In another move on what secular forces see as an attack on Muslim cultural heritage, the ruling government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has decided that in the state of Uttarakhand the names of railway stations written in the Urdu language on platforms will be replaced with Sanskrit.
The state with a population of 10 million, adopted Sanskrit as its second official language in 2010. According to the 2011 census, the exact number of Sanskrit speakers in the state is 386, out of which 282 are males and 104 are females. The number of Urdu speakers are more than four percent at 425,752 persons.
Citing the reason of Sanskrit being the second official language, railway officials announced that signboards of all railway platforms which have names of stations written in Hindi, English and Urdu, will now be written in Hindi, English and Sanskrit.
The opposition parties have condemned the decision of the government and termed it “unfortunate”.
In October 2018, the BJP renamed the cities of Allahabad and Faizabad in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh to Prayagraj and Ayodhya respectively, saying that it was “correcting wrongs” made in the medieval period by the Mughal rulers.
It had also changed the name of the iconic Mughalsarai railway station near Varanasi to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya station. The BJP had also moved a proposal to change the name of the capital of Gujarat, Ahmedabad to Karnavati. Not just this, there had been calls by the CM of UP, Yogi Adityanath to change the name of Agra to Agravan.
Nayantara Sahgal, eminent writer and niece of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, said that she wasn’t surprised by the decision of the ruling regime. “Why should we surprised? Everything they are doing matches their policy. Such things are happening everywhere in every aspect. From this ruling regime we cannot expect anything else,” she told the New Indian Express.
A Delhi based historian Swapna Liddle too has questioned the move and signed a petition that has been launched online to oppose the move. She says, “I think that this move is less about including Sanskrit (because seriously, the name of the place written in Hindi and Sanskrit would be identical), and more about removing Urdu. This panders to the common misconception that Urdu is somehow a ‘foreign’ language that we should be less proud of.”
She added, “Its script, while derived from the Perso-Arabic, was heavily modified to include the sounds that are not to be found in those languages, e.g. sounds of ड,झ,ध, थ, ढ, ठ, and many more. It was a script that was widely used in many parts of the country till some decades ago. The reason it has become less popular is exactly because of this kind of apathy and in fact deliberate exclusion.”
The war against Urdu
Writers and historians have noted that the war against Urdu or the concept of gharwaapsi had begun long ago by the Hindu Supremacist groups like the Hindu Jagran Morcha.
Writing for The Diplomat, Shahzaman Haque, co-director of the Department of South Asia and Himalaya at Institut des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO), Paris, says, Urdu evolved from the Khari Boli language as a variety of Sanskrit. It was earlier known as Hindoostani, Dehlavi and Rekhta among other names.
He says its lineage to Sanskrit is proudly recalled, but the embellishment of the Perso-Arabic script have born the taint of Islam and since then there has been an attempt to Hinduize the language. Urdu then became the face of linguistic segregation and was radicalized with Muslims being made sole owners of the language.
When Urdu was made the second official language of Uttar Pradesh in 1989, which it still is; it was opposed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as an act of “Muslim appeasement.”
More recently, when the BJP came to power in Rajasthan in 2013, it merged the Urdu-medium schools to the benefit of the Hindi-medium schools, following which the recruitment of Urdu teachers was postponed and exam question papers were no longer made available in that language.
On October 30, 2019, just a day before Jammu and Kashmir was declared to be a Union Territory, BJP’s national secretary Tarun Chugh said, “The best thing is that now Urdu will no longer be the first and official language of the state. Hindi will be the first and official language of the state.”
This was seen as another attempt to dilute the cultural fabric of the region and an attack on the religious rights of Muslims in Kashmir. It is also seen as the first step to change the names of famous places in the region and an attempt to manipulate land and revenue records said human rights activist Lubna Sayed Qadri to The Logical Indian.
“Invading your language is a political tool in conflict, for instance, Urdu is the language of land and revenue records, changing it to an alien language like Hindi will leave people baffled. It will be used as a weapon to manipulate our land and revenue records,” she said adding that it will weaken the grip of the language in the Valley especially when religious scriptures are written in Urdu and all official records land, revenue, courts, and even FIRs are scripted in the language.
In recent times, the accusation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ being anti-Hindu and the opposition to the appointment of a Muslim man as a professor of Sanskrit at the Benaras Hindu University are other examples of the ruling government’s Hindutva agenda that has seeped into the minds of the people.
The exclusivist attitude of Hindu nationalists towards Urdu is unfortunate. Their argument that Urdu be brought back to its Sanskrit roots is not based in reality given the evolution of the language which has resulted in a completely different written code than Sanskrit.
Urdu represents the composite culture of India. Confining it to a faith or religion to further selfish political agendas is reflective of the BJP’s myopic view and its crafty attempt to suppress and alienate Muslim culture as a whole from India.
The petition to request the railways to not remove Urdu names from the railway station signboards in Uttarakhand may be signed here.