New Delhi, India – Last week, right-wing Hindu forces in India forced a leading company to withdraw its holiday ad after it featured a few words from the Urdu language, which in the country’s popular imagination is a “Muslim language”.
The company, FabIndia, released an ad for Diwali – a major Hindu festival that falls next month – showcasing its latest collection of clothing. The text at the top read: “Jashn-e-Rivaaz”.
“Jashn” in Urdu means a celebration while “Riwaaz”, which is actually “Riwaaj”, means tradition. The title translates to “A Celebration of Tradition”.
But a young parliamentarian from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which often makes headlines for his Islamophobic comments, was not happy.
“Deepavali is not Jashn-e-Riwaaz,” Tejasvi Surya, 30, posted on Twitter, calling Diwali by his more traditional name.
“This deliberate attempt to Abrahamise Hindu festivals, depicting models without traditional Hindu outfits, must be denounced.”
When the 2021 census takes place, I am concerned that many Urdu speakers will simply report Hindi as their mother tongue.
FabIndia is a well known name in India and sells clothing, furniture, home furnishings and food products. It has hundreds of exhibition halls across the vast country and abroad.
Surya said the company “faces economic costs for such deliberate misadventures.”
Soon, other members of the BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups began attacking FabIndia on social media, accusing the brand of “hurting” the religious feelings of Hindus.
“The Hindutva project considers Urdu to be a ‘Muslim’ language. And making Urdu invisible is part of the larger project of marginalizing the Muslim community, in fact its physical elimination, ”Nivedita Menon, professor at the Center for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera. .
“Hindutva” refers to a century-old Hindu supremacist movement that seeks to convert India into an ethnic Hindu state.
Urdu was born in India
The Urdu language originated in northern India during Mughal rule. Linguists and historians say that Urdu and Hindi originally developed from Khadi Boli, a dialect of the Delhi region, and Prakrit. He also borrowed extensively from the Persian, Turkish and Arabic languages.
Until the British colonized the subcontinent, the Urdu and Hindu languages were collectively referred to as Hindustani. It was the British linguist John Gilchrist who, for the first time, classified and defined Hindustani into two broad categories: words inspired largely from Persian and Arabic were identified as Urdu, and those inspired by Sanskrit became Hindi.
However, spoken Urdu is similar to Hindi and both share a common grammar and a large percentage of their vocabulary.
The Hindutva project considers Urdu to be a “Muslim” language. And making Urdu invisible is part of the larger project of marginalizing the Muslim community.
For centuries Urdu has been widely spoken by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in undivided India. Many of its famous poets and writers are non-Muslims including Munshi Premchand, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Gulzar to name a few.
Today, Urdu is one of the 22 languages officially recognized by the Indian constitution.
Besides poetry and literature, Urdu had a huge influence on Bollywood, the site of the Indian “Hindi” film industry based in the western city of Mumbai. A large number of Urdu poets and writers wrote film scripts, songs and dialogues.
But many believe that too has changed in a religiously polarized India.
After the FabIndia controversy, many social media users shared memes featuring popular Bollywood dialogue and songs, replacing their Urdu words with their Hindi counterparts in an effort to show that the effect is not the same.
– Ishq Urdu عشق اردو (@Ishq_Urdu) October 19, 2021
Screenwriter Javed Siddiqui, who has written several Bollywood films, told Al Jazeera that Urdu is “better placed than any other language” in the Indian film industry and that “the trend has changed in recent decades” .
But Siddiqui added that the influence of Urdu in Indian popular culture will always remain.
“You cannot write [any song] without ‘dil’ [heart in Urdu] and ‘mohabbat’, ‘ishq’ [both mean love in Urdu] etc. I don’t think there is a lack of words in Hindi or that there are no words but the phonetics and music that Urdu has, no other language can provide ”, he said. -he declares.
The legendary Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who died in 1955, perhaps best summed it up.
“Why do Hindus waste their time supporting Hindi, and why are Muslims so beside themselves on preserving Urdu?” A language is not made, it is made. And no human effort can ever kill a language.
We should be grateful to Muslims for saving a modern language.
When did the Urdu-Hindi divide start?
During the 400-year-old Mughal rule on the Indian subcontinent, Persian was the official language of administration.
When the British East India Company began to rule India in the mid-19th century, it replaced Persian with English at higher levels of government and local vernaculars at lower levels.
“From 1857, this Hindi-Urdu dispute was created, especially in the present state of Uttar Pradesh, which continued until 1900,” Mohammad Sajjad, professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University in the same state.
Sajjad said the language divide, “made worse by the colonial state”, was based on the script. Urdu uses Nastaliq, borrowed from the Perso-Arabic script, while Hindi uses the Devnagri script.
Christopher Rolland King in his book One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India, wrote that Hindi and Urdu are “considered two different languages for political and cultural reasons – not linguistic”.
As demands for Devnagri to be the official Hindi script increased, the British administration in 1900 ordered the optional use of the script in the courts. Since then, Hindi has been increasingly associated with Hindus in northern India and Urdu with Muslims.
In his book, The Hindi Public Sphere 1920-1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism Paperback, Orsini Francesca explains: a competition for jobs and status; it was also a struggle for cultural assertiveness, with several symbolic nuances.
Despite the Persian-Arabic script of Urdu and its so-called “Muslim” association, many leaders of India’s liberation movement used the language in their struggle against British rule.
Linguist Ganesh N Devy told Al Jazeera that when iconic freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, from what is now the state of West Bengal, formed an army to fight the British in 1942, he got it. named “Azad Hind Fauj”. “Azad” in Urdu means free or independent while “fauj” is an army.
“He didn’t use ‘swatantra’, the Hindi word for freedom,” he said, adding that most of the freedom movement’s slogans were in Urdu, including “Inquilab zindabad” (Long live the revolution ).
“There is a movement towards unity and also a movement towards segregation of the two, and both tendencies existed in pre-independent India at the end of colonial times,” said Devy.
He said that while Urdu received the respect it deserved after India’s independence through its inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the constitution, the language was now “under attack.”
Devy said Urdu was among the seven most widely spoken languages in the country, according to the 2001 census. our country “.
“When the  census is taking place, I am afraid that many Urdu speakers are simply declaring Hindi as their mother tongue. There is a perception of fear among Urdu speakers of being identified as Muslims although Urdu is not a language of Muslims, ”he said.
Experts say that while the number of Urdu speakers in India declined, Hindi speakers have grown steadily since independence. The ruling BJP has repeatedly suggested making Indian Hindi the national language, but has so far faced stiff opposition from non-Hindi states, mainly in the south and east. .
“Indignation against fabricated advertising”
Writer and historian Rana Safvi questions the right-wing argument that Urdu is the language of Muslims.
“If Urdu were a Muslim language, people would read the Quran in Urdu and not in Arabic and Muslims in [West] Bengal and Kerala would speak Urdu and not their local languages such as Bengali and Malayalam, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Safvi said Urdu was projected as the language of Muslims because of its Perso-Arabic script.
“In 1947, when Urdu became the national language of Pakistan, this association grew stronger,” she said, adding that it was for the same reason that the language had not received “the kind of attention she should have received “in India.
Apoorvanand, professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi, said it is a fact that after 1947 Hindus and even Sikhs moved away from Urdu and the language was “protected by Muslims. “.
“We should be grateful to them for saving a modern language,” he said, adding that Urdu was “vilified and attacked because of its association with Muslims and Pakistan”.
It is for these reasons that the language policy has intensified since the BJP came to power in 2014.
The scholar Menon declared that “the indignation against the [FabIndia] ad was fabricated ”and not“ outright outrage on the part of ordinary people ”.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a historian and political scientist who teaches at Ashoka University in the capital, agreed with Menon and said the whole controversy was far more illustrative of “deep-rooted prejudices about everything associated with Muslims now. “.