My mother tongue is Urdu, I write in English, call myself Hindustani

M Reyaz
M ReyazFeb 21, 2017 | 21:44

My mother tongue is Urdu, I write in English, call myself Hindustani

Today is International Mother Language Day. However, I do not see many in my friend list talking much about it on social media.

My mother tongue is Urdu (with a tinge of Tirhut dialect spoken in Vaishali-Muzaffarpur region of Bihar). But my knowledge of language is rudimentary, as is the case with many others of my generation who mostly studied in English-medium schools.


After shifting to Kolkata, I also studied Bengali as a third language for four years (well, I can read signboards, headlines and can manage to communicate). Similarly, I manage to read Arabic (Quran), but don’t really understand it. And now I am trying to learn some Russian as well as Farsi.

My first language all throughout school was Hindi (in Bihar during primary education and also in Kolkata), but now I write (articles) only in English and consider it my lingua franca.

I would prefer calling Hindustani as my mother tongue, though. For, there is hardly any difference in spoken Urdu and Hindi. In written form, however, there is a marked difference. Urdu is written in Arabic script (considered foreign) with more Persianised texture, while Hindi is the Sanskritised version in Devnagri script. 

In 1835, Urdu replaced Farsi as the official language of the courts in north India while Hindi was accorded a "symbolic" equal status in 1900. Literally meaning camp, Urdu developed as a purely syncretic language and was symbol of "Ganga-Jamuni Tahzeeb". Premchand, for example, was known for his literary flair both in Urdu and Hindi.

Meanwhile, the "Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan" movement gained momentum and Urdu became the victim of post-partition narrative after it began to be associated with Muslims. Pakistan, meanwhile, adopted Urdu as the state language even though most people there spoke other languages and dialects such as Punjabi, Saraiki, Sindhi, Pashto, etc.

'I would prefer calling Hindustani as my mother tongue.'

Most vernacular languages in India has a state (many states have more than one recognised language, for example, in Assam it is Assamese, Bengali and Bodo). Urdu, however, is like an orphan in India after partition. Most recently when joint entrance tests for admissions in medical, NEET, was announced, it had all the "important" vernacular languages except Urdu.

But Urdu has a hallowed status as a language of culture and poetry, and is much celebrated across cultural programmes, including the ongoing Jashn-e-Rekhta festival. 

On International Mother Language Day, while celebrating vernacular languages, it is also important to consider how attempts at building linguistic hegemony (Urdu in Pakistan or Hindi in India) may result in serious repercussions. In India, Tamil Nadu and other states, for example, vehemently resisted such attempts in the past. Bangladesh is an example of how (Pakistan's) efforts to establish "linguistic hegemony" led to bloodbath and the birth of an entire new nation.

A colleague from Assam’s Barak valley tells me how on this day (International Mother Language Day) there is huge celebration there as Bengalis fought against Assamese "hegemony" after Independence. "You will hardly find any signboard in Barak valley written in Assamese," she says, adding that even when students are ragged in colleges, they are asked to name 11 "martyrs" who laid down their lives on May 19, 1961, (celebrated as 'Bhasha Shaheed Divas') to preserve Bengali language in Assam’s Barak valley against the state’s decision to make Assamese as the only official language. 


For Bengalis in Kolkata as well, International Mother Language Day is very important as their brothers in "East Bengal" fought against the imposition of Urdu hegemony of western Pakistan. Among the Urdu-speaking Kolkata residents, however, the consciousness for language and culture is not as strong. They have mostly lived aloof from the Bengali population (which anyway is not really healthy).

It is often said, "If you want to destroy a people, you get their language first,"  termed as "linguistic genocide". We in India have long celebrated "unity in diversity", and for us all to prosper it is important that different languages flourish on their own without any markers set by the state or anyone else.

Last updated: February 22, 2017 | 10:59
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