The ultimate question then is: Is there a way out? Is there any future of Urdu in India? Or is it condemned to die a slow death, declining year after year? I would say that the crisis or challenge before Urdu is not that of survival but its development and adaptation. We have to think of ways and means to make the Urdu language and literature more communicative, culturally vibrant and relevant. In other words, Urdu will always be there and it will be loved across the country but will it be a language of communication, information and knowledge is the real question before us.

Will it survive as a modern language or be reduced to a mere “dialect” or just being a spoken language?

I am of the view that there are limits to which Urdu can be developed and “revived”. The attempt to regain the “lost glory of Urdu” is futile at best. There are several reasons for it, theoretical as well as practical. In this regard, Hasan Abdullah has made certain fundamental observations, which need to be reiterated here. Discussing whether Urdu can meet the requirements of a modern language, he notes:

The answer is both yes and no. In abstraction, the answer would be in the affirmative, because even today there is a sizeable body of people whose mother tongue is Urdu. And, if enough investments are made and these people use their mother tongue for all purposes, except while communicating with the non-Urdu speaking, then – but only then – perhaps, Urdu can meet the requirements of a modern language. But, as anyone can see, that is a hypothetical situation; it is also superfluous.

He further notes, “Therefore, for all practical purposes, the answer to the question raised above is a definite no. In the above sense, Urdu cannot meet the requirements of a modern language. And English shall remain the language for advanced discourse – particularly in science and technology – because the pace of development in these areas is too fast for a less developed language such as Urdu to bridge the gap and keep the pace.” However, he clarifies that “it is no aspersion on the language to say that it cannot become a modern language in the above sense”.

According to Abdullah, it only reflects that for historical reasons, particularly because Urdu was not the favoured language of the powers that be during the rapid development of science and technology, Urdu has lagged behind. Hence, given the present-day realities, it would neither be practical nor prudent to spend energy to bridge this gap completely and keep pace with English.

One might note here that it has not been possible to make Urdu equal to English even in Pakistan, where it enjoys the status of the official language.

The same may also be said about Hindi, despite it being the most spoken language in India and the fourth most spoken language in the world. The latest census data reveals that the number of Hindi speakers has grown by more than 25 per cent from the last census (2001), when 41.03 per cent of people spoke Hindi. And yet, it is losing its stature among the millennials. According to a survey conducted by iChamp and published in India Today, while most children converse in Hindi with their friends and at home, their skills in writing in the language are surprisingly poor, and they find it difficult to write down words and expressions. Parents too find it challenging to teach them the language and are forced to search for Hindi tutors, the survey reports.

Hence, any strategy to develop and promote Urdu in India should bear the above points in mind. Otherwise, it would be yet another jazbati (emotional) approach towards the development and promotion of the language, which has often failed in the past.

What then should be a logical approach to promote and develop Urdu in India? The solution lies in what has been advocated by several linguists, educationists and practitioners: that is, to provide quality primary education in one’s mother tongue.

In other words, Urdu should be treated as a mother tongue rather than just a language of a religious, cultural or linguistic minority group. There are two components to my proposition: first, primary education should be imparted in one’s mother tongue, and secondly, it has to be of high quality, as providing mediocre education in the mother tongue will not solve the problem. The linguist GN Devy has noted that while there may be nothing terribly wrong per se in schooling children in the English language, it is scientifically proven that “education in one’s mother tongue gives young learners a far greater ability to grasp complex abstract concepts”.

To illustrate the above point, let me cite a recent example. Sana Niyaz, who topped Delhi in the senior secondary school examination of 2019, told me that she could achieve this because her medium of instruction and examination, and mother tongue were the same, that is, Urdu. Niyaz, a girl from Old Delhi’s lower-middle-class family whose father works as a cook in a restaurant and mother is a housewife, achieved this feat without the aid of any coaching classes.

When asked if she regretted not choosing English as her medium, she said: “Had my medium of instruction and examination been English I would not have been able to do this.” She further pointed out that that would not have allowed her the liberty of seeking help from her elder sister and others. One could argue that this is an exception and does not prove that it will always work or has indeed worked in the past. Notably, Niyaz’s other sisters have also attended the same Urdu-medium school in the Jama Masjid area, and two years ago, her elder sister Urma scored third position in Delhi.

However, there are other issues involved with Urdu-medium schooling, which is linked to the second part of my proposition, that is, quality education. Due to the lack of quality education in one’s mother tongue, especially Urdu, parents are forced to enrol their children in so-called English-medium schools or institutions, where the language of instruction and examination is not the mother tongue of the child. And in these cases, the child faces two problems.

First, the child hardly has anyone at home (in most of the cases, if not always) who can provide help in learning the concepts, because they are not comfortable in the medium the child is taught in. Hence, they have to rely on coaching and tuition, which cannot be a viable and long-term substitute for various reasons, including affordability and lack of good tutors. And secondly, and flowing from this, while the child can speak the mother tongue, he or she can’t read and write properly, as cited above in the iChamp study, because the focus is on memorising the concepts of different subjects in an “alien” language.

As a result, in most of the cases, the child ends up becoming language-deficient. The point I am trying to make is that if quality primary education can be provided in one’s mother tongue, it can solve the problem of both language proficiency as well as comprehension of the subject. And it is often seen that those who acquire language proficiency at an early stage are likely to contribute more towards the promotion and development of the language.

The Minority Conundrum: Living In Majoritarian Times

Excerpted with permission from “Is There a Future for Urdu?”, by Mahtab Alam, The Minority Conundrum: Living In Majoritarian Times, edited by Tanweer Fazal, part of the Rethinking India series, Vintage.

Mahtab Alam is a multilingual journalist and until recently was the executive editor of The Wire Urdu. His Twitter handle is @MahtabNama.