A Critique of Language Snobs: Urdu and the Politics of Identity

Issue 8 |  شمارہ ۸

Origin/Departure | Artist: Murad Khan Mumtaz

Origin/Departure | Artist: Murad Khan Mumtaz

The interesting phenomenon of Urdu’s linguistic and literary culture that I will speak of here–and which in my view is the key to the identity politics that has come to be associated with this language–is the strange and funny practice where some people point out to other people that language is not authentic enough. According to these people, others can neither speak nor write good or propah’ Urdu.

This reminds me of the dear and departed Amarat-e-Islami, run by the Taliban for several years across the border in Afghanistan. Their official policy was to appoint gun-toting and stern-looking men who would measure the lengths of beards and attires to issue verdicts and fatwas about the authenticity and purity of the unfortunate, common man’s faith.

This linguistic sectarianism has its roots in the strange and mutually contradicting ideas about the origin of the Urdu language. As far as I know, these ideas do not exist about other languages, at least not about the languages that are spoken in our own region.

Every language is seen and acknowledged as belonging to a more or less defined geographical area where it is shaped through centuries of social life. Over time, languages develop a particular form with characteristics that keep changing slowly, keeping apace with everyday life. There is no ambiguity about the origins or distinguishing features of any other language in our region. Punjabi, for instance, is the name of the language spoken in different hues and accents by the people living in Punjab. Even if people using the language in a specific form, such as Siraiki, wish their language be given a separate identity–which seems to be a reasonable cultural aspiration–it nevertheless remains associated with a particular geographical area.


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But claims about the origin of Urdu are outlandish, and tell quite a different story. An ongoing research project – informed by the exigencies of identity politics – tries to see Urdu as having been born in geographically diverse areas like, for instance, Balochistan, Punjab and Bengal from where it is supposed to have been transported through a mysterious and seemingly metaphysical route to Delhi’s Red Fort. Its residents, the descendants of the Central Asian conquerors, originally spoke Turkish but started using Persian for ruling their conquered subjects, and, somehow, took ownership of a language called Urdu even though it had, locally, been called Hindi for centuries! Nobody is surprised at this mindlessly invented history, because in our case history has patently been disassociated with geography anyway. What is called Islamic history in our blessed Islamic Republic of Pakistan begins in a certain era at some faraway place, then starts travelling with Arab conquests, and via Andalusia (of all places) to arrive at our hitherto impure land with Mohammad bin Qasim. This must be a history with no parallel in any other country of the world, as it does not care to tie itself to a geographical region. The same goes for the history of Urdu.

Despite statements from some ingenious historians, Urdu (or Hindi) was in fact spoken in a specific part of the Subcontinent for centuries. Its name was later abandoned by the politically driven Urdu-wallas. The name of the area was Hindustan. This name has been given to the whole of British-ruled India for some time now. Historically, it was the same part of the northern Subcontinent which is now loosely called the Hindi Belt on the other side of the 1947 border. In a Persian couplet, Shibli Nomani (1857-1914) writes this line:

زبمبئی چو بہ ہندوستاں رسم شبلی

za bambai chu ba hindostan rasam shibli

When I reach Hindustan from Bombay

Which is to say that the port city of Bombay was outside the definition of Hindustan in those days. People coming from that area used to be called Hindustanis in Rajasthan, Punjab and Bengal (those coming from the so-called Hindi Belt to Punjab in the aftermath of the Partition were initially referred to as Hindustanis; in Calcutta – now called Kolkata – they are still called by that name). One issue was the usurpation of the name Hindustan by all of South Asia – another intriguing subject for study. But the other issue was the privileged class, which indulged in identity politics in the name of Urdu. They tried to give the impression that Urdu was the language of the entire Subcontinent, which was as far away from the real situation as you could get.

The reasons behind this position were nothing if not political. The pre-British ruling elites of Delhi and its adjoining suburbs – with some outposts here and there – wanted to maintain their cultural domination of the newly imagined Muslim community under the changed circumstances. Although Urdu had never been used in the Mughal court as an official language, the said elites adopted, in place of Persian, the local language – called Hindi, Hindavi or Hindustani – and rechristened it at some point as Zaban-e Urdu-e Mualla or the Language of the Exalted Court, that is, the language spoken in and around the Red Fort, the area to which the rule of the Mughal Emperor had been limited by 1857. Until he was sent by the new conquerors to Rangoon to await his demise, Bahadur Shah II, as well as the members of his court, had learned to speak and write the same Persian-infested language, which was standardised as Urdu.

In his book of memoirs, Yadon ka Safar, Akhlaq Ahmed Dehlvi mentions a lady from the royal Taimuri clan who, according to his family lore, was given shelter by his grandfather when members of the legendary set were forced to flee the Red Fort. According to him, this lady lived in his parent’s home in the Koocha Cheelan as an elderly presence in his childhood days, and was revered as the symbol of the fort. He says that prominent personalities living in the neighbourhood, such as Maulana Mohammad Ali (Johar) and Hakim Ajmal Khan used to visit her to listen to her tales of yore, which she recounted from behind a curtain while she sat in her cot.

Once she used the word tooti’ in the feminine. A listener who was present pointed out that Ustad Daagh Dehlvi (1831-1905) had used this word in the masculine. Dagh was considered an authority in matters of poetry and language by the Delhi elites, because he had grown up in the Red Fort. Also, he had enunciated his authority and the authenticity of his use of Urdu quite emphatically in his verses:

نہیں کھیل اے داغ یاروں سے کہہ دو

کہ آتی ہے اردو زباں آتے آتے

اردو ہے جس کا نام ہمی جانتے ہیں داغ

سارے جہاں میں دھوم ہماری زباں کی ہے

nahin khel ai Daagh yaaron se keh de

ke aati hai urdu zabaan aate aate

urdu hai jis ka naam humi jante hain Daagh

saare jahaan mein dhoom humari zabaan ki hai

The second line of the couplet was supposed to mean that according to him, the whole world (or rather, the Urdu world) admires his use of the language. Later, this line was to become a famous quote indicating the alleged superiority of the Urdu over all other languages!


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The elderly lady from the royal fort reportedly retorted with patent royal snobbishness that Dagh was a mere laundi-bacha (a slavegirl’s child). “What connection could he possibly have had with Urdu?” she asked. “We, the royal personages, will decide how Urdu must be spoken and written!”

Since Akhlaq Dehlvi has a reputation of an unreliable narrator, the incident may not be completely accurate or true. However, it does underscore the belief in an absurd hierarchy in matters of authenticity, propiety and the goodness of Urdu that was common in those times and places. And, which unfortunately remains current in the so-called ilmi, or learned, world of Urdu to this day.

A little further on, Akhlaq Dehlvi tells us that his mother did not allow him to go to the Khari Baoli neighbourhood to play with his friend Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi, the grandson of the prominent novelist Deputy Nazir Ahmed. Despite marrying into a respected, high-caste, religious family in Delhi, Deputy Sahib was originally from Bijnaur, which meant that playing with his grandson threatened to spoil Akhlaq’s achhi Urdu!

Within the Urdu world, it has been taken as a given that the Red Fort and those associated with it would have the final word when it came to questions around muhavra(phraseology), rozmarra(idioms) and the gender of nouns and adjectives etc. In fact, this established value has marked the beginning and the end of the academic linguistic debate in the Urdu world. This is a rather peculiar Urdu phenomenon: Every other language is developed and shaped by common people using the language, and they are the ones who change it over time. Why is this not true for Urdu?

Maulana Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914) was of the view that to be writing and speaking good Urdu, one must be from or around Delhi, and a Muslim. Now, a language can hardly be associated with a religion. Punjabis speak Punjabi, whether they are Sikh, Muslim or Hindu. The same goes for Bengali, Sindhi and other languages. Not Urdu, no sir!

As the Mughal Empire gradually lost its grip over its possessions, different areas started becoming independent states, such as Oudh. Lucknow, which became its capital, emerged as a center of language and literary culture in its own right. The Lucknow-wallas – the elites including the scholars from and of the shahi darbar – tried to monopolise the idea of an authentic language (an idea which, I argue, was baseless to begin with). Lucknow and Delhi were entangled in a drawn-out tussle as to who writes and speaks the correct idiom in an authentic way. This laughable tussle went on for very long, even in the post-colonial period. For instance, in Pakistan, even as late as the 1960s, Josh Malihabadi and Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi were seen at each other’s throats, in a battle to decide whether the Lucknavi or Dehlvi Urdu should be taken as authentic. Josh considered that the Urdu of Delhi, that is the Urdu of Deputy Nazir Ahmed, was not to be taken seriously, while Shahid Dehlvi – the same lad from Khari Baoli with whom Akhlaq Dehlvi from Koocha Cheelan was not allowed to play – dismissed the Lucknavi Urdu as “poorab ke launde laparon ki boli-tholi” or the gibberish spoken by the riff-raff from the Eastern (Uttar Pradesh (UP).

After dealing with the 1857 Mutiny (or the War of Independence if you like), the British colonial authorities decided to replace Persian with English at the higher levels of education, administration and judiciary and with the local vernaculars at the lower levels of primary education, thana, katcheri, post office, land revenue, irrigation, etc. At most places this did not create a problem, for example in Sindh and Bengal. Respectively, Sindhi and Bengali were adopted for this purpose. But it did create a problem in that portion of the Hindi Belt, which was later designated as the United Provinces (called North West Provinces and Oudh then). A huge ruckus ensued as a result of associating the language to this or that script, although the public (which was, until then, referred to as ryot or subjects) was mostly illiterate and had nothing to do with either the Persian or the Nagri script. But since the area was close to Delhi, where the post-Mutiny Muslim elites still had economic and cultural clout, the knowledge of the Persian script was made compulsory for those wishing to be employed at different lower levels of administration. However, a vast part of the area’s population was learning the Nagri script. They, too, aspired for those sarkari jobs and found the doors shut to them because of the condition of the script. This led to a campaign, which demanded that the knowledge of the Nagri script also be made a criterion of eligibility.

In 1990, Lt. Governor of the North West Province & Oudh, Anthony McDonnel, issued an order accepting the demand. The order did not remove the Persian script or replace it with Nagri, but it did create specter of the erosion of Muslim elite monopoly over government jobs. That meant that the order became a big political controversy within the province, and government jobs and patronage came to be known as the means needed for the survival of the Urdu language. A strange phrase of Urdu ki khidmat (in service of Urdu) was invented, which is still used: Have you ever heard a boatman claim that he is serving the river, or the boat? The immediate purpose of this identity campaign was to make more jobs available to those who were proficient in reading and writing Urdu in the Persian script. The linguistic community was divided into the Urdu-wallas and Hindi-wallas and both camps began to make extravagant claims about their separate languages. Both bragged about their language being spoken in the whole subcontinent; a claim which was fraudulent from the point of view of those speaking Bengali, Tamil, Sindhi, Gujarati and so on.


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It was during the same post-1857 era that the Punjabi Muslim elites chose Urdu to be the vernacular replacing Persian at the lower sarkari or governmental administrative levels. This too stemmed out of the politics of identity. Until its annexation with British India in 1843, Punjab was ruled by the Takht Lahore or the Sikh darbar – a rule dubbed as Sikha-shahi by the aggrieved Punjabi Muslim elites. Sikh rule was preceded by Mughal domination, which, among other things, meant repression of the Sikhs. Under the new circumstances, the Punjabi Muslims preferred Urdu in matters of education and employment over Punjabi as the latter was considered to be associated with Sikhs. Not only Haryana and Himachal but the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP or the present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) was a part of Punjab in those days. NWFP became a separate province in 1901, but people residing there and speaking other languages could not possibly have a reason to adopt Punjabi for their education and administration.

Therefore, Urdu was being taught and learned in the primary and high schools of Punjab since the 1860s. The same era saw the proliferation of the printing press and Punjab became one of most important centres of Urdu publishing and journalism, shaping the Urdu language for modern usage. When a community adopts a language the way Punjabis adopted Urdu, it acquires the users’ rights over the language. Punjabi Muslims were not supposed to follow those originating from Delhi or Lucknow in terms of idiom, accent and so on, and they gradually changed Urdu to its present shape and color. The vast province of Punjab produced a large number of significant journalists, writers and poets who legitimately dominated the modern Urdu scene and continue to do so. Nothing can be done to wish away this historical reality.

In the first phase of the Urdu-wallas’ politics of identity (i.e. those hitherto known as the Hindustanis), the group separated itself from the original language called Hindi. The new reality threatened their ownership of Urdu. Thus began the rivalry between the Punjabi users of Urdu and those who called themselves ahl-e zaban or the original speakers. Those who came from the Hindi Belt, or Hindustan, to settle in Punjab (West Punjab after the Partition) were sometimes derogatively called Hindustauras (the word can be found in Manto’s short story, Toba Tek Singh, as well). To return the compliment, the ahl-e-zaban used to ridicule the accent, and even the cultural practices, of the Punjabras or Punjabi Dhuggas. All this was connected to the politics of linguistic identity and the competition for sarkari jobs and patronage. This politics was to take another significant turn after 1947.

Christopher King, while discussing the Urdu-Hindi conflict in the North West Province & Oudh, and the rest of the Hindi Belt, during the late 19th century in his book One Language Two Scripts, provides statistics of books and periodicals published in Hindi and Urdu. In these areas, Urdu was finding it difficult to compete with Hindi. Muslims constituted only 15 to 20 percent of the population, and the mindset of the Urdu-wallas did not allow them to try and develop their language through publications independent of sarkari or riyasati patronage. It was a common practice in those days to print three different prices on books and periodicals, namely, for the general public (awam-us-nas), the aristocrats (raoosa) and the rulers of Princely States (walian-e-riyasat). The Anjuman Taraqqi-e Urdu, the Hindustani Muslims’ platform to further identity politics, was established in Aurangabad under the patronage of the Nizam of Hyderabad State. The Hindi-wallas, on the other hand, tried to create a readership among the awam-un-nas, which would provide them the means to publish by buying their own publications. Since the proportion of Hindi readers was several times that of the Urdu readers, circulation of Hindi books and periodicals rapidly surpassed that of Urdu writings. Premchand, the first modern fiction writer of Hindustan, initially used to write in Urdu, but his language carried local color so it could not be acknowledged as authentic Urdu. Also, unlike most Muslim writers of Urdu, he did not write for or about Muslims alone. Several of his novels were first published in the Nagri script, or so-called Hindi. In one of his letters, Premchand puts a question to an inquirer: If I do not publish in Hindi, how would I earn my living?

Punjab, with its newly created breed of Urdu readers, presented better conditions for the publication of Urdu books and periodicals, many individuals (including Hindus) moved there to start their publishing houses and periodicals along with those who originated from Punjab and preferred to work in Urdu rather than Punjabi.


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The identity crisis of the speakers and users of Urdu (both ahl-e zaban and the other lot) has something peculiar to do with their religion as well. It is an obvious, though generally denied, fact that 99% of South Asian Muslims are converts with their origins in this land. It is even more obvious in the case of Punjab, where many communities share their surnames with their Sikh and Hindu brethren. Despite this, an outlandish fiction has been created and propagated about their origin. It is a common practice to begin any cultural or political argument with the following premise: “When Muslims came to India…” Fact is, Muslims did not ‘come’ to South Asia from a foreign land; about 15 to 20 percent of the local population converted to Islam. What is the harm in acknowledging this reality? Once converted, their faith became common with Muslims living in other parts of the world, but they continued to belong, in the cultural and every other sense, to the land where they were born. For Muslim conquerors, rulers and land-grabbers, however, it was a critical part of their identity to cite their roots in Central Asia, Afghanistan or the Arab Middle East, so that they could have the status of higher-castes within the local culture. The force of perpetual myth-making has, however, made even the conquered, converted, middle and lower-caste Muslim to internalize this idea of a foreign origin.

Foreign goods, including languages, have enjoyed a privileged status in our land for long. In the course of political and historical developments, many Persian (and, through it, Arabic) words and phrases have entered Urdu and have come to acquire a high-caste status – relegating words and phrases with local roots to a lower place. New rules of language were invented, such as the one, which disallows the conjugation of Persian and Hindi words, although the Persian spoken by the original speakers has no such binding. A full-fledged campaign was launched with the aim of establishing that the Urdu artificially infested with Persian was more authentic than the local variety. Furhermore, many local words and phrases were declared as matrook (abandoned). The use of the verb aana (to come), for instance, was considered less sophisticated than tashreef lana or hazir hona, and so on. It is perhaps on this basis that Urdu is claimed to be not a language but a tehzeeb (civilization)!

There is an interesting similarity in the political methods, slogans and so on in the way Urdu was turned into a political (and religious) cause and the way Islam was used in the politics of Pakistan. For instance, a demand is always raised for the nafaz (promulgation or imposition) of Urdu just as Islam’s nafaz is demanded. Moreover, since the basic Islamic texts (Quran, Hadiths and Traditions) are in Arabic, which is unknown to local Muslims, the existence of ulema (clerics) is considered necessary so that ignorant people could be guided in how to follow the religious injunctions in their private and public lives. Similarly, one breed of the language-ulema has appointed itself to guide the ignorant users of Urdu and, thus, rule over them. In the same way that you go to a religious aalim to obtain a fatwa about this or that practice, you are supposed to ask an Urdu aalim how to tread the tricky path of correct Urdu. Since you cannot pronounce ع(ain) and ق(qaaf) in the required and proper way, your Islam is considered as wanting as your Urdu, and so forth.

The strange sense of superiority among the Urdu-wallas, which they had contracted during their long and unnecessary tussle with the Hindi-wallas, did not end even after 1947; if anything, Punjabis joined the ahl-e-zaban in this false sense. In the initial years of the new state of Pakistan, Punjabis dominated the armed forces (they still do), while the Hindustanis dominated the civil bureaucracy (not any more). The political interests of both these groups converged as both wanted to dominate the Bengali majority of Pakistan, not to mention other linguistic nationalities. So, Punjabis and Hindustanis used Urdu politically against Bengalis. It was declared that the official or national language of Pakistan would be only Urdu. The experience of Punjabis was that a linguistic community can very well adopt another language at the cost of its own, which was considered a non-Muslim language, so they demanded others to do likewise. What they did not realize was that Bengalis had an entirely different relationship with their language, as did e.g. the Sindhis. Both these linguistic communities objected that adopting Urdu as a link language should not mean the abandonment of their own language. Even in public life, the East Bengalis had no daily interaction with, for example, Balochistan, so why should they have agreed to abandon Bangali in favour of Urdu? But the babus and khakis, who went to East Bengal to rule over the population there, found it below their dignity to have to learn a low language like Bengali, especially since it is written from left to right – i.e. in a non-Muslim way. Besides, it had a large number of Sanskrit words in it, so how could it be taken as a Muslim language? It was the general belief among West Pakistanis that the faith as well as the language of Bengalis was inferior.


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The story of Bengalis ended in 1971 with the birth of Bangladesh. Since then the influence of Urdu journalism and media, and Urdu as a compulsory subject in education, has seen to it that Urdu is now widely used in all of new Pakistan. Tellingly, in the last census (carried out in 1998), only 7 percent of Pakistanis declared Urdu to be their mother tongue; barring them, most other people can use at least two local languages with equal ease. This is hardly surprising: Multilingual-ness has been recognized as a natural characteristic of the residents of northern South Asia. When the people of Hindustan were asked during the linguistic survey or census under the British about their mother tongue they had to think before choosing one language from an amalgam of different tongues that they used in their daily lives. Those from Eastern UP, for instance, used Poorbi or Bhojpuri in their homes – which is not considered authentic Urdu by the Urdu clergy – but they declared Urdu (or Hindi) as their mother tongue as a political move. Since Urdu was under the ownership of the Red Fort and Lucknow – a language in which they could not dream of conversing with their mothers given that this chaste, Islam-like Urdu would be unintelligible to their womenfolk – their decision reflected the workings of identity politics.

Aijaz Ahmed has rightly pointed out in one of his lectures that the British used their experience of the European nation state to conclude that people of a specific geographical area should have only one language. They thus tried to look at the language scene in the Subcontinent through this lens – an unrealistic proposition. Here in the Subcontinent, people did not even care to give a specific name to their language in some cases (Indonesians and Malaysians call their language ‘Bahasa’ – ie Bhasha). The classical Punjabi poet Mian Mohammad Bakhsh refers to his language as Hindi in his Saif-ul Muluk, just as some classical Marathi poets do. But the linguistic survey conducted by the British made it necessary for people to choose one language as their own and give it a specific name. So, people chose according to their political aspirations and circumstances.

The campaign for establishing the supremacy of Urdu was essentially politically motivated – including the funny idea that if you are unable to speak authentic Urdu, you cannot be a good Muslim. The aim was not to force people to abandon using their own language – nobody was going to check if they were using Urdu in their homes. The idea was, instead, to make Urdu dominate in the fields of education and administration, where the jobs were.

Ever since 1970 – the first national elections conducted on universal adult franchise – the difference between the political weights of khawas and awam has, in principle, ceased to exist. Numbers are significant in democracy of any kind. Initially, the ulema of language abhorred the idea of an aalim and a jahil having one vote each. But now an illiterate person would stand up and say: “How can you treat my lack of access to education as my inability to have my say? I vote because I wish to participate in the removal of this very inequality. If only graduates can represent people in the assemblies, then what is the use? Graduates already have more rights than those deprived of education.”

It is this significance of numbers that makes the Urdu-wallas claim Urdu as the third (or second, or fourth, who cares) largest language in terms of the number of speakers. And, they happily include those on the other side of the border who use ‘Hindi’, contradicting their own claim that Urdu is a separate language because it is written in the Perso-Arabic script. On the one hand, it is claimed that all nationalities of Pakistan understand and speak Urdu, hence it is the national language, and, on the other, their Urdu is judged as unauthentic. These self-contradicting claims can be made only as long as we continue to take a myopic, self-serving view of things; they become totally indefensible as soon as we raise our head and look around.

Ajmal Kamal has been publishing the literary quarterly, Aaj, from Karachi since 1989. He is a translator and occasionally writes on literary and social subjects in English and Urdu.


یادوں کا سفر، اخلاق احمد دہلوی، مکتبہ عالیہ، لاہور، ۲۰۱۰

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

Rai, Alok (2000): Hindi Nationalism, Orient Longman.

Ahmad, Aijaz (1993): In the Mirror of Urdu: Recompositions of Nation and Community, 1947-65, Aijaz Ahmad. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1993

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