Can Urdu and Hindi be one language?


ILLUSTRATION/Khuda Bux Abro/Dawn

“Where did this Urdu-speaking white guy come from?” (or, in most Indian contexts, Hindi-speaking) is a question I hear pretty frequently.

It’s a legitimate one, and arguably better for everyone involved than those occasions when people assume, naturally enough, that this videshi (or pardesi) won’t understand what’s being said around or about him. I won’t go into details of the awkward, and sometimes hilarious, situations that such assumptions have created.

The short answer to the question is Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, where I was born and raised. And yes, there aren’t many white guys there, or anywhere else in the UK or Ireland, who speak Hindi or Urdu.

But that background has been crucial to explaining how I came to get interested in the idea of Hindustani, and to go on to do a PhD on how that idea was used particularly in the 1920s and 30s as a path between the binaries of Hindi-Hindu and Urdu-Muslim.

Tracing the origins

It was a contested term then, and it still is today. Many people thought (and think) they know exactly what it refers to, but once you scratch the surface it quickly becomes clear that the beauty — or ugliness — of Hindustani is very much in the eye of the beholder.

In 1927, at the initiative of several Indian writers, politicians and academics and with the cooperation of the government of the then United Provinces, an institution called the Hindustani Academy was established in Allahabad.

The goal of the institution was never absolutely clear, but as the British governor of the provinces Sir William Marris remarked in typically paternalistic tones:

“The Government resolution which created the Academy recognises Urdu and Hindi as twin vernaculars of the province, and embraces them both in the possibly unscientific but admirably innocuous title of “Hindustani”. Now if I believed that one untoward consequence of the Academy’s creation would be to blow up the embers of linguistic controversy I might have left my hon’ble colleague’s scheme severely alone. I do not believe that any such consequence ought to ensue.”

The problem with Marris’ formulation was that the linguistic controversy was far beyond the stage of “embers”.

Since the 19th century, and at least in part as a consequence of British policy, Hindi had increasingly come to be exclusively identified with Hindus, and Urdu exclusively with Muslims.

Indeed, as the Hindi scholar Alok Rai has observed, “the prime candidates for initiating the modern process of linguistic division are, by popular consent, the pedants of Fort William College”, the colonial training ground for officers of the East India Company.

This process of absolute differentiation is a trajectory that links the Hindi and Hindu nationalising politics of Bharatendu Harishchandra in the 1860s with Abdul Haq’s famous comment in 1961: “Pakistan was not created by Jinnah, nor was it created by Iqbal; it was Urdu that created Pakistan”.

But in the 1920s a groups came together around the idea that if an institution existed to promote both Urdu and Hindi together, then perhaps a way could be found to stop the ongoing division between the languages and their associated religious communities.

Plenty of those involved demonstrated and argued that Hindi and Urdu were not separate languages at all, and perhaps most importantly that the registers and creations of each were part of a shared culture — a Ganga-Yamuna tahzeeb — that belonged to Hindus and Muslims alike.

In the words of the Progressive writer Sajjad Zaheer, the Academy existed “to bring Urdu and Hindi closer to one another”.

Too high an idea

But this idea — “Hindustani” — still needed some clarification. What was it? What is it? And what was it to do?

The colonial use and misuse of the term dates back to the 18th century, as a host of excellent studies by the likes of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi have demonstrated.

By the 1920s the question remained: was Hindustani a point on a spectrum between a “pure” Hindi stuffed full of Sanskrit and a “pure” Urdu overflowing with Persian and Arabic?

If so, who was to define this middle point? Was it to be — as it seemed in Gandhi’s understanding — something “simple”, and therefore authentic? If it was some kind of everyday speech, would it not be devoid of all art, beauty and life?

Dawn for more

Comments are closed.