Recently, Urdu poet Gauhar Raza wrote an article in a premier English daily. He ruefully mentioned in the article how on Delhi metro, a man was harassed because he was carrying an Urdu book! A year ago, in Delhi, a few young artists were forcibly stopped from writing in Urdu in a wall painting and recently, an elected representative in Aligarh was stopped from taking the oath in Urdu. Many a skeptic reader might think that the poet is exaggerating. But he’s not. I experienced almost the same thing, albeit in a rather ‘decent’ manner. A year ago, I was travelling from Poona to Delhi by train. I always keep myself occupied by reading and writing during the journeys. I was reading an Urdu book and jotting down references in Urdu in my diary. A 27/28-year-old elegant-looking young woman was sitting in front of me. She was looking a bit intrigued seeing me write in Urdu. Finally, she asked me, ‘Bhaiyya, aap Muslim hain?’ (Are you a Muslim?). Flabbergasted, I couldn’t respond for a few minutes because the very question was not just invasive, it was outright impudent. I calmly asked her, ‘What made you think so?’ She said that seeing me read and write in Urdu, she presumed that I was a Muslim. I asked her, ‘What does a language have to do with a religion? Did she know that Munshi Premchand wrote in Urdu despite being a Hindu-kaayasth? Gulzar, who writes only in Urdu, is a Sikh and his name is Sampooran Singh Kalra. ‘Gulzar’ is his nom de guerre. And finally I told her that I was just a human being sans any man-made religion to carry as a cumbersome label.
She didn’t understand the import of my utterance. Neither did I want to make her understand the gravity of the statement that we’re all simply humans without artificial religious labels and badges. My point is: Why do we associate an innocuous language (like Urdu) with a particular community or faith?
Urdu is the language that originated on the sub-continent. It’s quintessential of our composite Ganga-Jamani tahzeeb. So many non-Muslim poets and writers contributed to enriching this magnificent language. Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri was a Hindu. But he chose to write in Urdu. So were Krishna Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Kalidas Gupta ‘Raza’, Upendranath ‘Ashk’, Naubatrai ‘Nazar’, Nareshkumar ‘Shaad’, Shiv Batalvi, Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi ‘Sahar’, to name but a few.
Associating Urdu with Muslims has cornered the language. We’ve ghettoised it. Barring its script, that’s Persian, Urdu’s syntaxtual pattern is same as that of Hindi. It’s actually Hindi or Hindustani written in Persian script.
Nowadays, people often wonder and ask me as to why I read Urdu, Persian and Arabic despite my name not suggesting that I’m a Muslim. My signature is in Urdu and recently, my bank in Poona hinted that I should either sign in Devnagari or English. But not in Urdu! This appalls me. I’m at pains to explain this to the fanatics that I never chose to study these languages from any religious perspective. I liked Urdu-Persian. So I opted for them and feel most comfortable in these exquisite languages. To me, a language is a language. It has no religion and it ought not to have any. Keep a language away from politics.
Alas, we’re living in tough and intolerant times, when even languages are not spared by zealots. I’m really apprehensive of the future of Urdu in India. Will it be done away with is the question that has begun to disturb me seriously.