Why does India’s Hindu right-wing hate the Urdu language so much?

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Even by the trigger-happy standards of Hindutva outrage, what happened on Oct. 19 seemed ridiculous: some Indians, including senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, were angry that clothing brand Fabindia had named a Diwali collection using Urdu. They claimed that the Urdu language simply could not be associated with a Hindu festival.

A jumpy Fabindia soon took down the advertisement for the collection and released a statement that assured anyone outraged that the Urdu phrase “Jashn-e-Riwaaz” (celebration of tradition) would not be associated with its Diwali collection. Instead, it would have a Hindi name: Jhilmil si Diwali (a sparkling Diwali).

By any standard, the controversy was both ridiculous (how could festivals be associated with language?) and frightening (the mob had enough power to force corporations to bend to their will). But perhaps, the biggest irony was that both phrases, Jashn-e-Riwaaz and Jhilmil si Diwali would be perfectly intelligible to Indian Hindi speakers.

The Persian loanwords “jashn” and “rivaj” would, in fact, be seen as common Hindi words with the only explicit “Urdu” element being the genitive marker “-e-” rather than the postposition “ka” (which is shared by both Hindi and Urdu). Nevertheless, even the “-e-” is so common in Indian popular culture such as Bollywood that Hindi speakers would come across it all the time, even if they would rarely use it in their personal speech.

Hindi and Urdu: The connection

Due to these incredible similarities—Hindi and Urdu share almost all of their grammar and most of their day-to-day vocabulary—most linguists would often classify Hindi and Urdu as literary registers of the same language (the Khari Boli of medieval Delhi). Registers are language styles used as per occasion or identity. Every language has them, even English.

Think of academic English and the English used for hip hop lyrics. They differ significantly in the lexicon but with largely the same grammar. Most importantly, an Anglophone academic and a rapper can, if they chose to, be mutually intelligible and have a conversation. It’s almost the same as Hindi and Urdu speakers, except the choice of who speaks which register is based on religion—a somewhat more ossified identity than professor or rapper.

As academic Christopher King puts it in his book One Language Two Scripts, Hindi and Urdu are “considered two different languages on political and cultural—not linguistic—grounds” such that only “vocabulary and script constitute the principal difference between the two”.

Urdu makes a virtue of borrowing words from mostly Persian, the elite lingua franca of medieval India (even the Arabic and Turkish words in Urdu are via Persian). Hindi, on the other hand, makes sure those very same borrowings are from Sanskrit, a language that enjoys immense prestige in India for its position as the liturgical language of Hinduism.

Notably, the vast majority of the lexicon of both Hindu and Urdu, their core vocabulary, is commonly inherited from its Prakrit ancestor. Thus, often whether a person is speaking “Hindi” or “Urdu” depends on the identity of the speaker or, in the case of written language, the script.

The split within the culture

Both modern Hindi and Urdu literary cultures are fairly new, contrary to the claims of their partisans. Persian, in fact, continued as the administrative language and elite lingua franca well after Mughal power had declined and the British star had risen. As academic Francesca Orsini explains, it was only in the 19th century that “Urdu took over the mantle from Persian”. At this time, Urdu was not seen a Muslim language, as it is today but it did have an explicit class element: like Persian, it was as the “language of the service elite and of refined, urban literary exchange”.

In Uttar Pradesh, for example, this meant Urdu was used almost exclusively by Ashraf or upper-caste Muslims along with some Hindu castes traditionally part of the Mughal bureaucracy, such as Kayasths and, to a lesser extent, Khatris and Kashmiri Pandits (most famously, the Nehrus).

Even though Urdu is much attenuated in India today, with only a small section of very poor, mostly madrasa-taught Muslims using it as their medium of instruction, an echo of this class element still survives and Persian-stuffed Khari Boli will often code luxury—as, in fact, in the Fabindia advertisement.

In much the same way, it also survives in cultural forms such as songs and poetry. Even in the absence of Urdu education, Hindi film songs will often use, to quote Salman Rushdie, the “thunderclap sound of Urdu” to code high emotions such as romance or patriotism. As historian Mukul Kesavan has argued in his must-read essay on the roots of Bollywood, Urdu is the “language of war and martyrdom in Hindi films. It is the language men die in.”

Resurrecting a 19th-century politics

But if so many Indians love to sing of war and buy kurtas in Urdu, why then do Hindutva adherents dislike it so much?

Part of the answer goes back to the politics of Uttar Pradesh at the end of the 19th century as a new, mostly Hindu elite arose that had no previous connections with the older Mughal elite—and hence Persian and Urdu. In 1882, a campaign was mounted to get the British government to accept Hindi written in Nagri characters as an official language in the North-Western Provinces (which now mostly corresponds with modern Uttar Pradesh), alongside English and Urdu.

Part of the struggle was economic. Urdu domination meant this new, largely Hindu elite were shut out of government jobs.

Part of it was linguistic. Congressman Madan Mohan Malviya, a prime backer of Hindi at the time, complained that the Urdu used in courts was so stuffed with Persian that official records were only “partially intelligible”. (However, as Christopher King pointed out, ironically since much of this new literary language was piloted by Sanskrit-knowing Brahmins, it eventually produced a Sanskritised Hindi, itself far from everyday speech).

However, like almost all other questions of language, this also became a question of identity, given that this new, Hindi elite were, as it so happened, Hindu. “During the [1882] campaign, however, Hindi in Nagari script was successfully turned into a question of Hindu cultural self-assertion, and the united Muslim-Kayastha community of Urdu was shaken,” explained Orsini.

As King argued, “more and more Hindus had begun to accept the twin equations of Hindi=Hindu and Urdu=Muslim”. So successful was this campaign that even Hindus in the Punjab saw significant traction towards identifying with Hindi. At the time, Congressman Lala Lajpat Rai himself promoted Hindi as the language of Punjabi Hindus in spite of, ironically, not knowing it himself.

Legal win for Hindi supporters

Eventually, of course, the Hindi supporters won a fantastic victory. While in North India in 1900, Urdu was, in the words of researcher Alok Rai, “overwhelmingly the language of public discourse”, within just half a century, the new Indian Constitution recognised only Hindi as the official language of the Union government, with English given interim status.

Urdu made it to the Constitution as part of a largely perfunctory list of official languages only because Prime Minister Nehru insisted on it.

However, so complete was the communal association of Hindi and Urdu by that time, Rai recounts that “a Hindi friend” asked Nehru whose language Urdu was. “Yeh meri aur mere bap-dada’on ki bhasha hai,” Nehru replied. This is my language, the language of my ancestors. Thereupon the “Hindi friend” retorted: Brahman hote hue Urdu ko apni bhasha kehte ho, sharam nahin ati? (Aren’t you ashamed, being a Brahmin, to claim Urdu as your language?)

Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of the Hindi-Urdu fight, went even further, banning Urdu-medium schooling altogether. As Urdu writer and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi put it, there was an effort to “wipe out Urdu” in Uttar Pradesh after independence.

A poem in the popular Hindi children’s magazine, Balsakha printed in 1948. Cited in Alok Rai’s “Hindi Nationalism”.
A poem in the popular Hindi children’s magazine, Balsakha printed in 1948. Cited in Alok Rai’s “Hindi Nationalism”.

Pyrrhic victory of Hindi

Orsini, however, argues that this victory for Hindi was actually somewhat pyrrhic. For one, it could never actually replace English at the top of the linguistic food chain. English still remains, by far, the language with the most linguistic prestige with immense amounts of economic and social capital.

While Urdu education was severely restricted along with its script as well as its high, ultra Persianised register, demotic Urdu along with a substantial part of its Persian loans still lives on in India. Its 19th-century status as a register of elite society means North Indians still look to Urdu in their cultural consumption.

In contrast, Sanskritised Hindi—which Alok Rai pointedly calls “Hindi” in scare quotes to differentiate it from its spoken forms—has a fairly restricted life outside government and is practically absent from Bollywood, by some distance the largest producer of Hindi-Urdu content in the world.

Of course, Hindutva is ascendantly militant right now and is unafraid to use intimidation to try and resurrect colonial-era Hindi-Urdu debates. However, even as these political controversies break, one must keep in mind that changing language habits— especially the natural spoken tongue—of millions is a tough feat to pull off.

In fact, ironically, the Bharatiya Janata Party uses what could be called “Urdu” too in slogans such as “Modi hai to mumkin hai” (mumkin is from Arabic via Persian) or “azadi kā amrit mahotsav” (azadi is a Persian loan). Even words as basic as “Hindu” and “Hindi” are loans from Persian, being taken up by Indian languages in the medieval period. Hence, in the reductive lens of (Sanskritised) Hindi versus (Persianised) Urdu, they fit into the latter silo.

This, of course, does not mean language change cannot occur. In fact, like medieval Khari Boli absorbed Persian words as part of its everyday lexicon, much the same is happening with English today, which given its linguistic prestige and power exerts a significant influence even on non-Anglophones. Open any Hindi newspaper, for example, and it is suffused with English loan words. Informal, spoken speech will probably have even more.

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