A language left ostracised

by Abu Jar M Akkas | Updated at 12:36am on March 16, 2018


A board leaned against wall by the road leading to the Ekushey Book Fair this February shows a procession, with one placard saying, ‘Urdu Mani Na, Mani Na’ (It’s no, no to Urdu). — New Age/Abu Jar M Akkas

QUITE a few yards farther inside the barricade that stops vehicles at the Teacher-Student Centre on the University of Dhaka campus from using the road passing by the Bangla Academy, hoardings, at a distance, leaned against the wall to the right of the road, sported paintings of a procession of people holding placards in a reference to the procession that defied the ban on February 21, 1952.
Such paintings on boards referring to the fight of the people for their right to mother tongue in 1952 had always been there, lining along the roads, in February when the academy holds the book fair that spans the month. But what came striking this time, when I visited the fair for a while in its early days, was that two of the hoardings said ‘Urdu Mani Na, Mani Na’ (It’s no, no to Urdu) in the placards of the drawing on the boards.
I have not come across this slogan earlier, in fairs that were held in the past. Many of us know, erringly though, that we were opposed to the introduction of Urdu as the state language. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the governor general of what emerged as the Dominion of Pakistan in 1947, during his visit to East Bengal, which later in 1956 became East Pakistan, in March 19–28, 1948, broached the idea of Urdu being the state language.
Jinnah, at a public rally in Ramna Race course on March 21, 1948, said: ‘Let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language…. Therefore, so far as the state language is concerned, Pakistan’s shall be Urdu.’
In his speech at the University of Dhaka convention at the Curzon Hall on March 24, 1948, Jinnah reaffirmed: ‘There can, however, be only one lingua franca, that is, the language for intercommunication between the various provinces of the State, and that language, should be Urdu and cannot be any other. The State language therefore, must obviously be Urdu….’ Later in the speech he again said: ‘There can be only one State language, if the component parts of this State are to march forward in unison, and that language in my opinion can only be Urdu.’
Jinnah’s assertions on both the occasions faced vehement opposition and came to be condemned. But that time, as Bangla was used by 56 per cent of Pakistan’s population, based on the population census of 1951, with Urdu, mainly spoken by the muhajirs migrating to West Pakistan and East Bengal at the time of the partition of India, used by a percentage of population reportedly ranged between four and eight, it was abrasive of Jinnah to have broached such an idea. It was even more abrasive of the West Pakistan-based ruling quarters to have nurtured the idea, clearly as a device of repression of people who spoke Bangla.
Urdu, falsely thought to be the main plank for the unity of the people of Pakistan, had never been a dominant language. It neither is, even today. After the language movement of 1952, Pakistan’s first constitution, laid out in 1956, in Article 214(1), however, said: ‘The State languages of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali.’ The bilingual policy of the government of the day continued to be in the constitution of 1962, until the third constitution was framed in 1973.
Yet Urdu has failed to be the dominant language in Pakistan even today. The Supreme Court of Pakistan in September 2015 directed federal and provincial governments to adopt Urdu as the official language, asking the government to fulfil its constitutional obligation.
But for this, what happened in East Bengal in 1948–1952 centring on the language issues has left the Urdu language orphaned in Bangladesh. Anyone speaking Urdu must be garnering sneers from fellows standing by. This is because of the association of Urdu with the rulers from West Pakistan who tried to impose Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan, who repressed Bengalis and who committed genocide in the liberation war of 1971.
It is true that the equation that Muslims equal Urdu dominated the Pakistani thinking that time and it proved wrong. A thought in the same vain has now gripped Bangladeshis in the equation that Urdu equals Pakistan and it is still dominant in the thinking of majority of Bangladeshis.
When the language movement began, there was no opposition to Urdu. The painting on the board in the book fair is, therefore, partly untrue even being partly true. Proponents of the movement that time spoke for the right of the Bengalis to their mother tongue. Dhirendranath Datta, a member from East Pakistan Congress Party in Comilla, in the second session of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in Karaci on February 25, 1948 proposed an amendment to a rule saying that Bangla should be included as one of the languages of the assembly along with Urdu and English.
Even in the main discourse that did the rounds in society in the language movement days, the only objective that the people aimed at, in their fight, is to have an official status for Bangla, along side Urdu, as Bangla was the language spoken by the majority of Pakistan’s population that time. There was no opposition to Urdu.
This was the linguistic pluralism that people then attempted at and struggled for. The language movement rolled with the same demand — Bangla as a state language, or the official language of the state of East Bengal, with no grudge harboured against Urdu, English or any other provincial languages of Pakistan.
A language is a language; so is Urdu, with its rich legacy and heritage, founded in the Mughal era. The Urdu language cannot, therefore, be ostracised only because the rulers, from West Pakistan, used the language as a device of repression on the people of East Bengal or East Pakistan.
Urdu, a highly Persianised, with a huge number of words and an insignificant number of verbs and grammatical rules coming from Persian, and standardised register of the Hindustani language, evolved from the mediaeval Apabhramsa register of the Sauraseni language, a Middle Indo-Aryan language that is considered to be the ancestor of other modern Indo-Aryan languages. Almost all the verbs of the language have their roots in Sanskrit and Prakrit.
Linguistically speaking, Urdu falls under the broad Indo-European language family and is classified as a standardised form of Hindustani under Western Hindi, which is under Central Zone under Indo-Aryan of the Indo-Iranian sub-family. The form of Hindustani uses Perso-Arabic script in the Nastaliq style while the other form, Hindi, uses Devanagari script. It is believed that Urdu developed decisively during the Delhi sultanate, in 1206–1526, and the Mughal empire, in 1526–1858. The language has not even evolved in any area that now constitutes Pakistan.
Although Urdu is now the official language, and lingua franca, of Pakistan, it is one of the 22 official languages that India’s constitution recognises. It also has the official status in five of the Indian states — Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, and the national capital territory of Delhi.
Urdu has been here in Bangladesh since the Mughal era. In Old Town of Dhaka, there are still people who are historically descendants of the Mughal invaders and sultans. The language many of them now speak has turned into a mixture of Urdu and Bangla. During the British Indian empire days, the British rulers brought a large number of Urdu speakers from Bihar, mainly for railway dock jobs, to Saidpur in Nilphamari. Urdu speakers came here even around the partition of the Indian sub-continent.
Although most of the Urdu speakers, who went down socially and politically because of their past support for West Pakistan that caused a tension, live dispersed in camp-like settlements within Bangladesh, Urdu which is spoken by a large number of people — Ethnologue puts the number of speakers at 2,50,000 — classifies itself as a language of the land.
Urdu was the language of part of the literary elite in the past, beginning with Mirza Jan Tapish, Abdul Ghafoor Nassakh and Syed Mohammed Azad, who were important figures of the Urdu literature in Bengal in the 19th century. Hakim Habibur Rahman, a 20th century figure, is known for his celebrated work on the history of Dhaka — Asudegan-e-Dhaka, published in 1946, and Dhaka Panchas Baras Pahle, published in 1949. Literary works in Urdu continue across Bangladesh even in the present time. A directory of Urdu poets, A Brief Profile of Urdu Poets of Bangladesh: August 1947–September 2010, written by Ahmed Ilias and published by the Bangla-Urdu Sahitya Forum in 2010, listed quite a large number of individual who wrote, and are still writing, poems in Urdu.
The Bangla-Urdu Sahitya Forum, founded in the middle of 2007, which has changed its name later to Bangla-Urdu Sahitya Foundation, has since then been working to bridge Bangla and Urdu — the language and the literature — which have, especially after the liberation war of Bangladesh, been growing apart because of the stigma that Urdu has earned having been spoken by the West Pakistan-based ruling quarters before Bangladesh’s liberation and some people in East Pakistan who supported the ruling quarters.
But Urdu being spoken by those people is no fault of Urdu itself and a language cannot be left ostracised for this. While this dampens Ekushey narrative which was born out of a struggle for linguistic pluralism, this also mars the spirit of International Mother Language Day, meant to promote linguistic diversity, as laid out by a UNESCO endorsement of 1999. Big or small, all languages are mother tongues at least to some groups of people, however small, in the world and they need to be revered as much as Bangla is revered by all Bangladeshis even in Bangladesh.
Hoardings sporting placards reading ‘Urdu Mani Na, Mani Na’ leaned against the wall that leads to the Ekushey Book Fair only negate the proposition, subtly and slowly.

Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.