This is the second part of a series of articles based on a speech by Mr Justice Markandey Katju of the Supreme Court of India. The speech, presented at Jamia Millia Islamia,
New Delhi was titled ‘What is Urdu?’
By Markandey Katju
Indian culture can broadly be called the Sanskrit -Urdu culture:
India is broadly a country of immigrants, which explains its tremendous diversity. The question now arises is whether these immigrants who came into India have all preserved their original different identities, or a common culture has emerged by their intermingling? In my opinion, despite all our diversities, a common culture has emerged in India which may broadly be called the Sanskrit-Urdu culture, which is the common culture of India. This culture revolves around two great languages which our country has produced, namely Sanskrit and Urdu.
I do not mean to denigrate or disparage the other languages of India. Great literature has been written in several of our languages. For example, in my opinion, the best prose in modern India is in Bengali (particularly the works of the great Bengali writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya). There has been also great literature in Tamil (the ‘Tiruppavai’ of Andal is reminiscent of the poetry of Surdas and Mirabai), Marathi, Gujarati, Oriya, Assamese, Punjabi, Telugu, Malayalam, Kashmiri (see the verses of Habba Khatoon), etc. All languages in our country deserve equal respect.
However, having said that, we must understand that Sanskrit and Urdu stand on a different footing from these other languages. Sanskrit and Urdu are our two great national cultural languages (while other languages are regional).
There is a great misunderstanding about both Sanskrit and Urdu. Sanskrit is often regarded as a language of rituals and pooja paath among Hindus, although I have shown in my speech entitled ‘Sanskrit as a Language of Science’ delivered in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore as well as in Banaras Hindu University that 95 percent of Sanskrit literature has nothing to do with religion or religious rituals, and instead deals with philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine, literature, grammar, interpretation, etc.
Similarly, there have been a lot of misconceptions about Urdu e.g. that it is a foreign language or it is a language of Muslims alone.
As I have already mentioned, our country’s culture is the Sanskrit-Urdu culture. We have, therefore, to understand Urdu in order to understand our country.
Two false notions about Urdu:
Two false notions were propagated, particularly after 1947 about Urdu by certain vested interests (1) that Urdu is a foreign language, and (2) that Urdu is a language of Muslims alone.
The first idea is palpably false. Arabic and Persian are no doubt foreign languages (though I have great respect for them also, as I have great respect for all languages). But Urdu is a language which is totally indigenous. It was born here in India as the language of the lashkar (camp) and of the market. In its simplified form (as Khariboli or Hindustani) it is the language of the common man in large parts of urban India. Its prominent figures all lived in India, and they have made an outstanding contribution to our culture, dealing with the problems of the people, sympathising in their sorrows, and touching the human heart. Only ignorant people can call Urdu a foreign language.
The second notion, that Urdu is a language of Muslims alone, is also false. In fact up to the last generation in our country Urdu was the language of all educated people, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, in large parts of urban India. In my own family up to my father everyone was highly proficient in Urdu. It is only from my generation that Urdu has disappeared, which I regard as unfortunate.
The notion that Urdu is a language of Muslims alone can only be attributed to the policy of `divide and rule’. Certain vested interests wanted Hindus and Muslims to fight with each other, and hence they gave birth to the false notion that Hindi is the language of Hindus while Urdu is the language of Muslims. As a matter of fact, the spoken language of the common man (in urban areas) is Khariboli (or Hindustani), Urdu being Persianised Khariboli, and Hindi being Sanskritised Khariboli.
Urdu has a national following in our country as it is spoken in 13 states of the country, and is in the 8th Schedule to the Constitution.
What is Urdu?
In my opinion the best poetry in modern India is in Urdu (the best prose, in my opinion, being in Bengali). But what is Urdu?
I am sure that even many professors in the Urdu Department or Urdu poets will not be able to give the correct answer to this question. Therefore, I will attempt to do so.
Urdu is the language which was created by the superimposition of some features and vocabulary of the Persian language on a Hindustani (Khariboli) foundation. Thus, Urdu is a language created by the combination of two languages, Persian and Hindustani. It is for this reason that at one time it was called `Rekhta’ which means hybrid. Ghalib called Urdu rekhta, “Rekhta ke tumhi tu ustaad nahi Ghalib/Kahte hain agle zamaana me koi Mir bhi tha”.
Since Urdu was created by the combination of Persian and Hindustani, the question arises whether Urdu is a special kind of Persian or a special kind of Hindustani? The answer is that it is a special kind of Hindustani, not a special kind of Persian. This needs to be explained.
What determines the language to which a sentence belongs is the verb used in it (and not the noun, adjective, etc.). For example, if I say: “Mr. Ram, you and your wife aaiye tomorrow night for dinner at my home at 8 p.m.” this sentence is a Hindi sentence and not a English sentence, although 15 out of the 16 words used in it are in English. Why? Because the verb (aaiye) used in it is a Hindi word, not an English word.
In Urdu all verbs are in simple, colloquial Hindi (which is called Hindustani or Khariboli). Many of the nouns and adjectives in Urdu are from Persian (or Arabic), as are many of the forms of poetry e.g. ghazal, masnavi, qaseeda, masriya, etc. but the verb will always be from Hindustani. If the verb is from Persian it would become a Persian sentence, not an Urdu sentence, and if the verb is Arabic it would become an Arabic sentence. Arabic words came into the Persian language after the conquest of Persia by the Arabs.
We may take an Urdu sher (couplet) of any Urdu poet and we will find that the verb is always in simple Hindi (though many nouns and adjectives may be Persian or Arabic).
Thus Urdu is a special kind of Hindustani (or Khariboli), not a special kind of Persian. I am emphasising this because had Urdu been a special kind of Persian it would have been a foreign language. The fact that it is a special kind of Khariboli (or Hindustani) shows that it is a desi or indigenous language. This answers the criticism of those who call Urdu a foreign language.
(To be continued)