Building Bridges with Urdu

Bollywood superstar and former Rajya Sabha member Hema Malini wants to know Urdu better. The actor rose to fame in an era when immortal lyrics penned in Urdu, and rendered with chaste diction, were an inalienable part of Hindi cinema, and played no mean role in propelling performers to stardom. Malini herself would not be the one to hesitate to acknowledge this debt, and attest to Urdu’s appeal and power to unify and build empathy. And this is only a part of Urdu’s civilisational content and contribution which, throughout its history, have been inspirational, refining and liberating. But this legacy is being demolished by official neglect and apathy, not to speak of sheer bias and active hostility from rulers since 1947.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the language is being sought to be banished from the land of its birth where it has played a great role in social life and culture for centuries. With the destruction of Delhi in 1857, the new British policy was to destroy Indian culture, particularly its Muslim components. Much before this, groups in Banaras had organized a linguistic movement against Urdu. Similar sentiments ruled the badhralok of Bengal. Ghalib, Mir, Dagh and innumerable other poets and writers were seen in communal colours. After India’s independence, there were strong calls for Hindustani – a blend of Urdu and Hindi – to be made the country’s official language. But Indian rulers resisted this.  While Urdu was adopted as the official language in Pakistan, in India, state policy became Urdu’s biggest foe.

Of late, however, a change of sorts seems to be in the offing. For instance, Urdu appears to be making a comeback in the film industry. The ideological onslaught against the language was premised on anti- Muslim feelings bred from 1857. But over the past two decades or so, it has begun to dawn on New Delhi’s upper caste power structure that Urdu is a great civilisational and diplomatic asset for India. Urdu is perceived to have the potential to melt the many prejudices fostered over centuries. It needs to be seen how long the language takes to make its way back into mainstream India.


In Jammu and Kashmir, Urdu is in pitiable shape despite its position as the state’s official language since 1947. Rulers here have been powerless to dissolve prejudices against it, and apathetic in protecting and promoting it. Urdu has been practically banished from Leh. No education, no official use, not even signboards, though, to some extent, Urdu is still in use in Kargil.  But it has been totally thrown out in many parts of the Jammu region, and put to decline even in the Pir Panjal areas.

For the past five years, various social groups have been trying to revive and advance the cause of Urdu. A few years ago, noted educationist Dr A.G. Madhosh said that the decline of Urdu was directly related to the decline in reading habits.  In this background of loss and despair, it is heartening that the State Government has begun to show some concern. The legislature too has stirred itself across party and regional lines.  A committee headed by Chief Secretary Muhammad Iqbal Khanday has suggested various measures for strengthening the language. This is a welcome move. Such a medium of communication and unity must not be allowed to die. Rulers should note the significance of the language in building bridges between cultures, regions and groups.