In general, a language can flourish as long as it remains a functional language, a living language. The scene in present-day India has completely changed, and with the free market economy and globalization, whether one likes it or not, any language and its literature will have to compete for survival in the open market. A language and its literature can no more survive only on state patronage. If it tries to do so, it will perish. Urdu’s case is illustrative. The leadership of Urdu, an admixture of half-baked and superficially ‘knowledgeable’ university teachers and regressive Muslim politicians, is still churning out the same old tired clichés of anti-government policies, and Urdu literature has been going down the same path as Sanskrit. Urdu as lingua franca will survive, Urdu as a written language in dini madaris will survive, but it has already ceased to grow as a literary language. Muslim politics and its proponents have successfully convinced the Urdu-speaking Muslim population that Urdu is a ‘Muslim language’ and that the government and the broad Hindu majority are anti-Urdu. So, they assert, it is their duty to save Urdu as part of their religious duty and most Muslims are convinced by this argument. -- Ather Farouqui
Author of numerous books and articles on contemporary Muslim politics and Urdu, New Delhi-based Ather Farouqui speaks to Yoginder Sikand about his work and about the status of Urdu and Muslim intellectual thought in contemporary India.
Q: Could you tell us something about your background?
A: I was born in 1964, in Sikandrabad, still a sleepy and dusty town in Bulandshahr district, now part of the National Capital Region and next door to Greater Noida in western Utta Pradeshr. I did my BA and MA in Urdu literature privately from the erstwhile Meerut University (now renamed as Chaudhary Charan Singh University). Then, I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, first for a part-time diploma in mass media in 1986, then for an M. Phil in 1998. I went on to do my Ph.D. there, getting my degree in 1996 from the Centre for Indian Languages, School of Languages, which is now known as the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. I worked under the guidance of Imtiaz Ahmad, who though not officially my supervisor, guided me academically. I worked on a socio-political study of Urdu in post-Partition India for my M.Phil. and Ph.d. For my M.Phil., I worked on ‘Urdu education in Delhi’ and for my doctoral dissertation, I expanded on the issue, looking at Urdu in post-1947 India more generally.
Q: A lot has been written on Urdu in post-1947 India. How was your study different?
A: For me, Urdu has many dimensions in post-partition India. Some of these are: Urdu as a language of communication, Urdu as a functional language (including not only its role as a lingua franca but its coverage of most aspects of life, most importantly, the teaching of Urdu), Urdu as a language of canonized literature, Urdu as a language of pulp literature (whose most prominent name is Ibn-e Safi), and finally, Urdu as a language of religious studies.
Urdu as a language of religious studies covers the political dimension of assertive Muslim identity bordering on atavistic Muslim politics and here the question of Arabic-Perso script plays a vital role. ‘Teaching of Urdu’ or ‘Urdu Education’ both are oversimplified concepts and expressions. Teaching of Urdu, as first, second or third language in a school curriculum is one thing and is totally different from Urdu as a medium of instruction in schools affiliated with state boards. Then again, Urdu as a medium of instruction for some subjects in dini madaris and its employment as the only language of communication between students and teachers in these madaris is an entirely different subject of study. Some dini madaris teach Urdu literature, but their purpose is twofold: to make the students proficient in Urdu so that they can study religious text well and to promote literature which the dini madaris approve of. In the context of Urdu literature, the dini madaris and the ulema have been very selective from the beginning. They approve only the kind of literature that extends their agenda.
These are broad distinctions in the context of Urdu, intermixed most of the time, and we tend to employ the phrase ‘study of Urdu’ without proper understanding. Most Muslims think that Urdu has a close relationship with their identity and that no discussion about it without strident assertions about its script will serve their political purpose. For most non-Muslims, Urdu is the language of poetry, culture and a sophisticated lifestyle associated with the erstwhile elite. So the whole discourse of Urdu in the public domain or in academia is completely misunderstood and oversimplified.
As I said, because of technical reasons, the focus during my M.Phil. was on the state of Urdu in Delhi therefore I also dealt with schools in Delhi that taught Urdu as an optional language or as medium of instruction. In addition, I dealt with the dini madaris of Delhi as well. To understand the issue in perspective, I did field work in many states, traveling for months in Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. The data was first used for an article in the EPW (‘Urdu in India: Four Representative States’ April 2, 1994). As far as I know, I was the first, and remain to this day, the only scholar who has engaged in detailed empirical research to examine Urdu in its contemporary socio-political context. Most other writings on Urdu in post-1947 India are, I regret to say, impressionistic, imaginative and lacking in empirical depth.
Q: You are a prolific writer, author of numerous books. Can you briefly describe your writings? What issues have you focused on?
A: Let me say in the first place that I have not worked on any aspect of Urdu literature. Even while being a keen reader of Urdu literature and a student interested in the Urdu scenario—observing literary trends and the literary politics of Urdu—predominantly Muslim politics—I have no ‘literary’ claims or pretensions. Almost all my writings have been about various aspects of Urdu, Urdu-related politics, and Muslims in contemporary India. I have done six books so far. Two of these are edited volumes in English, both published by Oxford University Press:Redefining Urdu Politics in India (2006), and Muslims and Media Images (2009). The rest are in Urdu: Azad Hindustan Mai Urdu Siyasat ki Tahfim-e Nau (on the politics of Urdu); Urdu Zaba, Talim Aur Sahafat (on politics in the name of Urdu, its education and journalism); Guftagu unki (a collection of interviews with scholars, activists and politicians on Muslim-and Urdu-related issues); a collection of essays called Na-Mukammil; and a book each on the leading Urdu writers, Rashid Hasan Khan and Makhmoor Saidi. Some 15 years ago, I also rendered the Kulliyat of the noted Urdu poet Akhtar-ul Iman into the Devnagari script, which has been published as a bulky volume. I have done a number of translations, most recently, the Urdu and Hindi translations of ‘Sons of Babur’, with the same title, Babur ki Aulad.
Besides this, I have written scores of articles for academic journals as well asfor newspapers. Recently, I have started working on a new book, Contemporary Muslim India. In it, I intend to explore different facets of Muslim life in 21st century India.
Q: That Urdu has witnessed a considerable decline since Partition, especially because of discrimination on the part of the state, is a well-known fact. What do you think should be done to protect the language?
A: In general, a language can flourish as long as it remains a functional language, a living language. The scene in present-day India has completely changed, and with the free market economy and globalization, whether one likes it or not, any language and its literature will have to compete for survival in the open market. A language and its literature can no more survive only on state patronage. If it tries to do so, it will perish. Urdu’s case is illustrative. The leadership of Urdu, an admixture of half-baked and superficially ‘knowledgeable’ university teachers and regressive Muslim politicians, is still churning out the same old tired clichés of anti-government policies, and Urdu literature has been going down the same path as Sanskrit. Urdu as lingua franca will survive, Urdu as a written language in dini madaris will survive, but it has already ceased to grow as a literary language. Muslim politics and its proponents have successfully convinced the Urdu-speaking Muslim population that Urdu is a ‘Muslim language’ and that the government and the broad Hindu majority are anti-Urdu. So, they assert, it is their duty to save Urdu as part of their religious duty and most Muslims are convinced by this argument. The result is that they have become its victim while remaining economically backward. By becoming the language of mostly Muslims and a captive of religious Muslim institutions, the larger appeal of the language has already disappeared. The strategy for the survival of Urdu in independent India was completely insane and communal, and only Muslims and their leadership are responsible for this. For the most part, Muslims have been supporting a fringe religious and political element, and this attitude, by and large under the influence of a wrong concept of religion and religious Muslim identity, persists and is unchanging. Whatever may be the web of factors, a majority of the Muslims do not support a progressive outlook and democratic structures. They have constantly supported only corrupt politicians and are marching towards political suicide in a fast-changing world where they are in minority everywhere, with only delusions about changing the world as per their wishes.
Urdu is the most powerful symbol of a culture associated with a language to which both Hindus and Muslims contributed in the past. The decisive growth of Urdu took place after the decline of the Mughal Empire with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 rather than as a consequence of Muslim rule. Later, the assertions of Muslims as well as British policies converted what was once a living, syncretic language into a ‘Muslim language’ having a separatist ethos.
Today, a very large proportion of non-religious Urdu publications claiming to be literary are being produced across the country with direct or indirect state patronage, through government-funded institutions like Urdu academies in almost every state, the National Council for the Promotion of the Urdu Language (a central government-funded organization) and the Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad Memorial Committee in Uttar Pradesh (fully funded by the state government, in addition to the U.P. Urdu academy)—to name a few. The government cannot be blamed for extending this patronage. In most democracies—and India is no exception to this—governments are populist and seek to appease any section from which they can garner votes. So, the Central government as well as all the state governments allocate grants for the ‘promotion of Urdu’ in their bid to get Muslim votes.
It is foolish, therefore, to blame the government for the incompetence of Urdu organizations. All government-run institutions tend to be incompetent and insensitive. But the government cannot be blamed entirely for the pathetic administrative structure of Urdu academies and their ill-conceived policies. Most of the blame needs to be apportioned to the Muslim politicians who run these institutions and are corrupt and incompetent. These bodies provide funds to ‘Urdu writers’, publish their substandard writings, subsidize them, make bulk purchases of their books and grant them awards and prizes. The unfortunate outcome of the situation is that not only third-rate Urdu literature is being produced. The most lamentable part of this story is that the really creative writers are just sitting by and have lost touch with the common reader.
Many creative authors who can write in Urdu but who also know English or Hindi now prefer to write in the latter two languages, the market for which is far more extensive and developed. Hence, Urdu has, by and large, become the province of third-rate writers, who write and publish in this language because they cannot write in Hindi, English or the other regional languages. What has added to the problem is the fact that, over the years, Urdu degree programmes in colleges and universities across India have begun attracting only those students who, because of poor academic qualifications, cannot get admission to any other course. This has had a devastating impact on the quality of Urdu writing in India over recent decades.
Q: Why is it rare, even impossible, to find any books other than on Islam, Urdu poetry and prose in almost all Muslim-owned Urdu bookshops across India? What explains this almost complete lack of books on subjects such as politics, society, economics and so on in these bookshops? Even Muslim-owned publishing houses that generally publish in Urdu have produced few, if any, such books. Why?
A: I might sound provocative but, perhaps, this is because, in general, Muslims, who now form the vast majority of Urdu-readers, are not serious enough about social issues. This is simply because they are not trained to do so, lack modern education and are excessively dependent on the views and teachings of madrasas. This said, I think it would be unfair to judge the quality of the productions of Urdu publishing houses by the same standards used to evaluate Hindi or English publishing houses. This is because of basic differences in their clientele. The vast majority of Urdu readers come from poor or lower-middle class backgrounds, with little or no exposure to liberal education. Urdu publishing houses as well as Urdu newspapers and magazines set their standards to suit the tastes of this class as well as to pander to their prejudices. This is why they focus largely on issues that are Muslim- or Islam-specific, with much of the writing being sensationalist and provocative, because this is what their readers want. The sense of Muslims being under siege or under attack adds to this insular outlook.
By pointing this out, I do not mean to condone this attitude. We need to get out of this mental ghetto. We need to rescue ourselves from our fixation only with Muslim-specific issues and begin to take an interest in broader national issues, issues that affect all Indians. This is a long process, however, and it cannot happen unless Muslims also broaden their understanding of their religion in place of the present communal, ritualistic, sectarian and narrow understanding of it. Further, I must add that the Urdu media and publishing houses, with a few exceptions, suffer from the same mismanagement, egotism, nepotism and lack of professionalism that afflicts many other Muslim institutions, including mosques and graveyards. They tend to lack a professional work ethic.
Q: Some of the north Indian elite project Urdu as specifically ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ issue. As in the case of a supposedly ‘pure’ Sanskritised Hindi, the politics of Urdu has historically been deployed to reinforce communal differences between Hindus and Muslims. Is it not the case that in parts of India where Muslims speak the same regional language as Hindus, as in Kerala or Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, Muslims are more integrated and inter-communal relations are far more harmonious than in the so-called ‘Urdu-Hindi belt’? In other words, how have the politics of Urdu (and Hindi) impacted inter-community relations?
A: Mirroring the case of a supposedly ‘pure’ Hindi, the Urdu movement has historically tended to reinforce and magnify communal divides. Muslims outside the ‘Urdu-Hindi belt’, mainly in rural areas, are much more integrated with their local cultural milieu, which, I believe, is a very good thing. It is true that from the late nineteenth century, Urdu has been used decisively as a vehicle for pan-Islamic and Muslim communalist discourse, just as Hindi has been used to address the Hindu agenda.
Q: Today, Muslims complain—and their complaint does have some substance to it—that the non-Muslim media unfairly targets them and tarnishes the image of their religion. What have Muslim organizations done to remedy this state of affairs?
A: Muslim organizations are simply not interested in engaging with the non-Muslim media because of a well-thought out strategy. Their survival is based on projecting every-thing as wholly ‘anti-Islamic’ or ‘anti-Muslim’. Any dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslim segments, including the media, is harmful for Muslim politicians. If such interaction happens in India they won’t be able to capitalize on Muslim grievances and fear psychosis and will have to shut up shop. Most organizations and groups claiming to work for Muslim welfare are simply too conservative, communal and backward-looking to expect to relate or interact with the media in a proper manner. The most unfortunate thing is that if any Muslim speaks out against any irrational thinking or stand, he gets no support at all from other Muslims and is quickly attacked and damned as an agent of this or that ‘anti-Muslim’ camp by the well-organized groups of atavistic ideologues.
In this regard, it is important to note that although the modern, educated Muslim middle-class is still very small, to the extent of being non-existent in comparison to the Hindu middle class, it is not an enlightened community. Hypothetically, it can take a leading role in community affairs, especially in relaying Muslim issues and concerns to the ‘mainstream’ media. Barring some stray cases, this is presently not happening. As far as I can see, middle class Muslims are simply too involved with its own lives and careers to be very much concerned about such issues, which is a terrible pity.
In recent years, a number of Muslim-run television channels have sprung up, at considerable expense, obviously. But I regret to say that they have been unable to address Muslim issues and to relate to people of other faiths and to the non-Muslim media. These channels focus mainly on Islam—and, not just that, each follows, propagates, and is identified with just one particular sectarian interpretation of Islam, which only furthers existing sectarian divisions. Hardly any of these channels pay attention to the myriad social, economic, political, or educational concerns and issues of Muslims. The stuff they broadcast is theologically-oriented and preachy. Such channels hold no attraction at all for non-Muslim viewers.
I really cannot think of any easy and quick solutions to this problem of Muslim images in the media, but all I can say is that Muslims must begin to understand the importance of the media and must seek to increase their representation therein. They should not forget that they are no longer the rulers. Actually, this is a bitter pill that Muslims the world over are not willing to swallow.
Ather Farouqui can be contacted on email@example.com