Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Original Urdu Language Dying A Slow Death In India

By Hamid Ansari (Guest Writer)

Urdu, despite its spread across many States, finds itself to be in a condition of homelessness. It is to be noted that most of the 22 languages now listed in the Eighth Schedule find territorial expression in a ‘home State’. A notable exception to this is Urdu which despite its spread across many States finds itself to be in a condition of homelessness, with all its attendant consequences. Sindhi is in a similar position except for the fact that the total number of Sindhi speakers is 2.57 million. 

Besides being an officially recognised language, Urdu also has an official language status for some specified purposes (whose details vary and condition the impact substantively) in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. According to the Census of India 2001, there were a total of 51.5 million Urdu speakers in the country, amounting to 5.01 per cent of population and constituting the sixth largest language group.
Five States (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka) account for 41.5 million of the Urdu speakers. If you add Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, the figure reaches 48.55 million. Data also reveals that the percentage of Urdu speakers was 5.25 and 5.18 in the Census of 1981 and 1991 respectively.

This decline, in a framework of overall increase of population and more specific demographic data, raises a question: Why is the number of Urdu speakers declining when the areas and groups generally associated with the language have registered normal increases in population? Does this suggest a pattern of language abandonment? Why does this happen? 

An explanation in a wider context was given by Prof Abram de Swan in a paper published in the European Review in October 2004: “People who abandon their native tongue do so because they move elsewhere or take up something else and in this new existence they have higher expectations of a different language. Or they neglect it because another language is preferred at school, by public authorities, or in courts of law, and their own language is treated with disdain. 

Or they have to stop using it because they are ruled by another nation that imposes its language on them, and, having lost heart, they no longer take care to preserve their own language.” He went on to add that since “every language is a product of the collective creativity of people expressed over hundreds or thousands of years, its disappearance is an irreversible loss of culture”.

Where then do we look for an explanation for the decline of Urdu speakers? Since language is principally a matter of affiliation and usage, giving it up is unlikely to be voluntary or an act of ‘enlightenment’ and must necessarily emanate from some form of compulsion or necessity. Hence the key to our primary question has to be sought amidst the factors cited by Prof de Swan and, of the three possible situations visualised by him, the answer seems to be in the second — namely, language at school level and in use by public authorities.

In a question answered in the Rajya Sabha on August 12, 2011, the Ministry of Human Resource Development stated that Urdu is not being taught in Kendriya Vidyalayas in various States since in none of them 20 or more students opted for the language, adding that for the same reason, no posts of Urdu teachers were sanctioned. 

The simple conclusion to be drawn is that students who know Urdu do not make it to Kendriya Vidyalayas in the minimum numbers prescribed. The data has other implications since these schools are primarily for transferable Central Government employees. In a study completed shortly before his death last year, the late Omar Khalidi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had examined the state of Urdu literacy in India as gauged through school education and raised five questions: 

How many students in primary schools have Urdu as the language of instruction? How many learn Urdu as one of the subjects under the three (or four) language formula? Have the various levels of Government — Central, State, and local — facilitated or obstructed learning of Urdu in various States? To what can we attribute the uneven levels of Urdu literacy in various States? What are the other institutions, besides schools run by the state, involved in promoting Urdu literacy?

Khalidi’s conclusions on the first two questions, based on available official data, reveal that Urdu literacy in terms of Urdu medium enrolment in primary-secondary schools is highest in Maharashtra and Bihar, less so in Karnataka and Andhra, and least in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. In terms of percentages of total enrolment for the year 2007-2008, it was 6.53 in Maharashtra, 5.2 in Bihar, 5.9 in Karnataka, 2.8 in Andhra, 1.0 in Delhi and 0.40 Uttar Pradesh.

The answer to the third and fourth questions requires delving into recent history. Here I can do no better than to recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s own assessment. In a confidential letter to Chief Ministers on July 16, 1953, he spoke of “a pettiness in mind, narrowness in outlook and an immaturity” that characterised “a deliberate attempt to push out Urdu which is spoken and written by a large number of people”.

American scholar Paul Brass, in his 1974 book Language, Religion and Politics in North India, shed much light on the policy and procedural methodology by which some States succeeded “in diverting large number of Urdu speakers” from the path of education in their mother tongue. Narrow political perceptions and mistaken identification of language with a community thus led to a unilingual approach and prevailed over the linguistic diversity of a plural society and the ethos of the Constitution.

A commentator observed in a newspaper last year: “Urdu has been kept alive by the Hindi cinema, FM radio, madarsas and occasional recitation of couplets in Parliament”. He drew attention to Prof Gopi Chand Narang’s remark: “Urdu is like a patient on oxygen at the fag end of his life. This is the last generation of Urdu”. What, then, is to be done? 

An observation by a Senegalese poet is of some relevance to this discussion: “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”
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