Language Politics in South Asia: Hindi vs Urdu

We are talking about the languages in South Asia. If you are a South Asian, how do you feel when someone from a mono-linguistic culture asks you — “Do you speak Indian in India?” “Ya ya”, I usually answer. It becomes difficult to make them understand that I am a native speak of Kashmiri that I never learnt in school (now from the year 2005 the Government of Jammu & Kashmir has introduced Kashmiri into schools of the valley), but I can also speak Hindi-Urdu to communicate with people from most parts of Northern South Asia (including  Nepal and Pakistan) where they do not understand Kashmiri, and for rest of it I use English and some times if you land up in a place where only the regional language is spoken then one has to communicate with sign-language (as I usually do in Italy). Some reports say there are nearly 780 dialects spoken in India alone and some 250 dialects have died out in past 50 years. I also grew up speaking what is called Urdu in the State of Jammu and Kashmir (Urdu is the official language of the State) although I am not really good at reading the script, but when visiting Delhi or some other parts of India I was told it was Hindi. Hmmm…!!! I still recall my first day in St Stephen’s College in Delhi where I met a fellow interviewee from Bihar who spoke what I called Television language. For me it was the same language spoken by the characters of the TV Series of B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharat. Much later, I came to know that the so called pure Hindi never existed and the Hindi used by B.R. Chopra was basically artificial. There is hardly any much difference between Hindi and Urdu for me, but when I was in Delhi, in the beginning often there were problems in understanding the vocabulary of some college-mates arriving from Eastern India. This part that mostly constitutes of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is known as the Hindi Belt, and the so-called pure Hindi is mostly spoken is parts of this region.

Recently when I came across a newspaper report [read the report here] it made me think about the history of language politics in South Asia. How Hindi became Indian and Urdu became Pakistani! When I talk to young people in India today they seem to think Urdu is not spoken in India, but it is the language of Pakistan alone. If I meet younger people from Pakistan they believe Urdu is not spoken in India but it is Hindi that is. “It is different that we understand each other”, they say. The problem is the political boundaries. We are so used to looking at political maps alone. A friend one day asked me that how is the Bengali of Bangladesh different from the Bengali spoken in the Indian Bengal. I said his question was wrong. One answer is it is not at all different, but the Bengali spoken in border regions of both the countries those are in proximity would have more similarities than the diametrically opposed ends of these regions.

Let us have a glimpse of the languages of Northern South Asia:

Which is the fourth most spoken language in the world ? They say it is Hindi. Which is the nineteenth most spoken language in the world ? They say it is Urdu. What is the language spoken in India? They say it is Hindi. What is the language spoken in Pakistan? They say it is Urdu. Yet there are only 39-41% native speakers of Hindi in India and 8% people regard Urdu as their native tongue in Pakistan where 54-60% population speaks Punjabi. This makes us think that it is not only about language politics, but it also involves script politics. [Rahman, Tariq (2011) From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History, Karachi: Oxford University Press]. Read, for instance, this abstract of Robert D. King’s paper titled “The Poisonous Potency of Script: Hindi and Urdu” [International Journal of Sociology of Language. 150 (2001), pp. 43-59].

Hindi and Urdu are variants of the same language characterized by extreme digraphia: Hindi is written in the Devanagari script from left to right, Urdu in a script derived from a Persian modification of Arabic script written from right to left. High variants of Hindi look to Sanskrit for inspiration and linguistic enrichment, high variants of Urdu to Persian and Arabic. Hindi and Urdu diverge from each other cumulatively, mostly in vocabulary, as one moves from the bazaar to the higher realms, and in their highest – and therefore most artificial – forms the two languages are mutually incomprehensible. The battle between Hindi and Urdu, the graphemic conflict in particular, was a major flash point of Hindu/Muslim animosity before the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947.

We know very well that basically Hindi and Urdu are the same language, but it is the nationalistic absolutism of the two countries that has lead them believe that languages belong to religions and religions belong to nations. The ephemerality of this notion also became clear when the federal government of India had to face a deep dismay from it’s southern States first during 1937-40, and then again in 1946-50, 1965, 1968 and 1986 for imposing Hindi on the non-Hindi speaking people of India. Thanks to these movements that India has no national language. And in case of Pakistan, the West Pakistan had to face the revolts of Bengali speaking people from the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and one of the major reasons of this revolt was the imposition of Urdu (the so called national language, even though before 1971 Bengali was also officially recognized by Pakistan) on Bengali people. This lead to what came to be known as Bengali Language Movement. This was one more proof of the fact that language and religion should be understood as two different segments under a single canopy of ‘Culture’, but the linguistic identity should not be confused with religious identity or vice versa.. In case of India, the Nagari Pracharini Sabha was implementing all the Urdu works to be transcribed into Devanāgarī. I mean, come on, if you cannot de-Persianize (which had become the policy of the Government of India after 1947) ‘the Hindi language’, at least it is worth trying to de-Nastalique it.

The Directive for development of the Hindi language of the Constitution of India (Part XVII.—Official Language—Arts. 349—351. Chapter IV—Special Directives) in its directive No. 351 says:

It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule, and by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.

Urdu, the language of the cultured in Awadh, was subjected to hatred and dismay in its land of birth. On the other hand it was obviously impossible to imagine that Hindi and Sanskrit would continue to be studied in Pakistan after it officially became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The 1973 version of the Constitution of Pakistan says this about its language policy:

The rationale for this privileging of Urdu, as given by the government of Pakistan, is that Urdu is so widely spread that it is almost like the first language of all Pakistanis. Moreover, since most jobs are available through Urdu, it is only just that all children should be given access to it. Above all, it is a symbol of unity and helps in creating a unified “Pakistani” identity. In this symbolic role, it serves the political purpose of resisting ethnicity, which otherwise would break the federation. As for the provision that other Pakistani languages may be used, it is explained that the state, being democratic and sensitive to the rights of the federating units, allows the use of provincial languages if desired.

I think the notion of Indian Government of having one language for India is unrealistic. Have you observed that often when we visit websites there is an option on the top corner highlighting some flags for languages. For instance if we want to read that website in French, we click on the French flag and the website would be shown in French language and so on and so forth. Now the idea India has is exactly this that it also wants to have that little flag there for Hindi (in fact, on many websites you do have such option) which does not make sense at all. There is Orientalism in play and countries like India and Pakistan, instead of recognizing their own diversity of cultures and languages, are becoming the victims of their ‘intimate enemy’.

Coming back to the news paper report that I mentioned above, it makes one think – is the Sanskritization of Hindi  and Persinization of Urdu still continuing. And where do you make this distinction of what is Hindi and what is Urdu, and who will make that. Yes, both India and Pakistan are trying very hard to make Hindi ‘Hindi’ and Urdu ‘Urdu’ respectively, but can they change the language of Bollywood–I mean the language of the common people. Did you read this recent article, by the way –

While I think Bollywood is still that speaks the language of the masses (because it is not controlled by the government, but keeps in mind what common people would understand), but if you listen to the official news or official TV channels both in India and Pakistan, you will observe the gradual development Hindi and Urdu have undergone in all these past decades. And now it is that that most of the Northern Indian and Pakistanis can talk to each other, but they cannot read each other’s writings unless that re written either in English or in Roman transliteration of Hindi-Urdu. Thanks to the British legacy that there is English.

Suggested Readings:

1. One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India, by Christopher R. King, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1994.

2. The Politics of Language – Urdu/Hindi: An Artificial Divide, Abdul Jamil Khan.

3. From Hindi to Urdu – A Social and Political History by Tariq Rahman, Oxford University Press.

4. Hindi Nationalism by Alok Rai, Sangam Books.

5. Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India by William Gould, Cambridge University Press.


Author: Mrinal Kaul

I am a Kashmirian Orientalist

One thought on “Language Politics in South Asia: Hindi vs Urdu”

  1. Thanks, Mrinal! I would just add two minor points:

    –the identification of one language=one nation is a relatively recent event (possibly due to Romanticism). Latin has been used throughout Europe and German, French, English, are not the language of a single country (although the French government tries to emphasise this correspondance by defending the French language and putting French flags on websites). Moreover, in many cases (most notably in the case of Italian and German) the official language which is spoken today has not become a spoken language until very recently, with “dialects” being very very different from it (as you know, this is still the actual reality in many parts of Italy). De facto, Europe has been multilingual for centuries (people in today’s Southern Croatia would have spoken Croatian at home, Italian whenever encountering people coming from the coast, German with the administration…not to speak of Latin in churches and just across the border in Friuli the situation would have only become more complicated). Thus, many languages in one country is the norm, not the opposite.
    –the case of script is apparent also for Serbian-Croatian (one language, written in different scripts, also for religious reasons).

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