Language, Politics and Education in North India, Part I: Experiencing Urdu

I. Experiencing Urdu: Jashn-e Rekhta & Urdu in India

At the gate!

In December 2017, I had the pleasure of being able to travel out of Lucknow for the first time during the Fellowship. I traveled to Delhi to visit my co-fellows Minahil, Kara & Tod and attend Jashn-e Rekhta, India’s largest Urdu literature festival. In conjunction with the website it runs, which consists of an online library of Urdu poetry and short stories, the Rekhta Foundation is major force for promoting Urdu and its literary works and heritage within India. It is part of a larger effort to increase interest in and awareness of Urdu’s ubiquity in North Indian daily life (Bali).

Upon arriving at Dhyan Chand National Stadium, we stepped into a social space revolving solely around Urdu. The discussions of poetry and literature filled the air, Urdu script flowing off of the signs and into the breeze itself. Speaker after speaker spoke of Urdu as an Indian language, one whose heritage is rooted in secular ideals and as one that is very much alive and well in the country. Two such speakers were Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who recited dialogues, discussed the challenges of trying to film a movie in both India and Pakistan, and spoke about Urdu as a medium for promoting unity in the subcontinent.

 

Mushairas and ghazals sung by Bollywood playback singers are not everyday events in urban India today, nor are panels on literary themes in Urdu poetry. In that way, this experience was truly unique. We also learned about the relationship between Urdu and Bollywood film, and about an upcoming biopic on Saadat Hasan Manto, the renowned Urdu short-story writer who is famous for capturing the horrors of India and Pakistan’s 1947 partition with excruciating accuracy. It wasn’t all academic, however, as we also rocked out with Parvaaz, an Urdu-language alt-rock band, and ate too much gol gope.

Daily newspapers in Urdu remain popular in cities with large populations literate in Urdu, like Lucknow (Photograph: Jackson Walker)

 

The paradox of Urdu’s status in India was on full display at the event: a language that has, in Indian discourse, become associated with Islam, terrorism and Pakistan (Rahman), one which India’s Muslim communities increasingly are not learning or speaking (Shahabuddin), being consumed and enjoyed by the largely non-Muslim middle classes of Delhi. According to Irena Akbar, writing for the Indian Express, Urdu has not gone away but rather is at its peak popularity today due to Bollywood film music and the continued popularity of Urdu poets and short story writers. Indeed, I agree with the idea that Urdu is still spoken and understood in India, even if its use in the political and economic spheres is declining. Even in Lucknow, in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Urdu words and phrases still pepper daily speech and are widely understood.

 

Urdu-medium education is far less common than Hindi-medium education in North India (Photograph Source)

But despite having 85 million speakers in India and its own incredible literary achievements, Urdu is not taught in most Indian schools and Urdu-medium students suffer because of the marginalization of the language through government policy. Indeed, in most parts of India, Urdu is not a market-linked language and an Urdu-medium education is not sufficient to interact with the government, hold government employment, or participate in India’s cultural mainstream (Siraj). Instead, Hindi, the other standard dialect of Hindustani, is taught widely across the region and the nation and an official language nationwide. The promotion of Hindi learning has happened at the expense of teaching Urdu, once the elite language of the country. This promotion of Hindi over Urdu is the central government’s answer to a much larger question regarding which language should be India’s national language.

 

To be continued in Part II.

 

Citations

Akbar, Irena. “‘Finding’ the ‘lost’ Urdu: But Did the Language Ever Really Go Away?” The Indian Express, February 17, 2015. Accessed May 3, 2018. http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/finding-the-lost-urdu/.

Bali, Abhishek, and Manish Mansinh. “How a Bunch of Indians Are Making Urdu Great Again.” GQ, December 5, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2018. https://www.gqindia.com/content/how-a-bunch-of-indians-are-making-urdu-cool-again/.

Rahman, Tariq. “Language, Religion and Politics: Urdu in Pakistan and North India.” Revue Des Mondes Musulmans Et De La Maditerranae, no. 124 (2008): 93-112. Accessed May 3, 2018. doi:10.4000/remmm.6019.

Shahabuddin, Syed. “Status of Urdu in India.” Mainstream Weekly XLVII, no. 1 (December 21, 2008). Accessed May 3, 2018. https://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article1094.html.
This analysis finds that a relatively small portion of Muslims in U.P. speak Urdu, as opposed to South Indian states, where Hindi is not the dominant language and where there are less Muslims. Muslims there are more likely to speak Urdu than those living in the “Hindi Belt”.

Siraj, M. A. Status of Urdu Medium Schools in Karnataka. Report. Edited by Abdul Aziz. 2017. Accessed May 3, 2018. https://gokdom.kar.nic.in/English/Downloads/ChairReligious/9_Books/Status_of_Urdu_Medium_School.pdf.

 

Jackson was born in Calcutta, India, and raised in the American Midwest, and completed his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University (NU) in June 2017. After spending the summer studying Urdu in Lucknow with the Critical Language Scholarship Program, Jackson is excited to be returning there to serve as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Medha. Building upon his undergraduate coursework, where he studied Political Science, Asian Languages and Cultures, and International Studies, and experience interning with an NGO in India through the NU’s Global Engagement Studies Institute, Jackson is looking forward to working full time in the Indian social sector. Throughout the Fellowship, Jackson is eager to serve Lucknow's youth, further developing his language abilities in Hindi and Urdu, and join a community of Indians and Americans committed to pursuing social change in India. After the Fellowship, he plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in policy or academia.

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