By Fahad Hashmi
As the Urdu Markaz, a cultural body in Mumbai, was shut down by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) a couple of weeks ago, I got reminded of an Urdu couplet by Akbar Allahabadi.
Kheencho na kamaanon ko na talwaar nikaalo
Jab top muqaabil ho, to akhbaar nikaalo
[Neither pull bowstring, nor draw a sword,
When faced with a cannon, just bring out a newspaper.]
Most probably, the couplet was a response to the challenge posed by the military might of the British Empire. It suddenly struck me what Urduwalas would have done had the existence of the very language in which the poet was urging people to release newspapers to defeat the empire was brought into question.
Ali Sardar Jafri, another Urdu poet and critic, once observed:
Isi zaban se watan ke honton ne nara-e-inqilab paya
[The slogan inqilab…that is on the lips of Indians owes to the language of Urdu.]
Jafri was certainly referring to the famous slogan inquilab zindabad (Long Live the Revolution) given by Maulana Hasrat Mohani, a revolutionary Urdu poet. The slogan was used by toiling masses of India who were intent on overthrowing the yoke of colonialism.
Shaheed Bhagat Singh had shouted the same slogan after hurling a bomb in the central Assembly in Delhi in 1929. Hasrat mounted a campaign against the British Raj through his mouthpiece, Risalay-e-Urdu-e-Moalla. He was the first student of Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College (MAO) Aligarh (now Aligarh Muslim University), who had served sentence in a prison. In 1908, under the Press Act, Hasrat Mohani was booked in a case of sedition and was sent to a jail in Aligarh. Remarkably, Hasrat had the distinction of being the first Urdu editor who was made to grind flour in the prison, and in this course he churned out a famous couplet:
Hai mashq-e-sukhan jari, chakki ki mashaqqat bhi
Ek turfa tamasha hai hasrat ki tabiyat bhi
(Hasrat has got a strange personality. He is not only producing flour, but creating poems as well.)
It is also pertinent to recall here Maulvi Muhammad Baqar, a Shia divine, who had initiated Dehli Urdu Akhbar (Delhi Urdu Paper), probably the first paper in Urdu language in northern India. Maulvi Baqar was shot dead by Hodson for his anti-British writings. If one wants to know what role Urdu played in the freedom struggle, one needs to revisit the history of India’s independence, particularly the events that took place around 1857.
It goes without saying that there are umpteen numbers of people from other communities who made a lasting contribution to Urdu prose and poetry. These writings are part of the syllabi. At this moment one recalls Daya Shankar Nasim, his son Tilok Chand Mehroom, and his son Jagan Nath Azad, Brij Narayan Chakbast, Raghupati Sahay aka Firaq Gorakhpuri, Munshi Premchand, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Krishn Chander. As I write these lines, I am reminded of Ram Prasad Bismil, who recited Bismil Azimabadi’s poem, “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil me hai” from the gallows. One could cite a host of authors – Muslim as well as Non-Muslim – who contributed to prose as well as poetry of the Urdu language.
I don’t intend suggesting that only the Muslim community fought the freedom struggle or the community has got a monopoly on the language. The idea is to put things in perspective, and to remind ourselves of the contribution made by the people, who are under attack for being born into this particular language, towards the making of this nation.
If one traces the trajectory of the fate of the Urdu language from the time of Mutiny of 1857, it could be argued that it has, on the whole, travelled from being good to bad to ugly. Post-partition, the very language which had nurtured the freedom movement started facing discrimination.
There is a sustained effort to associate Urdu with the Muslim community but nothing could be further from the truth. Urdu has never been, as linguists and historians of the language inform us, a language of a particular religion or a region. It belongs to this land, whose traces are very much part of the warp and weft of the social and cultural fabric of India.
Since partition, Urdu has been put within the four walls of ‘academies’ and ‘centres’. The process not only stripped the language of its creativity but also annihilated space and opportunity it needed to flourish. Recognising Urdu as the second official language by respective governments of the North Indian states reeks of tokenism. Urduwalas are no less responsible for the decline of the language. There is a criminal negligence on the part of the community with regard to taking responsibility either in individual capacity or at collective level in nurturing the language.
Since the Modi regime has taken hold of the country’s cockpit, Urdu has continuously been drawing fire. A couple of months back, we witnessed that the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) issued a form for the authors writing in Urdu to give an undertaking that they would not write against the government.
Last year, the Rajasthan government omitted short stories and poems penned by Safdar Hashmi and Ismat Chughtai. Ironically, stories containing Muslim characters also got omitted from the syllabus.
In Delhi, the artists who were writing couplets in Urdu on the walls which was part of a government-approved project received threats from rightwing goons. Urdu letters got smudged too.
A good number of friends including myself have noticed that people stare at you while you are reading stuffs written in Urdu script in Metros and at other public spaces in the national capital. The ‘gaze’ is always suspicious and intimidating.
The latest in a series of attack on the language is the closure of an Urdu Ghar meant for imparting education to children. The reason put forth for doing this was the apprehension of ‘non-educational activities’ at the Ghar on part of the civic authorities.
What could all these ‘non-educational activities’ be? What does this subtle or unsubtle innuendo stand for? This ‘non-educational activities’ need to be unpacked as it insinuates doubts into a trusting mind. It is beyond doubt that the phrase certainly points towards the Muslim community and its ‘connection’ with ‘terrorism’. The message that is subliminally being disseminated across the country is that Urdu has a foreign origin. It belongs to a foreign people. It carries the trappings of foreign culture and social histories. In other words, the language belongs to ‘foreigners’, rather ‘invaders’!
All these ‘bans’, ‘prohibitions’, ‘undertakings’ and so many other instances tell tales about a lurking suspicion that Muslims are predisposed to violence or terrorism, and thus are not worthy of our trust. This is quintessentially a case of ‘internal orientalism’. In other words, Muslim as the hated other is always available on the menu within the geographical boundary. A particular feature is being picked up or structured at a particular conjecture –‘language’, ‘dietary habits’, ‘foreignness’, et cetera – and endowed with anti-Hindu/anti-national connotations which are defined in detail, explained with exaggeration, and reinforced by lies and rumours. All these constructs and profiling have a history, which owes much to Hunter’s infamous book, The Indian Musalmans: Are they Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? Hunter’s ‘fanatics’ have only been replaced by ‘terrorists’ in postcolonial India! This colonial hand-me-down is an important colonial legacy that the present-day India exploits. And this is being regularly reproduced, perpetuated, and reinforced by sins of omission and commission.
Compared to its reach, the grasp of Urdu has regularly been on the decline. That Sufi songs, Bollywood movies, banners of protests and even day-to-day conversations still carry Urdu words, couplets, and slogans attest to fact that anti-Urdu lobby has its limitations. However, it remains to be seen what else is going to come Urdu’s way and how Urduwalas would respond to the challenges the language faces in India today.
Fahad Hashmi is an independent researcher, who holds an MPhil in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.
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