The language question: A History of Hindi

A note on terminology- While Hindavi, Hindi, Urdu, Zaban-e-Lashkar, and Hindustani have historically been interchangeable, I shall stick to the modern convention that uses Hindi to mean Modern Standard Hindi, Urdu to mean Modern Standard Urdu, and Hindustani to mean the “undivided language”.

As the  14 of September is Hindi Diwas, it seems fitting to look into Hindi’s origin. The history and origin of Hindustani, the lingua franca that is the ancestor of today’s Hindi and Urdu, is shrouded in confusion. It evolved as a language of ‘commoners’, and was only sparsely documented in its early stages. In contrast, the rise of Hindi and Urdu is rather well documented. 

Our story starts in the 19th century. While European statesmen struggled with the German question, Indian ‘men of letters’ faced the Language question. Persian was the court language of the Mughal empire and the early colonial period. In 1837 the British East India Company, recognizing that Persian wasn’t commonly used in India, revoked its co-official status. Persian was replaced with Hindustani, written in the Nastaliq script, a Persian script that is now the official script of Urdu.    

(The College of Fort William, it was here the fresh recruits of the HEIC learned Indian languages. Source: Navrang India)                       

This decision was not controversial in itself. The British encouraged education of the ‘natives in both the Nastaliq and the Devanagari script, but only those proficient in Nastaliq found employment with the colonial masters. This created a cohort of Devanagari-educated students who could not find work as government employees.

This brings us to Babu Shiva Prasad, who was born into a Hindu family that had long been courtiers to the Mughal emperors but spent the majority of his own career working as an administrator for the British. Shiva Prasad worked to popularize and standardize Hindustani throughout his life. To this end, he wrote extensively in Hindustani and translated numerous works. He tried to establish the Khariboli/Delhavi dialect as the standard register of Hindustani. 

In 1868, he distributed a pamphlet amongst court officials and commoners alike, recommending the use of a Devanagari in court documents, in place of Nastaliq. His was a purely technical argument: Documents written in Nastaliq were relatively more susceptible to fraudulent editing and misinterpretation. He was by no means advocating the ‘Sanskritisation’ of Hindustani with his advocacy of the Devanagari script.

Enter, a decade or so later, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. Pandit Malaviya was the inheritor of a long tradition of Sanskrit scholarship, and it was, therefore, natural for him to advocate the use of Devanagari. Pandit Malaviya was among the first to put forth the now commonplace argument that Urdu was a foreign language, while Hindi was the native language of a vast majority of the residents of the United Provinces, and thus more suited to being the official language.

 The debate thus shifted from questions of script to those of vocabulary, and the etymology of words, and the distinction between ‘Hindi’ and ‘Urdu’ begins to form.

Urdu had its advocates too, who disagreed with Pandit Malaviya, their argument being that Urdu was by no means foreign. Organizations such as the Urdu Defence Association and  Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu provided the formal vehicles of this pushback.

A prominent leader of the Urdu movement was the Islamic reformer, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Born into an aristocratic family during the last years of the Mughal Empire, Sir Syed’s advocacy of Urdu stemmed from his belief that Urdu was the homegrown and syncretic language of the larger Indian educated classes, quite distinct from Persian. 

Sir Syed believed that Pandit Malaviya’s support of Hindi was an advocacy of a language of the bazaars. He is known to have controversially declared that “Urdu was the language of the elite and Hindi a language of the vulgar”. Contrast this with Pandit Malaviya’s view that the use of Urdu was tantamount to accepting the linguistic hegemony of foreign rulers.

(Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Malaviya, both played a major role in Hindi’s history)

It is around this time that separate vocabularies began to be created aggressively. It was no longer a debate of Hindustani written in different scripts, but a conflict between supporters of two distinct languages. Even Gandhi, who tried to unify the Sanskritized Hindi and Persianized Urdu into a common language that he envisioned would be called Hindustani and written in either Devanagari or Nasataliq, was unable to stop this flow of events.

This ‘language question’ caused such a rise in communal tensions, that Sir Syed, who was once a proponent of a united Indian national identity, is today considered the Father of the Two-Nation theory. It is thus, not so great of a stretch to argue that it was this language question that set into motion the events  that would eventually lead to the Partition of India.

While Mahatma Gandhi may not have been able to unify Hindi and Urdu, his work through organizations like the  Rashtrabhasha Prachar Samiti and the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha to spread the Hindi language throughout India laid the groundwork for the adoption of Hindi as the sole official language of India on the 14th of September 1949.

As with most of history, this attempt at a linear narrative from debates about scripts to the Partition glosses over many subtleties and complexities. 

References and further readings:

1) The poisonous potency of script: Hindi and Urdu

2) “One Language Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India” (1994), by Christopher R. King

3)Poetry in Mixed Language

4)Language, Religion and Politics in North India – Paul R. Brass

– Ashwath Damle

Bsc. Economics (FY B.Sc.)

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