Hindi defeated Urdu in the language wars, but the victory came at a price

Hindi Urdu

Long before Ankur discussed how Bollywood is essentially an Urdu medium for films, one Khalid Amir Khan was wondering whether Hindi had become the national language – in Pakistan. Such is the irony of languages in the subcontinent. The emotional attachments to one’s mother tongue are akin only to one’s love for the mother herself.

Coming back to India, was there Urdu earlier? No. Was there Hindi before Mughals came? Again the answer is no.

There were many dialects spoken in North India like Awadhi, Braj, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Khadi-Boli etc. When the Persian rulers established themselves firmly in the seat of power in Delhi, the local lingo there was called Dehlavi.

As the invading rulers named native Indians ‘Hindus’, they named the local language ‘Hindvi’, the original name that was given to the language that is spoken with many variations in the North. And when the Persian scholars used the word Hindvi, it was used to denote all and any language of the Hind, including Gujri, Dakhani and even Pashto.

Mixed with Persian grammar and desi nouns, a new language Urdu was born nearly two years after the first invasion. In some theories, the prakritik-apabhramsa used in the region around Mathura was from where the original Urdu was derived.

Even the word Hindustani was used rarely until the time of British. By the time the Brits came, there were two languages in the north that had some sort of official sanction. One was the Hindustani written in Devanagari script and Urdu which used Persian script.

First, it was Dehlavi that was used by the Muslim elite,the rulers of Delhi and Lucknow. With an inkling to Persian, if one needs the patronage of the royalty, one shall communicate in the language the elite speak. First, it started with replacing obsolete, unfashionable and rough words like nayan, prem etc., with Persian words like nigah, pyar (ishq). It was a way of sophistication of Urdu by eliminating the local dehati words.

Yet both Hindi (including all its dialects) and Urdu, both were spoken by the people and didn’t have any religious affinity. It was when the Islamic religious texts started getting translated into Urdu using the Persian script, slowly but steadily Urdu became persianised.

Not only Muslims, but those Hindus who work in the courts of Nawabs need to know and use Urdu in all official transactions. The need to have a separate language for the Persians ruling class in India is imperative, as Iranians make fun of Indo-Persians.

The rulers cannot adopt the local language as it amounts to accepting the superiority of native languages, but at the same time they can’t retain their Persian heritage and be the target of original Persians. This thrust by ruling class propelled the new language to new heights.

However, after the British assumed control (who cared about neither Urdu nor Hindi), slowly Hindus (by that time they too accepted they are Hindus. Sigh!) started including Sanskrit words in Hindustani thus increasing the difference between Hindustani and Urdu.

Though the British called Urdu-Hindustani and made it an official medium for jobs, post sepoy mutinee, Hindu and Muslim communities have slowly moved away from one another and in the year 1900, there was a petition to replace Urdu as the official language and use Hindi instead.

Lt Governor AP Macdonell (of today’s UP) has received this petition and was worried about Mohammadean hostility to the British if the demand to replace Urdu with Hindi was accepted. He sat on the petition for a good three years before concluding both would be used in the offices and only those who can read and write both languages and scripts would be qualified to get a job in government.

Thus, the Brits retained Urdu as court language but also gave a lift to Hindi by recognising it too. Even after this rule, the intermingling of Hindi and Urdu did not cease to exist, but only increased as the same set of people use both languages and scripts.

Before this incident in 1835, FJ Shore, officiating commissioner had replaced Persian by Hindustani in the hills of Kumaon, but when part of these areas was clubbed with lower plane provinces, again Urdu ruled the masses. Only in Bihar, twice Persian Urdu was removed and Hindi with Devanagari script was enforced. Even Hindi written using Kaithi script was removed when the Hindus resisted. Yet, apart from these stray incidents British firmly established Urdu as an official language.

So, the movement that started to ‘sophisticate’ the rustic Hindvi had taken religious turn to endear itself to the followers of Islam, before it became the official language of pre-independence India. During its evolution, it affected local dialects so much so that they lost their individual charm and got branded commonly into Hindi.

After independence, the consolidation of Hindi with government patronage further eroded the literal sanctity of these north Indian dialects. The domination of Urdu in poetic circles has ensured the existence of Urdu words in Hindi.

In fact, the socialist and secularist leanings of the leaders too encouraged the increasing usage of Urdu, while the original dialects of North India, perhaps with the exception of Bhojpuri, Braj and Maithili reduced in stature.

After independence, the Constituent Assembly pondered over the option of Hindustani as an official language, with either Devanagari or Urdu script. This was proposed by none other than Gandhi. But the members overwhelmingly voted for Hindi in the Devanagari script.

Hindi ultimately became an official language of India, defeating Urdu but there were some side effects along with it. As the government started promoting Hindi, all old literature of regional dialects were labelled Hindi literature. Even otherwise the conflict between Muslim Urdu and Hindu Sanskrit made people accept Hindi as their own language.

While the number of people speaking these dialects have increased since independence, the quality and purity of language they use have deteriorated with time by the continuous encroachment of either Urdu or other words into their vocabulary.

As films have grown as the latest mass medium of art and communication, after long there established one Bhojpuri industry, which is only a shade of what it could have been.

Meanwhile, the government wants us to believe everyone north of Nagpur speaks Hindi, while the Hindi itself is contaminated with Persian and still not released itself from the linguistic clutches of invaders.

Till independence, even Punjabi was written in Urdu (Persian) script only. The Gurbani script was confined to Gurudwaras only. Newspapers were published only in Urdu, despite the language being Punjabi. Even today, while Indian Punjab uses Gurbani for writing Punjabi, Pakistani Punjab uses Urdu to write the same language.