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No Future? Urdu in Contemporary India

Photo: Gateway Litfest

By Rahman Abbas

Urdu is a modern language and one of the most influential and widely spoken languages in India and Pakistan. Urdu is not just a language, but a Tehzib, a reflection of cultural heritage of Hindustan or India. During its formation roughly eight to nine centuries ago, it was known as Rekhta, Hindavi, Dehlavi, Urdu-e-Moalla, Deccani, and Hindustani at different times and in different regions. The researchers have claimed that around 75% of Urdu words have their etymological roots in Sanskrit and Prakrit and approximately 99% of Urdu verbs have their roots in Sanskrit and Prakrit. It is said that Urdu or Hindustani is an Indo-Aryan language and a branch of Indo-Iranian family, and during the rule of Mughal dynasty in Hindustan like many other Indian languages and dialects Urdu also came under the influence of Persian and Arabic. Moreover, people and communities close to the rulers and the script of the kingdom started to write Hindustani in the Nastaliq script, a style of the Persian.

There are many concepts about the birth of Urdu but the most convincing one is that Urdu developed from the dialects of Prakrit spoken in and around Delhi in the 11th and 12th centuries AD. These dialects include Brij Bhasha, Mewati, Khari Boli and Haryani which were rooted in Apbhransh- referring to the dialects prevalent in the Ganges (east and west) before the rise of the modern languages (1).

It is stated that the word ‘Urdu’ was used for the first time to refer to Hindustani by the poet Ghulam Mustafah Hamadani (1747-1824) around 1780. From the 13th century until the end of the 18th century, Urdu was commonly known as Hindustani and Hindi (2).

In the 18th century, the Mughal Empire declined and the British started ruling over the Subcontinent. With the fall of the Mughal Empire, the official language, i.e. Persian, also became irrelevant and Hindustani was promoted by the colonial rulers. There are historical evidences which confirm that after the Independence struggle of 1857 was waged against the British rule, the British government adopted a policy to divide Indian people in the name of religion, cultural identity, script, and traditions. The British rulers deliberately instigated that Hindustani be written in Devanagiri script instead of Nastaliq.

The partition of the Subcontinent in 1947 further pushed the notion amid the extremist factions within both communities that it was not the failure of politics of the time, revival of religious thinking, and inability of the British government to resolve disagreements through result-oriented negotiation, that caused the partition, but language and identity. Later, the Hindu right wingers spewed venom not just against the Muslims for split of the Subcontinent, but also against the language they spoke in the northern part of India. Moreover, the divide and rule policy of the British government until 1947 had successfully instilled propaganda. In the minds of a majority in northern India that if Hindustani is written in the Devanagiri script, it is the language of the Hindus and if written in Urdu, it is the language of the Muslims. This was a farce, and laughable, fabricated lies of colonialism, but this was then the oxygen for many revivalist forces which later flourished as Jamat-e-Islami and RSS.

Extremists of both sides had conspired and used their might to pollute minds in the last seven decades to purify Urdu and Hindi (Hindustani). A section of Muslims did try to purify Urdu from the influence of Sanskrit and Hindustaniat (Indianness) and Hindu right wing with the backing of political forces tried to purify Hindi from the influence of Persian and Ganga-Jamni Tehzib – a cultural pattern of peaceful co-existence of Hindus and Muslims for centuries. However, in 21st century India, we witness that the essence of Hindustani (Historic amalgamation of Prakrit and Tehzib of India, which flourished in last ten centuries) is winning over the hate and negative propaganda continued after the British rule by the revivalist forces. This is also true that both the extremist revivalist forces have penetrated the political system and thus, a purified version of Hindi and Urdu might be observed in government propaganda and newsletters both in India and Pakistan. But at the societal and public level, the politically designed language agenda has failed to win hearts. Now people accept without hesitation that the language manufactured in the laboratory of politics is neither Urdu nor Hindi, but a jargon and a curse of colonialism. Eminent Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi has acknowledged that the Hindi used by the Government of India is not Hindi, whereas Urdu scholar and critic Shamim Hanfi has said that we cannot live without Hindi words. We ought to save Hindi and Urdu from the politics.

According to the online available statistics, there are over 100 million native speakers of Urdu in India (more than 80% of it) and Pakistan together: there were 52 million and 80.5 million Urdu speakers in India, some 5% and 6.5% of the total population as per the 2001 and 2011 censuses respectively (3). And approximately, 10 million in Pakistan or 7.57% as per the 1998 census and 16 million in 2006 estimates (4).

With the onset of globalization and new avenues of employment, a large number of Urdu speaking diaspora has spread to the Middle East, Europe, US, Canada and other parts of the world. Urdu, as a variant of Hindustani, is almost similar to Hindi, which is another variant of Hindustani, and thus, if we keep aside our biases, Urdu is the third most commonly spoken language in the world after Mandarin and English (5).

Urdu is also one of the officially recognized languages in India and the official language of Jammu and Kashmir, one of the two official languages of Telangana, besides having the status of “additional official language” in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and the national capital, New Delhi (6). However, it is obvious that no language or (script) could survive without the patronage of the government or having connectivity with market economy and technology. Government support could revive even dead languages, for we have seen how efforts are underway to revive Hebrew and Sanskrit.

Unfortunately, in the Indian context, efforts have been made to curb the natural growth of Urdu by creating hurdles in the ways of children wishing to learn Urdu in some parts of northern Indian states. It is known that after the Independence of India, communal forces have systematically tried to murder Urdu and cut it off from modernity, technology, enlightenment, mainstream, and market economy. There are various commissions and surveys which had highlighted the necessity to bestow Constitutional and democratic rights to Urdu, but successive governments did nothing under the influence of hate campaigns unleashed by Hindutva right wingers. The prejudice to eliminate Urdu from market economy, education and the mainstream in general gained ground in a few northern states, but India is a vast and large country. The brighter aspect is that Urdu has flourished in other states where it had minimal presence before the independence.

However, in today’s India although Urdu is not connected with the market economy, there are many areas where its influence is visible and unavoidable. For example, in the Indian film industry, advertisements, TV serials, songs, theatre, public speeches, and communication between people from various states. The experiment of ‘Shudh Hindi’ or ‘Pure Hindi’ is confined within the government mouthpieces, but not in the public domain. The lingua franca of India is Hindustani, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. The propaganda that Urdu is not an Indian language might have worked for some time in post-Independence India, but in the 21st century, people are no more interested in such blatant lies, except those that have grown up in schools run by Hindu revivalists and communal organizations which are part of the RSS family. The new generation of Hindi-educated youth has begun to accept Urdu as an integral part of Hindustani, as much as Hindi is an integral part of Hindustani. Without Hindi, Urdu is incomplete and without Urdu, Hindi is incomplete. The best example of this is Jashn-e-Rekhta and Jashn-e-Adab.

Jashn-e-Rekhta, a literary festival, is founded by Sanjiv Saraf, a businessman. It is considered one of the biggest literary festivals in India today that celebrates Urdu literature, diversity of Indian cultures and Ganga Jamni Tehzib. In the Rekhta festival every year thousands of youth and lovers of Urdu language and literature participate from various linguistic and religious backgrounds. On the other hand, Jashn-e-Adab is founded by Kunwar Ranjeet Chauhan, a young Urdu poet from the Hindi heartland. Similarly, Abhishek Shukla, Vipul Kumar, Vikas Sharma Raz, Pradeep Sarkash, Tripurari Kumar are the ones who are now known as young talented Urdu poets, and they have proved that the politics of hate is not relevant anymore. They have learnt the Urdu script and proved that Hindustani can be acknowledged and expressed in two scripts.

The gulf between Urdu and Hindi which was a result of colonialism and politics of hate that prevailed prior to Independence is seemingly reducing now. If secular political forces come to power and the political ‘will’ prevails, Urdu might get its Constitutional and guaranteed rights. If this happens it could change to future of Urdu in India spurring Hindustani to certainly become one of the most powerful languages within a century or two. If Urdu can be introduced as the second script of Hindustani, then Urdu – like Hindi – would also get more access to the market and mainstream financial activities. The problem, however, is politics. Unfortunately, since over a decade, the Hindutva right wingers are busy in fomenting dirty communal politics. This form of politics – engineered after the pattern that colonial Britain had practiced – is based on fabricated lies and hates to divide the society for remaining in power.

It is evident that Hindutva politics is ruining the fabric of the secular and liberal traditions of India; hence in this atmosphere of communal hatred, empowerment of minorities, tribal people, Dalits, or Urdu language and culture, is just a dream. However, the future of Urdu is not bleak in India, because as we stated above, Hindi is also Urdu and Hindi is incomplete without Urdu. The problem is that millions of people speak Hindustani but they call it Hindi and the government promotes only one script of Hindustani. On the other hand, there is a country where Urdu script has flourished and there are some states in India other than the north Indian states where the script has got the place it deserves. The language of Indian movies is Hindustani, not purified Hindi. And similarly thousands of songs written in Indian movies are Urdu songs. Till people continue singing these love songs, Urdu will rule over billions of hearts. Urdu is the language of love, freedom and choices, and these are the basic traits of humanity. Urdu will survive in India till these fundamental aspects of humanity are not politically declared a crime.

1 Shapiro, Michael C. (2003), “Hindi”, in Cardona, George and Dhanesh Jain, The Indo-Aryan Languages. Routledge, 2003.
2 Rahman, Tariq (2001). From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History. Oxford University Press, 2001. pp. 1–22.
3 “Statement – 1: Abstract of speakers’ strength of languages and mother tongues – 2001”Government of India, 2001.
4 “Government of Pakistan: Population by Mother Tongue.” Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2014.
5 “Hindustani”. Columbia University press.
6 Wasey, Akhtarul (16 July 2014). “50th Report of the Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities in India (July 2012 to June 2013).”

Rahman Abbas 
is twice State Sahitya Academy award winning novelist. He writes in Urdu and English. He is author of seven books including four novels. He was one of the authors who had returned their awards, while protesting against the atmosphere of hate in 2015.


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