Isi main hogi khuda se bhi guftagoo, Maikash
Ki roz-e-hashr bhi hogi miri zubaan Urdu

It is customary to celebrate anniversaries. Historians say the ancient Egyptians used to celebrate the birth of their Pharaohs who were considered gods. The practice was inherited by ordinary mortals a few centuries later. It is now widely observed by individuals, families and countries. This year we Indians are celebrating the 75th anniversary of our Independence.

So the decision to mark and celebrate the bicentenary of Urdu journalism is logical and necessary considering the role it has played in the formation of public perceptions in the last two hundred years of our history, a period that has witnessed great social and political turmoil in our society.

It is insufficiently known that Persian was for centuries the official language in many parts of India and the first Persian newspaper in the world was published by Raja Rammohan Roy in 1822. Urdu followed it closely and Harihar Datta published Ja-i-Jahan-Numa the same year.

Except for the last 75 years, the bulk of these two centuries were under the period of foreign rule with all the restrictions that went with it. A methodology to overcome it was also crafted and was expressed in the couplet:

Khincho na kamanon ko na talwar nikalo
Jab top muqabil ho to akhbar nikalo

Publications nevertheless were subject to stringent rules. The story is told of a couplet that was considered seditious:

Sar faroshi ki tamanna phir hamare dil main hai
Dekhna hai zour kitna bazo-u-e-qatil main hai

A timely intervention by a literate and sympathetic magistrate saved the day by his suggestion that the term used in the first line was not hamare but aashiqon ke!

The seriousness with which scrutiny of poetic matter was pursued is evident from the work undertaken by Dr. Rajesh Kumar Perti, a former Director General of the National Archives, in his diligently compiled collection of poems – ashob- that were considered seditious, confiscated, and preserved in the India Office in London. One of these poems, Khak-e-Hind, has these couplets:

Barson se ho raha hai barham samaan hamara
Dunya se mit raha hai naam-o-nishan hamara

Kuch kum nahi ajal se khwab-e-geraan hamara
Ab laash be-kafan hai Hindostan hamara

Bulbul ko gul mubarak, gul ko chaman Mubarak
Hum baaghiyon ko apna pyara watan mubarak

Times changed and we are now a free country. The role and responsibilities of journalism in a democracy is to inform, educate, guide, and entertain. Each of these is a valid and essential function, more so in modern societies whose size and numbers need means of communication other than direct face-to-face ones. This is sustained by law.

The Supreme Court has held that ‘the fundamental freedom under Article 19(1)(a) can be reasonably restricted only for the purposes mentioned in Articles 19(2) and the restriction must be justified on the anvil of necessity and not of convenience or expediency. Open criticism of Government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression. We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.

This in theory is impeccable, less so in practice and we come across instances of it particularly in the Urdu press in Jammu and Kashmir.


The Urdu press is the third largest in the country after Hindi and English. Urdu newspapers and periodicals are published in 16 states of the Union and one Union Territory.

According to the Census of India 2011 and in terms of speakers’ strength in Scheduled Languages, Urdu ranks 7th at 50.7 million after Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telegu, Tamil and Gujrati. It had a Speaker’s Strength of 4.19 million; this figure was 52.5 million in 1981, 51.8 million in 1991 and 5.01 million in 2011.

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?

Why has this happened? Does it suggest a pattern of language abandonment? An explanation in a wider context was given by Professor 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 Professor 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.

Two sets of facts shed light on it:

  • 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 twenty 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 Urdu knowing students 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.

Some years back the late Dr. Omar Khalidi had examined the state of Urdu literacy in India as gauged through school education and raised five questions

  • How many students in primary schools are having Urdu as the language of instruction?
  • How many are learning 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, revealed 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, a 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”. This was repeated two weeks later in a letter on August 1:

We encourage the smallest tribal language in its own area, but many of us resent even the mention of Urdu, and yet Urdu is very much a child of India and is a vital and graceful aspect of our many-sided culture. I am deeply grieved at this narrowness of outlook which so frequently comes in our way…

Nehru reiterated his views in the Hyderabad session of the All India Congress Committee in October the same year.

A Union Home Ministry circular of July 1958 mentioned the need to provide Urdu language teaching at the primary stage to children having it as mother tongue. It did not refer to Article 350A of the Constitution nor did it invoke Article 347.

The 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.

In 1972 the Government of India Resolution that set up the Gujral Committee to ascertain ways for the promotion and development of Urdu stated that “Urdu is not the concern of any one State Government or of any community. The responsibility for its development has also to be shared by the Central Government”. Its recommendations (1975), as also of the Ali Sardar Jaafri Committee in 1990, show the extent they were implemented meaningfully. Nor has the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language, established in 1990, registered a significant success in its primary objective.


Lamentation about the past is relevant only to draw lessons from it. Our concern today should be with the present, and the future. Where does Urdu stand now on the basis of the data cited above? What is its place in our social and cultural life, our political and economic life? How can its attributed affiliation to a specific community, with all its un-stated suggestions, be overcome to recapture its rightful place in the kaleidoscope of languages and cultural patterns of India? How can it be rejuvenated, its future be made livelier?

On one plane, official acknowledgement of Urdu is extended with unfailing regularly. Anniversaries are observed, patronage given to ‘mushairas’. Its limitations are also obvious: “Is se zubaan ki yaad to qaim rahi hai, taraqqi nahin hoti”.

Ghalib jise kehte hainUrdu ka hi shair tha
Urdu pe sitam kar ke Ghalib pe karam kyon ho

A commentator ha observed that “Urdu has been kept alive by the Hindi cinema, FM radio, madrassas and occasional recitation of couplets in Parliament”. He drew attention to Professor Gopi Chand Narang’s remark that “Urdu is like a patient on oxygen at the fag end of his life. This is the last generation of Urdu”.

‘Bollywood’ films played a major role in keeping alive the usage of Urdu. The historian Ramachandra Guha has observed that ‘at the time of independence anf perhaps for a century before that the pre-eminent language of poetry was Urdu. Others like Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen have shed light on the points of intersection between history, culture, language, community and contemporary tensions and to demonstrate its “cultural and political value…in the plural and multicultural imagination of India”.

The role of Madaaris is noteworthy. They have sustained Urdu in difficult times in the context of their curricula of studies and have helped take it to a segment of the younger generation. By the same token, however, the effort has been community specific and confined to those of its members who preferred a madrasa, generally for economic reasons, to normal, state-run, schools. At the same time, confining Urdu to the madaaris also impacts on what is historically an essentially secular, occasionally libertarian, temper of the language.

Languages are learnt and sustained for a variety of reasons. They are imbibed firstly at home as mother tongue and supplemented through primary (and secondary) schooling in it. This necessitates availability of schools, text books and teachers provided either by the state or local authority or through community efforts. Secondly, languages are learnt through economic compulsions and in quest of economic opportunities. It implies participation in wider and prevalent community patterns of education and employability and the requisite effort by society to make available educational institutions and teachers. In the third place, a language may be learnt as a preferred elective for social or religious prestige or academic excellence.

The challenge for a declining language is thus at two levels. The child’s inherited awareness of the mother tongue is part of his/her personal, social and cultural identity and has to be shaped and consolidated by structured instruction to enable him or her to proceed from illiteracy to basic literacy. Thereafter, the instrumental motivation and contours of language revival must necessarily be shaped by economic factors. In most multilingual societies (including India), the latter is a function of dominant language for administration, business and inter-regional and international communications. The picture here is evident, and fully accepted.

The situation is different with regard to the mother tongue. It is a fundamental right of citizens, under Article 29, to conserve their distinct language and script. The objective of Article 350A – “for every State and every local authority within the State to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups” – however remains unachieved for a great number of Urdu speaking children. In some cases their linguistic identity is overlooked or ignore; in others primary school arrangements remain non-functional by the absence Urdu language teachers and textbooks. The persistence of these defaults raises doubts about the sincerity of the effort.

The conclusion is inescapable that this is a case of multiple failures: on the part of the state in its constitutional obligations, of the Urdu speaking communities in their cultural duty to be assertive in seeking to learn and sustain the language, and of individual families for not making the additional effort required for doing so.


What, then is to be done? A Senegalese poet has observed that ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only
what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.’

The imperative need is to find ways of teaching Urdu to those who declare it to be their mother tongue. The task has to begin with the primary school and should continue at least in part of the secondary school. The problem would be resolved if in the Three Language Formula evolved and accepted under the National Language Policy Urdu is assigned the same status as its sister Indian languages. This, regrettably, is not forthcoming in government schools in some states and in others through tardiness in recruitment of teachers and publication of text books etc. The deficiencies in the implementation of safeguards for linguistic minorities in different states are recorded with some precision in reports of the Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities. asserting that “the constitutional safeguards provided for the linguistic minorities can only become real when there is necessary supportive legislation”.

Until more assertive state action is taken, the only alternative is to organise effort at the family and Urdu-speaking community level. The experience of declining-language communities elsewhere in the world would be relevant in this context. A good example is the practice of the Jewish community in the United Sates of undertaking weekend instruction in Hebrew. Other examples of successful language revival are Catalan in Spain and French in Canada.

Alongside, the need to keep alive the effort to make the state to honour constitutional obligations in regard to those who claim Urdu as their mother tongue has to be galvanised. Public opinion and electoral pressures do produce results, as has happened in several states of the Indian Union. We have at all times to remember that justice is the first of the four principles enshrined in the Preamble of our Constitution and, as the philosopher John Rawls put it, “ the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests”.

There are, nevertheless, some silver linings on the horizon. Urdu newspapers and magazines have survived the decline and have shown signs of a revival. Corporate media has shown interest the Urdu press. Books in Urdu continue to be published and are inexpensively priced. Several Urdu television channels (apart from Doordarshan-Urdu) have come into existence and seem to survive commercially. The music industry continues to prosper on Urdu ghazals, songs and qawwalis.

There are also signs of a desire among the youth to learn the language. Apart from the standard post-graduate course in language and literature, the Urdu department of the University of Delhi now has a Certificate and a Diploma course with high enrolment.

One other factor of relevance needs a mention. Urdu is now an international language and is being studied and promoted beyond the Indian sub-continent. The internet is assisting the effort in good measure. It would indeed be a tragedy of profound dimensions if the language would regress and disappear in the land of its birth.

The question, in the final analysis, also pertains to our perception of Indian pluralism and of the ambit of Indian culture. Is it to be inclusive or exclusive? Has it to be characterised by catholicity of approach or otherwise? Do we retain what has enriched it in the past and continues to do so today, or discard for considerations emanating from illiberal outlook?

Kisi bhi shama se be-zaar ho kyon koi parvana
Yeh kya is daur ka diwana-pun hai hum nahin samjhe