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Urdu: A Language of Unity

رگوں میں دوڑتے پھرنے کے ہم نہیں قائل
جب آنکھ ہی سے نہ ٹپکا تو پھر لہو کیا ہے
مرزا غالب –

This blood is not meant to just run meaninglessly through our veins,

If it does not drip from the eyes, what kind of blood is it?

Mirza Ghalib

Language is rooted in meaning. As human beings we carefully construct the words we speak. We order letters, organise our chosen words and form sentences that communicate our thoughts to each other. In other words, we are social beings. The power of language is often overlooked. The beauty of its richness forgotten. And it’s mastery in an age of emojis and symbols, non-existent. Peoples of a common language possess a deep bond, the ability to know and understand one another. The commonality of a language is indicative of the oneness of society, the hallmark of a civilisation and a bond between neighbours. Regardless of creed, age, lineage and nationality.

Seventy-four years ago, in what became one of the greatest mass migrations in history, neighbours were separated. The end of the British Raj was a tumultuous process and the ghosts of the post-colonial world still linger in society today. In 1947 two nation states were formed: India and Pakistan, while Bangladesh was liberated later in 1971. Indian society was a profoundly diverse one, with a rich history and a plethora of cultures. However, one of the many casualties of partition was language. The rise of linguistic nationalism in South Asia contributed to disrupting the unity and exacerbated divisions in society.  

The prominent Pakistani Political scientist Eqbal Ahmad remarked:

‘’Urdu is not a Muslim nor a Hindu language. It developed in response to the necessity of two people to discover a common language. It developed out of an honest, genuine, meaningful, creative encounter between Islam and India. Out of that multicultural, multi-religious encounter, has developed a language that is our common heritage. We call it Urdu in Pakistan. It is called Hindustani in India.’’ 

As such the creation of the Urdu language was a product of the encounter between the rise of Islam and Indian society. The argument that Urdu is in fact a shared language of a plethora of cultures and traditions is also evident through its etymology. Although there is some disagreement, the Oxford dictionary reveals that the word Urdu comes from the Turkic word ‘ordu‘ meaning army. While, in Persian ‘zaban-i-urdu’ translates to the language of the camp. As the Muslim invasions began to occupy more territory in India, the Urdu language was formed and spread subsequently. As such, Urdu is a hybrid language, influenced by Hindi, Turkish, Arabic and Persian. Urdu is a testament to the desire of unity in Indian society despite its divergent cultures.

However, after the creation of Pakistan and East Pakistan (modern day Bangladesh) the problems of linguistic nationalism began to unfold. Pakistani nationalism led to Urdu being declared the lingua franca. The problems of such a move were that in East Pakistan, more than half of the country was Bengali speaking. The imposition of the Urdu language without the approval of the Bengali speaking population led to resistance. Bengali like Urdu, Eqbal Ahmad argues, was a developed language which people did not want to give up. Far from strengthening the unity, Pakistani nationalism, in this regard led to divisions being created through this approach. 

On the other hand, Urdu began to be seen as a ‘Muslim’ language in India. As such, efforts were made to introduce more Sanskrit words into Urdu to counter this. However, the fact of the matter is, despite these claims even Indian society after partition has returned to this shared language. One explicit example is the fact that the predominant dialogues and songs in Bollywood movies are in fact all in Urdu. This demonstrates the desire of the revival of the Urdu language among countries that are now long divided. 

Refugees escaping the partition often carried with them things to remember their homeland, stones, bricks, and soil. However, what is interesting is that they always had with them their love for a language they spoke with their parted neighbours. Lines and boundaries drawn were successful in dividing the countries but they could not destroy the preservation of a language of unity, Urdu. 

AHMAD, E. (2017) Writings on India, Pakistan and Kashmir, Bhopal Peace and Eco-Justice Action Committee, p.40

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