Fading Urdu

After reading some interesting analyses of the dominance of the Hindi-belt in India, I thought about my work on culture, language, and politics, specifically the decay of Urdu litearure in post-Partition India and its impact on national politics.

In Custody by Anita Desai highlights the impoverishment of the cultural and linguistic forms of Muslim identity in post-1947 India, as when one of Nur Shahjenabadi’s cronies says, “Urdu is supposed to have died in 1947. What you see in the universities—in some of the universities, a few of them only—is its ghost, wrapped in a shroud” (56). In reference to the complicity of the Congress leadership in giving preference to Hindi in postcolonial India, the Urdu poet Nur Shahjenabadi declares in the novel, “Those Congress-wallahs have set up Hindi on top as our ruler” (42).

As Prabhu S. Guptara reminds the student of Indian history, the recognition of English and Hindi by the Constitution of independent India as the nation’s two official languages enabled Hindi to make “significant strides, and the number of publications has been growing steadily” (24). The nation and nationalism that were defined by the politics of the Partition need to be analyzed in order to account for the volcanic eruptions caused by this horrific event.

Beyond the rifts that were brought to the surface in the subcontinent in 1947, the forces of communal violence and fundamentalism continue to wield their power with unabated vigor.

In the context of these historical ruptures, poems by Faiz and similar narratives describe the experience of the disenfranchised Muslims and Hindus who were uprooted during the Partition, and require the reader to consider their experiences. The insistence on a nationalist rhetoric that prevents a nation from retrieving and performing a critical examination of its culture, social customs, its gender divisions is rendered more urgent by such narratives.

In post-colonial and post-Partition India, Urdu finds itself abandoned by its wealthy and regal patrons of pre-Partition era, who are still reeling under the disorienting effects of dislocation. In the era of the decrepitude of the glorious tradition of the Urdu language, there is “no place for it to live in the style to which it is accustomed, no emperors and nawabs to act as its patrons” (15).

Historically, the Partition did fragment the writing community by redistributing its members into two separate territorial nations. One of the significant consequences of the Partition was the migration of Urdu writers of Muslim origin to Pakistan. So the chime of Independence was, as Aijaz Ahmad puts it, “experienced in the whole range of Urdu literature of the period not in the celebratory mode but as a defeat, a disorientation, a diaspora” (Lineages 118).

In the modern world, religious and cultural differences are deliberately fostered by many nation-states in their efforts to construct homogenous subjects of state. So Chandra Chatterjeetells the reader about the redefinition of Hinduism in pre-Independence India, which was engendered in reaction to colonial rule in India and also in reaction to the nation by ethnic and religious groups in post-independence democratic and secular India:

“However, democracy in India is itself protest-ridden. The ethnic and religious minorities protest against the singular definition of “nation.” The politically marginalized groups protest against inadequate representation in government policies. Numerous insurgencies all over the country relate their revolts to wars for independence at the subnational level which the dominant national ideology has been unable to either outwit or neutralize” (7-8).

The decay of the Urdu language and its literature and culture in post-Partition India is an effect of the imposition of the singular definition of nation against which ethnic and religious minorities continue to protest in present-day India.

But hearkening to the call of the present should not necessitate a rejection of a rich cultural heritage and traditions—Urdu literature and Muslim culture should not be neutralized within a nationalist polity that threatens to remove differences cultural and linguistic differences in post-Independence India.