Look Beyond Urdu
- By Prof. Syed Iqbal Hasnain
In independent India, be it at the government or the non-government level, politically motivated social fallacies have always been major determinants of developmental policies for minorities, particularly for Muslims. The priority given to Urdu as a medium of instruction in Muslim majority regions of North India is the best validation for this statement, because this policy is based on a social fantasy that Urdu is the only suitable medium for instruction for Muslims given the affection the community has for it. Here, I would like to ask a fundamental question: should Urdu at all be the medium of instruction for Muslim schools in North India?
Considering many factors, historical, linguistic and academic, I impudently say, "No."
Reports of Urdu schools’ poor performance in board examinations over the last few years, compared to the performance of the English or Hindi medium schools have forced me to this conclusion.
It is a fact that in most countries including India, policies about the medium of instruction are defined and shaped taking into consideration various political, social, religious and economic factors. Among these, the political and religious agendas always take priority over the vital questions of what sort of instructional language provides the best results not only for students in terms of better content knowledge and academic competence, but also for the whole nation and its well-being for political stability and inter-ethnic relations. Besides this, policymakers, often, rely on self-created social myths which have no empirical proofs for easy implementation of these political or religious agendas with unfair targets.
The need for Urdu as instructional medium for Muslims of North Indian states, particularly, UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir and Madhya Pradesh is another classic example of such social myths. What is more pathetic and dismal in this case is that those for whom the very policy is framed are ending up as its own victims. This is what we witnessed in the performance of Urdu medium schools even in the last board examination results.
It is estimated that around five lakh Urdu medium school students appear for board examinations every year. Over the last five years, their pass percentage has been fluctuating between 25 per cent and 45 per cent, a doleful rate compared to the results of Hindi and English medium schools in the region. These findings should prompt us to have a comprehensive assessment of the potential of Urdu language as a medium of instruction and the infrastructural conditions of Urdu medium schools.
The main reason for adopting Urdu as instructional medium was that it was a language with a rich cultural heritage and used by Muslims at their homes. Yes, Urdu has a traditional attachment with North Indian Muslims right from its inception as a special breed of Persian, the official language of the Sultanate and Mughal regimes. And it was justifiable to use Urdu profoundly during those times because of the capability of the language in dealing with the limited scope of knowledge at that time. But following the advent of the British after the decline of Muslim rule, there was a paradigm shift in almost all sectors including in knowledge systems in the country.
During that period Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Maulana Shibli had started English medium schools for the community. British education affected the entire concept of eastern education and knowledge systems. Later, it widened the frame of reference of our wisdom by promulgating western values emerging out of Industrial Revolution; Indian education began to absorb modern science and technology contents in its core curriculum. On the other hand, as a vernacular language, which was again confined to an ethnic group, Urdu could not catch up with this silent knowledge revolution unleashed by the British, because Urdu’s status was deteriorating due to the lack of the patronage that it had been getting from the sultans and the Mughals. The situation continued to be so even after Independence. Hardly any positive step to develop or widen the scope of Urdu to accommodate newly emerging terminologies from science and technology has been taken till date.
As a result, despite its rich past, Urdu ended up as a vernacular language which lacks proper scientific and technical terminologies. This being the situation, I think it is not wise to continue with Urdu as the medium of instruction in Muslim schools, at least from middle standards and above.
Moreover, at present, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar do not use Urdu at home. Most of these families read local Hindi papers. It has already been replaced with Hindustani in Devanagari script. A composite popular culture is emerging on the basis of this language mix, a mix which is preferred as lingua franca among both Hindus and Muslims in the entire Gangetic belt, over a highly Sanskritised Hindi or a Persianised Urdu.
And this is being recognised as the driving force behind the popular culture created by the Mumbai film industry and liberally used in the North Indian electronic media. Given the historical evolution of multilingualism in our nation, this cannot be or need not be barred. Not only Urdu, but other North Indian regional languages like Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali are also facing such challenges from a fast spreading Hindustani language and culture. In this context, it is worth mentioning that as a link language, Hindustani embodies certain solid secular elements, whereas Urdu and Hindi bear religious colours due to misinterpretations and preoccupations prevailing in our country.
What is more exciting is, the positive linguistic evolution Hindustani brings about, is being rapidly assimilated by traditional societies like that of Muslims. This phenomenon invalidates the basic reason given by the political planners who adopted Urdu as medium of instruction, that it was the most acceptable language among Muslims. It denotes yet another important fact, that Muslims in North India are gradually undergoing a language shift. In other words, their concocted mindset about Urdu is fast changing.
This is not the case of Indian Muslims only. Reports from Pakistan, where Urdu is the national language, also indicate that such changes are taking place there. Setting aside the pros and cons of learning a foreign language, it is a fact that the medium of instruction in Pakistan has ceased to be a debatable issue outside the intellectual pro-Urdu circles. The observation by Dr Tariq Rahman in his well-known study of the history of Urdu-English controversy in Pakistan is the best sign of this trend. He says: "There is no doubt that the powerful upper-class uses English as an identity maker and supports continued use of English in all the domains of power, but more importantly, the less affluent also supports English." His observation indicates that the change is not just superficial but massive. And it also gives some lessons on educational planning in our Urdu majority regions.
By quoting him I am not focusing on the option of English as the medium of instruction, but the factors — cognitive and linguistic — which prompted Urdu-speaking people to search for an alternative medium. Physically what inspired them for this change was their aspiration for more access to a fast emerging knowledge society and thereby to better positions by choosing a medium with wider scopes. And, linguistically, this change has come about because of the inability of Urdu to express the fast emerging terminologies in a rapidly growing knowledge world.
Given the fast changing dynamics of this knowledge world, these cognitive and linguistic factors should be taken into account by so-called Muslim friendly political parties and their embedded educational consultants. And they should come forward to encourage the willingness of the people for a medium shift, instead of ghettoising them by relying on social unrealities and historical bondages.
Political and religious forces always have their own historical, traditional and social reasons for making any language the medium of instruction. The Muslim intelligentsia, however, should have the determination to focus on result-oriented strategies which give due priority to social, psychological and academic changes that are taking place around us in the 21st century.
Prof. Syed Iqbal Hasnain is the vice chancellor of the University of Calicut, Kerala