History of Urdu


The chapter is presented in three parts. Part one is a summary of the above, part 2 attempts to answer Khuswant Singh’s statement and part 3 tells you how Urdu became a tool by which the Muslims wanted to establish parity with Hindi and Hindus.

Part One - Summary

1. The word Urdu is derived from the Turki word Ordu, which meant “a military camp”. During the period 1526 to 1707 it was called Dakhina and used in the Deccan and South India.
2. As the religio-ethical and socio-economic health of the Muslim community came to be adversely affected by the weakening of the imperial authority, the intelligentsia felt the need to revitalize the Muslim morale by means of religious reforms. And Arabic became the natural medium for fulfilling the requirements of religious rethinking among the Muslims in the early part of the 18th century. This could also explain the influence of Arabic on Urdu.
3. Urdu is Hindi Khari boli (Delhi Hindi) with Persian and Arabic thrown in. Although the language came into existence after 1730 it is only after 1818 did it become a language of expressing thoughts.
4. Its main centers of influence were Delhi and Lucknow. Sir Syed Ahmed and Muhammad Iqbal did a lot to promote the language and make it the lingua franca of the Indian Muslims.
5. With the establishment of British rule over Punjab, Urdu became a dominant language of education and administration there.
6. Starting the 20th century Urdu became a bone of contention between Hindus and Muslims.

Part Two - K Singh’s, How did the Punjabis kill Urdu?

Before I answer the question it would be useful to know the state of Hindi, Punjabi in Punjab around 1700-1720. Guru Govind Singh (1666-1708) kept in his employ 52 poets who composed in the prevalent mode of neo-classical Hindi poetry works whose themes were heroic and philosophical. All the writings of these poets were also written down in the Gurumukhi script and recited at sessions convened by the Guru. Most of these poems have been lost. Bhai Mani Singh, priest of the Hari Mandir or the Golden Temple. At some time during the 18th century got together whatever remained of these poems and compiled them into the Granth of the 10th master or the Dasham Granth. This work contains three versions of the epic of the goddess Chandi based on the story of her fight with Mahisasur, the Buffalo-Demon. Two of these are in Hindi while the third is in Punjabi. The third is believed to be the Guru’s own composition while the other two by some poets. The Guru got a great deal of literature written based on the tales of heroism whereby he sought to arouse the people to crusade for higher values which he gave the name Dharma. He also composed some important works in Apabhramsa style of Hindi, including the autobiographical poem, the Bichitra Natak (the wonderful Drama). So both Punjabi and Hindi were prevalent.

Urdu, which later became the dominant language of education and administration, came only with the establishment of British rule over Punjab. Since the British captured Punjab only in 1849 (Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839) Urdu became dominant after that. Another perspective. Till 1857 the Muslims hated the new rulers, Christians, for snatching away the throne from them. It was only after 1857 that Sir Syed Ahmad made the Muslims realize that it was in their interest to support the Christians read Brits. The British too realized the importance of having the Muslims on their side and using them as a counter to Hindus. Hence they decided to support the Muslims by making Urdu the official language of Punjab. Undivided Punjab had more Muslims than Hindus but Hindus were in large numbers thus if the Brits were not bent on enhancing the Hindu Muslim divide they could have made both Urdu and Hindi languages of education / administration. Also note that undivided Punjab consisted of modern day Punjab on both sides of the border, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

It is the Arya Samaj that led the movement for revival of Hindi. The founder of the Arya Samaj Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1875) used to communicate in Sanskrit till he met a leader of the Brahmo Samaj Shri Keshub Chandra Sen who stressed the importance of carrying on his propaganda in a popular language. So Dayanand decided to propagate his teachings in Hindi. Since the Arya Samaji movement had strong roots in Punjab, Hindi became Arya Bhasa there. Subsequent Samaj leaders carried on the movement for usage of Hindi.

The eighth of the ten principles of the Arya Samaj points out to the Arya that he should endeavor to diffuse knowledge and dispel ignorance. In Punjab and the United Provinces the Samaj have done excellent work ahead of the missionary effort. No single organization could claim to have as many schools for boys and girls as the Samaj. For the boy’s education there were two types of colleges, one affiliated with the Government University and other independent of official control. The Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College was started at Lahore in 1886. A number of educational institutions were opened in Punjab and modern day Uttar Pradesh. By 1914, the Samaj had the largest number of institutions in Northern India and probably the second largest in the country. For the girls the Samaj maintained a large number of schools and colleges. One of them is the Kanyamahavidyala at Jullundar where my mother studied.

The impact of the Arya Samaj is also to be seen in the adoption of Hindi as a language of administration in Rajputana and U.P. Dayanand wrote all his works in Hindi or Sanskrit. Under the persuasion of Sir Pratap Singh, several states of Rajputana were convinced to adopt Hindi script for official work. It came to be adopted as an alternative medium of administration in U.P. early in the 20th century.

Therefore, the emergence of the Arya Samaji movement in North India led to the resurgence of Hindi. Since the Arya Samajis (mainly Punjabi) opened a number of schools, colleges in North India these institutions were used to promote Hindi. Also the Arya Samaj movement made Hindus pride of their past, led to a revival of their confidence levels. It made them shun foreign influence understood as Urdu, the language of the Muslims. Digressing a bit, this single decision of using Hindi enabled the Arya Samaj movement to grow beyond Punjab unlike the Punjabi sect Sikhism that restricted itself to using Gurumukhi as a medium of communication limiting its acceptability in the process.

I spoke to two seventy plus Uncles in my building who had grown up in undivided Punjab. They told me that during their childhood 1930-47, Urdu was indeed the language of the courts and administration. In schools too Urdu was taught. However, only boys learnt Urdu since they had to work thereafter while girls learnt Hindi since they did not normally work. However with the growth of the Arya Samaj a greater number of Hindus began to learn Hindi only.

Urdu vs Hindi    Part 3

1. Excerpts from the essay on the Aligarh Movement “What complicated matters further was the Hindi Urdu controversy originating from a movement by the Hindus of Kashi in 1867 to replace Urdu by Hindi and the Arabic script by Nagari. It must be mentioned that a similar movement for the use of Hindi was started in Punjab by Swami Dayanand Saraswati. These movements convinced Syed Ahmed Khan that Hindus and Muslims could never join whole-heartedly together and the differences would only increase in the future. Nawab Mulk said “Although we do not have the power of the pen, our hands are still strong enough to wield the might of the sword”. Muslim league pg 25.

2. Another Hindi Urdu controversy erupted in 1900. It was the practice in Uttar Pradesh that all petitions to the court must be written in Urdu. The Hindus protested against it forcing the govt to pass an order on 8/4/1900 that Government offices and law-courts should also entertain petitions written in Hindi and Devanagari scripts and that court summons and official announcements would be henceforth be issued in both Hindi and Urdu. The Muslims protested that it was lowering the prestige of Urdu, the matter got politicized, led to a worsening of Hindu Muslim relations. This decision and the reversal of the partition of Bengal in 1905 by the British made the Muslims realize the need to counteract the political organization of the Hindus, read Congress. And so on 30/12/1906 was formed the All India Muslim League at Dacca. And so Urdu became one more reason for the increasing Hindu Muslim divide.

3. Urdu got caught in the Hindu Muslim crossfire that got accentuated after Khilfat movement. When the Hindus insisted on use of Hindi, the League denounced it as a sign of Hindu domination and could not think of co-operating with the Congress unless Urdu was made the national language in place of Hindi. That too when Urdu was nothing but a Persianized dialect of Hindi. Its script is Persian and the grammar is of Hindi. The Congress could not face the League onslaught and effected a compromise. A new hybrid language half Hindi half Urdu named Hindustani was sought to be created, which the Congress accepted in place of Hindi.

4. Like many others, Vande Mataram, national flag Urdu became a rallying point for Muslims. Unfortunately searching for this mirage of Hindu Muslim unity, the Congress capitulated before the Muslims every time that was to result in Partition later and a permanent source of violence in the Indian sub-continent. Urdu became one more symbol of their Persian / Arabic identity, to the Hindus it is one more reminder of Muslim rule over India. Hindi movies have both Hindi and Urdu words so do news channels like Zee News.

5. The bottom-line that Indian Muslims derive strength, a sense of identity with Islam by the use of Urdu. When a child is in pain he always looks for his mother. So also when the Indian Muslim lost political power, condition began to detiorate he looked for ways to rejuvenate himself, one of them was having a language that though derived from an Indian language borrowed heavily from Persian and Arabic. Today a 250-year-old language has become a symbol of his Islamic identity.

6. It has become one more stick that is used to browbeat Hindus with. Hindi movies producers are forced either subtly or otherwise to increase the use of Urdu in movies. Why even Television serials have not been spared. Channels like Zee News that derives virtually all their revenues from India use Urdu words more often than not.

7. Is it not ironical that Urdu is more widely spoken in India than in Pakistan, a country that was created to satisfy the separatist needs of the Indian Muslims? The Pakistani Muslim lives in an Islamic state thus does not need to reinforce his Muslim identity, is comfortable speaking Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashtuni. On the other hand the Indian Muslim is living in Hindu India, needs to reemphasize his Muslim ness, Urdu is just one more tool.

Urdu like Persian, Arabic reminds the Hindu of Muslim domination that is why he is averse to it. Muslims see Hindi as a symbol of Hindu domination. Where Islam is in a dominant majority, Dar-ul-Islam must be created meaning “Muslim sovereignty pure and simple.” To the Indian Muslim it means increase usage of Urdu. Rationalists might ask, which language is older? Look at any conflict in the world involving Islam, does one associate rationalism with it?

This article is based on inputs of volumes 7 to 11 of the History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan.

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