmosis between Hindus and Muslims. Rahman also shows that Urdu was not born in military barracks as a resut of Muslim invasions.
One cannot disagree with Rahman that ‘modern’ Urdu is a deliberate Muslim cultural product, which came into being through the linguistic reform movement during late 18th century. This was the same time when Hindu reformers started to clean up and removed Persian and Arabic words in favour of Sanskrit.
My own views, largely based on what the patriotic Pakistani scholars wrote, were challenged as Rahman disproves the faux theory that locates Urdu in geographical areas now constituting Pakistan. However, the most illuminating part of his study relates to the prevalent myth in Pakistan that somehow the British deliberately promoted Hindi against Urdu i.e. the Muslims. To the contrary as Rahman tells us the British showed partiality towards the development of Urdu rather than Hindi and made public investments into the language.
Of course, such narratives cannot be popular in a country where Hindi-Urdu controversy of 19th and early 20th century is cited as the basis of Muslim separatism. Unfortunately, we have little room for the kind of scientific research that Rahman has undertaken. Half-truths and invented ‘facts’ enable the construction of nationalisms. We have used Urdu as a political instrument to articulate the hegemony of the key classes that led events to Partition. Furthermore, imposition of Urdu at the expense of regional languages has further compounded its status. Thus we have isolated ourselves from centuries of a cultural identity, and also alienated the various peoples of Pakistan ‘reinventing’ Urdu as an Islamic thing. It has led to reactions across the border where a similar ‘Muslim’ stamp is affixed on a people’s language that was essentially secular and plural.
Pakistan is a reality now. We can still correct our future if we give up the pastime of hating our heritage and admitting that all the weapons and propaganda cannot falsify history. One hopes that Dr Rahman’s book is translated for the Urdu readers soon.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2012.