A Country Where Sanskrit Deserves Preservation, But Urdu Doesn't

Though constitutional guarantees and planned policies say otherwise, Urdu-speaking people in India have had a hard time trying to conserve their language and culture.

A newspaper vendor in Srinagar, Kashmir. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

A newspaper vendor in Srinagar, Kashmir. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Language is a silent index of culture, and multilingualism is in no way a threat to nationhood. Language has always been an emotive bond in human societies. Languages, not religions, make nations. That’s why the two-nation theory was wrong.

No language can be termed an offshoot of any particular religion, caste, creed or faith. All languages are a product of a given society. One of the major reasons for Nathuram Godse’s hatred, prompting him to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi (as testified by Godse in court) was Gandhiji’s love for Urdu and advocacy in favour of Hindustani with Devanagari and Persian script.

The University Grants Commission has now asked universities to celebrate International Mother Language Day on February 21, 2018. In 1999, UNESCO had resolved to celebrate this day to mark the killing of four Bengali students on February 21, 1952 – the students wanted to use Bengali in what was then known as East Pakistan. The day is a national holiday in Bangladesh.

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists 2,500 endangered languages around the world. If a language is spoken by less than 10,000 people, it is considered endangered. India tops the list with 197 endangered languages. Of these, 81 are ‘vulnerable’ languages, 63 ‘definitely endangered’, six ‘severally endangered’ and 42 ‘critically endangered’. In the last five decades, more than 220 languages have died in our country.

Reading the constitution

Though the constitution does not declare any language as the national language and Hindi is only the ‘official language’, yet of the 780 languages in India, only 22 languages are constitutionally-recognised in Schedule VIII of the constitution. One needs to appreciate that the prime minister himself talked about our rich linguistic diversity in his very first answer in a recent conversation with school children on examination stress.

Article 29 of the Indian constitution lays down that any section of citizens with a distinct language, script and culture shall have the right to conserve the same. This is an absolute right and the visionary framers of the constitution have not subjected it to any restrictions. In Jagdev Singh Sidhanti vs Pratap Singh Daulta, the Supreme Court held that the right includes the right “to agitate for the protection of the language”.

Article 347 lays down that “on a demand being made in that behalf, the President may, if he is satisfied that a substantial proportion of the population of a State desires the use of any language spoken by them to be recognized by that State, direct that such language shall also be officially recognized throughout that State or any part thereof for such purposes as he may specify”.

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Article 350 provided that every person is entitled to submit a representation for redress of any grievance to any officer or authority of the Union or state in any of the languages used in the Union or state as the case may be.

Article 350A enjoins that it shall be the endeavour of every state and of 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.

Article 350B makes a provision for the appointment of a special officer for linguistic minorities to investigate all matters relating to the safeguards provided for linguistic minorities under this constitution and report to the president upon those matters.

Unimplemented policies

In practice, these guarantees meant very little for Urdu-speaking people. Urdu was born in India and Islam has nothing to do with it. In fact, it was originally called Hindavi. It is spoken by both Muslims and Hindus. Precisely how could Urdu-speaking people conserve their culture when soon after independence their mother tongue was banished from primary schools? Throughout the large areas of northern and central India (in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan), Urdu was virtually removed as a medium of instruction in schools.

More shocking were legislations in many states which made it an offence for government servants to use any language other than Hindi. In May 1948, the UP government issued a circular which stated that the children would be educated using Hindi exclusively. But in 1949, an important resolution was adopted at the Provincial Education Ministers’ Conference, which was also approved by the Union government. It stated that the medium of instruction in primary education must be the mother tongue of the child and, where this was different from the regional or state language, “arrangements must be made for instruction in the mother tongue by appointing at least one teacher, provided there are not less than 40 students speaking the language in a class.” Though the 40-1 plan was enthusiastically endorsed by the state governments, its implementation remains a mere dream even now.

There has been no implementation of the three-language formula either, which was finalised in 1961. The states have evolved their own formula of three languages. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, Hindi and Sanskrit are taught as national and regional languages respectively, and Urdu has been placed as a third language along with English. Thus the student can learn either English or Urdu. Since in today’s globalised world no one can afford to not learn English, Muslim students are left with no choice but to abandon their own mother tongue.

This was the blatant distortion of the three-language formula. Urdu was excluded from its legitimate spot as the first language for those whose mother tongue it is Urdu and then omitted even as the second or third language. Except in Bihar, the formula has been reduced to Hindi, Sanskrit and English in Hindi-speaking states.

In March 2017, when two Muslim MLAs of the newly-elected UP legislative assembly – Alam Badi and Nafees Ahmad – took their oath in Urdu, protem speaker Fateh Bahadur disallowed their oath and compelled them to retake it in Hindi. They complied with his orders under protest. A few months ago, Aligarh’s newly-elected corporator too was not allowed to take oath in Urdu. In fact, he was charged with blasphemy.

The Urdu oath does not have any words which anyone can object to, as it is an exact translation of the Hindi oath. Let us appreciate the legal compulsions of the protem speaker. Rule 282 of the rules of procedure of the UP assembly explicitly says: “Subject to the provisions of the constitution, the business of the assembly shall be transacted in the Hindi language and in the Devanagari script.” Thus their oaths were in a way rightfully disallowed, going strictly by the text of the rules. But then the devil is always in details. Let us see our hypocrisy and double standards. In the same oath-taking ceremony, no one noticed or raised even an eyebrow that as many 13 BJP MLAs had taken oath in Sanskrit and not in ‘Hindi in Devanagari script’ as is required by the rules. How come their oath in Sanskrit was acceptable and valid, but not an oath in Urdu?

But who in Adityanath’s UP today has the guts to say that Hindi and Sanskrit are two different languages? Are not Hindi and Sanskrit mentioned as two different languages in the constitution of India? Hindi is mentioned at number 4 and Sanskrit at number 14 in Schedule VIII of the constitution. The mere fact that both Hindi and Sanskrit are written in Devanagari script cannot be used as an argument to deny them distinct identities. Similarly, we cannot say that Persian and Urdu are one and the same language. Thus, if an oath in Urdu is not permissible, an oath in Sanskrit too cannot be valid.

Let me clarify here that I am not against Sanskrit. I have studied Sanskrit till class X. It is indeed one of the greatest classical languages, with an extremely rich body of literature. Prominent Muslim members of the constituent assembly, in fact, did advocate for the recognition of Sanskrit as the national language, saying that it is the world’s greatest language. Nazirduddin quoted Sir William Jones, who had said that “Sanskrit is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, more exquisitely refined than either.” He argued that it should be made the national language for the practical reason that it is equally difficult for all. He was supported by 27 other members, including B.R. Ambedkar.

Not a new debate

Language was one of the most controversial questions with which constituent assembly was confronted. The debates in the constituent assembly, however, do demonstrate that the depth of hatred for Urdu was not confined to few Hindu fanatics like Godse. Thus we should stop blaming the BJP of today for not allowing an oath in Urdu. We must appreciate the similarity of desire for one nation, one language, one religion expressed by several others in the constituent assembly. Homogeneity, and not heterogeneity or pluralism, has been the goal from day one.

In the constituent assembly, Seth Govind Das said that “we have accepted our country to be a secular state but we never thought that this acceptance implied the acceptance of continued existence of heterogeneous cultures. For thousands of years, one and the same culture has all along been obtaining here. It is in order to maintain this tradition that we want one language and one script for the whole country. We do not want it to be said that there are two cultures here.”

R.V. Dulakar went on to say, “I say it (Hindi) is the official language and it is the national language. You may demur to it (as members said not yet). You may belong to another nation but I belong to Indian nation, the Hindi Nation, the Hindu Nation, the Hindustani Nation.”

Posters by artist Shiraz Hussain, who has been trying to popularise Urdu on the internet through his Facebook page, Khwaab Tanha Collective. Credit: Facebook/Khwaab Tanha Collective

Posters by artist Shiraz Hussain, who has been trying to popularise Urdu on the internet through his Facebook page, Khwaab Tanha Collective. Credit: Facebook/Khwaab Tanha Collective

Das showed his real self when he said on the floor of constituent assembly on September 12, 1949, “In Urdu literature nowhere do you find any description of the Himalayas. Instead, you find the description of Koh Kaf. You will never find your favourite Koyal (Cuckoo) in Urdu literature but, of course, Bulbul is there. In place of Bhima and Arjuna you will find there Rustom who is completely alien to us.”

Mohd Hifzur Rahman gave a befitting reply when he forcefully replied, “But today it (Urdu) is looked down with contempt because it contains foreign expressions, and for this reason, it cannot be the language of the Union. But I say with all the emphasis at my command that this proposition is wholly incorrect; because in spite of the assertion to the contrary, in point of fact, Urdu is pregnant with Indian thoughts and expressions. If you would study Urdu poetry and Urdu poets, you would realise your mistake.”

“One of the modern poets of Urdu, namely Mushim of Kakori, while praising the Holy Prophet of Islam says thus: “From Kashi clouds are proceeding towards Mathura. The cool breeze has brought the sacred waters of the Ganges on her shoulders. The news has just reached that clouds are coming for ‘Tirath’ (Pilgrimage): on the wings of clouds, etc. etc.” Even in a religious poetry like this ‘Ganges’ and ‘Mathura’ has been mentioned. The poet has substituted ‘Kashi’, ‘Mathura’ and ‘Ganges’ for ‘Macca’, ‘Medina’ and ‘Zem-Zem’. This is the correct position and I would like to say that any assertion to the contrary is wholly incorrect.”

Even Iqbal has called Ram the Imam-e-Hind and refers to the Himalayas as ‘Parvat woh sabse ucha (the highest mountain)’ in his famous poem Saare Jahan se achcha.

Article 29 does give the fundamental right to every citizen to conserve her distinct language, script and culture. If an elected representative cannot use her language even in her own oath, which binds only her and demands nothing from others, how can her language or script be preserved? Who will preserve it? Urdu played a leading role in our freedom struggle. Leading Urdu poets and writers have been Hindus. Let us not be language chauvinists. Let us preserve our linguistic diversity and not allow any language to become endangered.

Faizan Mustafa is an expert on constitutional law.