Heading towards Diwali, a gimmicky ad celebrating Diwali’s festivity in Urdu terms caused a barrage of criticism and some support. Both the ad maker and the corporate sponsor relished the free publicity that accrued to them from coverage of the controversy in leading TV channels. Twitter and other social media lit up with hashtags opposing or supporting the ad, while media pundits jumped in with their prognosis.
Irked viewers protested use of Urdu words to define Diwali while extremists saw it as appropriation of a Hindu festival by pro-Islam elements. Academia and elites got into the ring with their punches mostly decrying Hindutva-vasis (to coin a phrase meaning residents of Hindutva) for their parochial addiction to All Things Hindu.
In a patch up mode, in his article “Hindustani, we spoke” its author Billal got all teary eyed about Hindustani being the spoken language of a big chunk of India, which is true. But he seemed to overlook the critical fact that the regions where Hindustani was and is spoken are those which were most directly or largely under Muslim subjugation and rule. Why it was widely spoken hence is not necessarily a voluntary act of adoption and assimilation but rather a product of powerplay.
A subjugated populace will gradually adopt the ruler’s lingo as a means to stay alive and prosper. Just as a sliver of Indians learnt English to serve the British Empire as well as to use it as a step-up in the social ladder, Hindus and Hindi speaking India learnt Urdu and Islamic languages (Farsi, Persian, Arabic etc.) to enter the realm of the ruler. Language (in this case Urdu) became a passport to join the ruling class.
Like English, Urdu and Hindustani were confined to the upper classes and the elite that were coopted by the Muslim and British rulers to serve their administrations and kingdoms, and to fill key bridging roles as downstream and upstream conduits linking the ‘alien’ ruler to the ‘native’ ruled.
It is therefore hardly a surprise to know that the language which the ambitious and upwardly mobile “subjects” adopted to gain access to the court was precisely what they used to retain their power and superiority over those who did not speak the “Imperial or Court language” well into post-Independence and current times.
Language is like a river. It flows across terrains, and enriches itself and the terrains by picking up or leaving behind words to merge with the “native” language. To celebrate Hindustani as a spoken blend of Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, Arabic and Urdu therefore is totally fine, but to think of it as lingua franca is to overstate the point.
The compulsion to learn the ruler’s language at the cost of one’s own indigenous language was evident across Muslim dominated India, where Urdu and other Muslim languages prevailed as medium of instruction. In my family, for instance, my grandfather knew Farsi and Arabic, and my father and his brothers were fluent in Urdu. But sadly, they never learnt Hindi script, which was simply not taught in schools where they studied. As a result, after my parents got married, because one knew only Urdu script and the other Hindi script, the only way for them to write to each other was in English!
Growing up in Independent India, the controlling power of English as a ticket to success haunted and continues to haunt many of us. Hindi speakers were the ‘out’ and English speakers the ‘in’ crowd. The same affliction was felt vis-à-vis Urdu in earlier decades of independence when the media and film industry were totally beholden to and served as conduits of Urdu – a language we did not read or speak or fully understand though we appreciated its cadence and ‘culture’ (“tahzeeb”).
The central figures selected for popular film biopics were also essentially historical figures from the Muslim period and portraying Muslim rule and rulers in kinder, gentler terms. Epic films such as “Mughal-e-Azam,” “Anarkali,” “Taj Mahal,” “Razia Sultan,” “Noorjehan,” and others sealed the romance of that age in our minds. There were exceptions such as Jhansi ki Rani which however were from the British period.
Now, since Hindi and Hindu personalities from Indian history and Hindu mythology are being captured and disseminated through highly successful films, text books, and public events, “Woke” historians and ultraliberals are screaming Uncle and protesting Hindutva-izing of India.