Misconceptions about Urdu, Is it a language of Muslims alone?

Mirza ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Firaq Gorakhpuri
Mirza ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Firaq Gorakhpuri

There are some misconceptions about Urdu, a language whose poetry I love :

Urdu is a foreign language?

This is false. Persian and Arabic are no doubt foreign languages, but Urdu is a desi ( indigenous ) language. To prove this it may be mentioned that to determine to which language does a sentence belong one has to see to which language do the verbs ( called kriya in Hindi, and fell in Urdu ) in it belong. It is the verbs that determine this, not the nouns or adjectives.  In Urdu, all verbs belong to simple Hindi ( called Hindustani or khadiboli, the common man’s language ), though many nouns and adjectives in it are from Persian ( Farsi ) or Arabic. One may take any sher ( couplet ) of any Urdu poet and will find all the verbs in them from Hindustani. For instance, take Ghalib’s sher :

“Dekho mujhe jo deeda-e-Ibarat nigaah ho
Meri suno jo gosh-e-naseehat niyosh hai”

Here the verbs ‘dekho’, ‘suno’, ‘hai’ are all from Hindustani. Or take Faiz’ sher :

“Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale
Chale bhi ao ki gulshan ka kaarobaar chale”

Here again the verb ‘chale’ is from Hindustani. If the verbs in the sher had been in Persian it would become a Persian couplet, and if they were from Arabic it would become an Arabic couplet. Urdu is a language created by combining two languages, Hindustani and Persian. That is why at one time it was called Rekhta which means hybrid or milijuli ( see my article ‘What is Urdu’ online ). But it is an indigenous ( desi ), not foreign language. It is a special kind of Hindustani, not a special kind of Persian.

Urdu is a language of Muslims alone?

This again is false. In fact, this notion was part of the divide and rule policy of the British rulers and their local agents, who propagated that Hindi is the language of Hindus and Urdu of Muslims. In fact, Urdu was the common language of the educated class in large parts of India, whether Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, etc up to 1947. Our forefathers ( who were educated ) all knew Urdu in large parts of India.

After 1947 a concerted attack was made by some bigots to eliminate Persian and Arabic words which had come into common usage and replace them with Sanskritised words. For instance, the word ‘zila’ i.e. district was replaced by ‘janpad’.

When I was a judge in Allahabad High Court a lawyer who always argued in Hindi presented a petition before me titled ‘Pratibhu Avedan Patra’. I asked him what the word ‘Pratibhu’ meant. He said it meant bail. I told him he should have used the word bail or zamaanat which everybody understands, not pratibhu which nobody does. It is a false notion that a language becomes weaker if foreign words infiltrate into it and become of common usage. In fact, it becomes stronger. For instance, English became stronger by borrowing words from French, German, Arabic, Hindustani, etc. So it is a false notion that Hindustani became weaker by borrowing words from Persian and Arabic. In fact, it became stronger. By seeking to hatefully eliminate Persian and Arabic words which were in common usage an artificial language called Hindi ( and here I am referring to literary Hindi, not simple Hindi called Hindustani which the common man uses ) was created which is often difficult to understand. As a judge in Allahabad High Court, I often found it difficult to understand government notifications in Hindi. Many Hindi books, articles, etc are sometimes difficult to understand.

Urdu borrowed words from many languages ( e.g. the poetry of the great Urdu poet Akbar Allahabadi has many English words ), and it never objected to words from other languages e.g. Sanskrit, etc ( in fact about 70% words in Urdu are from Sanskrit ).

Markandey Katju

Written by Markandey Katju

Justice Markandey Katju is the former Chairman, Press Council of India. Prior to his appointment as Chairman, Press Council of India, he served as a Permanent judge at the Supreme Court of India.

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