Lamentation about the past is relevant only to draw lessons from it. Our concern today should be with the present, and the future. Where does Urdu stand now? What is its place in our social and cultural life, our political and economic life? How can its attributed affiliation to a specific community, with all its unstated suggestions, be overcome to recapture its rightful place in the kaleidoscope of languages and cultural patterns of India? How can it be rejuvenated, its future be made livelier?

On one plane, official acknowledgement of Urdu is extended with unfailing regularly. Anniversaries are observed, patronage given to “mushairas”. Its limitations are obvious: Is se zubaan ki yaad to qaim rahi hai, taraqqi nahin hoti.

This dichotomous approach was commented on many years back by Sahir Ludhianavi:

Ghalib jise kahte hain Urdu ka hi shair tha
Urdu pe sitam kar ke Ghalib pe karam kyon ho

A commentator observed in a newspaper last year that “Urdu has been kept alive by the Hindi cinema, FM radio, madrassas and occasional recitation of couplets in Parliament”. He drew attention to Professor Gopi Chand Narang’s remark that “Urdu is like a patient on oxygen at the fag end of his life. This is the last generation of Urdu”.

Bollywood films have unquestionably played a major role in keeping alive the usage of Urdu. The historian Ramachandra Guha has referred to its rationale in a perceptive chapter in India after Gandhi. From a different angle, Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen have shed much light in their book Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema, to highlight the points of intersection between history, culture, language, community and contemporary tensions and to demonstrate, as they put it, its “cultural and political the plural and multicultural imagination of India”.

The role of Madaris is noteworthy. They have sustained Urdu in difficult times in the context of their curricula of studies and have helped take it to a segment of the younger generation. By the same token, however, the effort has been community-specific and confined to those of its members who preferred a madrasa, generally for economic reasons, to normal, state- run, schools.

At the same time, confining Urdu to the Madaris also impacts on what is historically an essentially secular, occasionally libertarian, temper of the language:

Dharkanen sadyion ki jismain
kaif be-bakana hai

Languages are learnt, and sustained, for a variety of reasons.

They are, in the first place, imbibed at home as mother tongue and supplemented through primary (and secondary) schooling in it. This necessitates availability of schools, textbooks and teachers provided either by the state or local authority or through community efforts.

Second, languages are learnt through economic compulsions and in quest of economic opportunities. It implies participation in wider and prevalent community patterns of education and employability and the requisite effort by society to make available educational institutions and teachers. In the third place, a language may be learnt as a preferred elective for social or religious prestige or academic excellence.

Thus, the challenge for a declining language is at two levels. The child’s inherited awareness of the mother tongue is part of his/her personal, social and cultural identity and has to be shaped and consolidated by structured instruction to enable him or her to proceed from illiteracy to basic literacy. Thereafter, the instrumental motivation and contours of language revival must necessarily be shaped by economic factors. In most multilingual societies (including India), the latter is a function of dominant language for administration, business and interregional and international communications. The picture here is evident, and fully accepted.

The situation is different with regard to the mother tongue. It is a fundamental right of citizens, under Article 29, to conserve their distinct language and script. The objective of Article 350A – “for every State and every local authority within the State to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups" – however remains unachieved for a great number of Urdu-speaking children.

In some cases, their linguistic identity is overlooked or ignored; in others, primary school arrangements remain non-functional by the absence of Urdu language teachers and textbooks. The persistence of these defaults raises doubts about the sincerity of the effort.

The conclusion is inescapable – that this is a case of multiple failures: on the part of the state in its constitutional obligations, of the Urdu-speaking communities in their cultural duty to be assertive in seeking to learn and sustain the language, and of individual families for not making the additional effort required for doing so.

What, then is to be done? An observation by a Senegalese poet is of some relevance to this discussion: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

The imperative need is to find ways of teaching Urdu to those who declare it to be their mother tongue.

The task has to begin with the primary school and should continue at least in part of the secondary school. The problem would be resolved if, in the “three-language formula”, evolved and accepted under the National Language Policy, Urdu is assigned the same status as its sister Indian languages. This, regrettably, is not forthcoming in government schools in some states and in others through tardiness in recruitment of teachers and publication of textbooks, etc.

The deficiencies in the implementation of safeguards for linguistic minorities in different states are recorded with some precision in the Forty-fifth Report of the Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities for the period ending June 2007. It asserts that “the Constitutional safeguards provided for the linguistic minorities can only become real when there is necessary supportive legislation”.

Until more assertive state action is taken, the only alternative, therefore, is organised effort at the family and Urdu-speaking community level. The experience of declining-language communities elsewhere in the world would be relevant in this context. A good example is the practice of the Jewish community in the United States of undertaking weekend instruction in Hebrew. Other examples of successful language revival are Catalan in Spain and French in Canada.

Alongside, the need to keep alive the effort to make the state honour constitutional obligations in regard to those who claim Urdu as their mother tongue has to be galvanized. Public opinion and electoral pressures do produce results, as has happened in several states of the Indian Union. We have, at all times, to remember that justice is the first of the four principles enshrined in the Preamble of our Constitution and, as the philosopher John Rawls put it, “the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests”.

There are, nevertheless, some silver linings on the horizon.

Urdu newspapers and magazines have survived the decline and have shown signs of a revival. Corporate media has shown interest in the Urdu press. Books in Urdu continue to be published and are inexpensively priced. Several Urdu television channels (apart from Doordarshan-Urdu) have come into existence and seem to survive commercially. The music industry continues to prosper on Urdu ghazals, songs and qawwalis.

One other factor of relevance needs mention. Urdu is now an international language and is being studied and promoted beyond the Indian subcontinent. The internet is assisting the effort in good measure. It would indeed be a tragedy of profound dimensions if the language would regress and disappear in the land of its birth.

The question, in the final analysis, also pertains to our perception of Indian pluralism and of the ambit of Indian culture. Is it to be inclusive or exclusive? Has it to be characterised by catholicity of approach or otherwise? Do we retain what has enriched it in the past and continues to do so today, or discard for considerations emanating from illiberal outlook?

Kisi bhi shama se be-zaar ho kyon koi parvana
Yeh kya is daur ka diwanapun hai hum nahin samjhe

Excerpted with permission from Citizen and Society: Selected Writings, M Hamid Ansari, Rupa Publications.