The Problem of Hindustani : Hindi and Urdu

(Following is the text of an address delivered by eminent historian Tara Chand at Allahabad in 1942. It was later compiled as an essay in a book called, ‘The Problem of Hindustani’ and published in 1944 from Allahabad, now Prayagraj.) 

In the issue of the Leader of March 23, 1942, were published extracts from the speech of Pandit Amaranatha Jha delivered at a meeting of the Suhrid Sangh at Muzaffarpur, containing his views on the question of the national language for India. The problem is of great importance, and I hope you will give some space in your columns to views which are different from those advocated at Muzaffarpur, so that all sides of the case may come before the public. I shall consider the arguments advanced in the speech seriatim.

Prof. Jha says that “Hindi alone can be the national language of India and occupy this place of honor, as it is derived from Sanskrit, draws its inspiration from the country, enshrines the culture of the country, and is allied to all the major languages of the country.” The first point which he makes in this statement is that Hindi is derived from Sanskrit.  The statement is doubly wrong, wrong in what it asserts, and in what it impliedly denies. Hindi, the modern high Hindi used by most writers of Hindi prose and many writers of verse at present, which, according to Prof. Jha, ought to be the national language of India, is not derived from Sanskrit. In fact no modern Indian language is derived from Sanskrit, for Sanskrit is a stereotyped literary language which has not been allowed by grammarians to grow and multiply and bring forth children.

Hindi, as any text-book on Indo-Aryan philology will tell you, has developed from an Apabhramsha of Saurseni Prakrit, a dialect spoken in the Madhyadesha for many centuries. The Saurseni Prakrit itself is a daughter of one of the old Indo-Aryan dialects spoken in Northern India in pre-Buddhist times. The old Indo-Aryan Prakrit was comprised of a number of dialects, one of which began to be used for literary purposes. The earliest literary form is known as Chhandas and is the medium of expression of the Vedas. In later times another literary language developed, to which the name Sanskrit is given. Its rules were compiled by Panini and other grammarians, and it acquired a rigidity which has prevented its proliferation.

To assert then that Hindi is derived from Sanskrit is inaccurate. The implication that Urdu is not derived from the same Indo-Aryan sources as Hindi is also wrong. For the fact is that the source of Urdu is the same Apabhramsha, the same Saurseni Prakrit, the same old Indo-Aryan dialect as gave rise to modern high Hindi.

So far as the origins are concerned, the two languages stand on the same footing, and one cannot assume a higher place than the other. But it is then said that Hindi derives its inspiration from this country, and enshrines its culture, and the implication is that Urdu does not. This statement is one-sided and exaggerated. Urdu, it must be realized, is not the language of any people outside this country. Indians settled abroad use it, and have taught its use to some of the inhabitants of their adopted countries; but apart from such speakers, Urdu is as indigenous to India as Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, or Tamil.

Urdu was born  in India;  it has been nurtured by Indians, both Hindus and Muslims; its basic structure and phonetic and morphological system are Indian; its superstructure is more catholic than that of Hindi, for its vocabulary contains words derived from the cultural environment of both Hindus and Muslims. The basis of Urdu is broader and less exclusive than that of Hindi, for it derives its inspiration from the culture of both communities, and enshrines the traditions of both.

When people speak about Urdu they forget there is scarcely any phase or aspect of Hindu life and thought which does not find expression through Urdu. We have translations of the Upanishads, the Bhagwad Gita, the Smritis, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, many Puranas, and the Bhagwat in Urdu; there are many philosophic-religious and religious treatises in Urdu dealing with Hindu mythology, worship, pilgrimages, etc. Then on Hindu arts, especially music, we have numerous works in Urdu. A number of Sanskrit dramas, stories, and poems have been embodied in Urdu works. Hindu sciences, mathematical and natural, are to be found in Urdu books.

There is nothing surprising in this, for till nearly the close of the 19th century, Urdu was recognized by most Hindus as their own language. Hindu poets and prose writers used Urdu as the vehicle of their thought, and many among the educated Hindus in North India read Urdu books both for information and for aesthetic satisfaction. In recent times Hindus, under the influence of revivalist and communalist tendencies, are gradually giving up Urdu, the demand for books of this type is diminishing and publishers do not find it profitable to bring them out. Even then, if a reference is made to the Government Gazettes published by the provincial governments, one will still find such books listed.

Urdu catered for the needs of the Hindus, and at the same time of course supplied to a much larger extent the needs of the Muslims.  o far as creative literature is concerned, Urdu boasts of both Hindu and Muslim contributors. Numerous Hindu writers, from Wali Ram Wali of Shahjahan’s time to the present day, have used Urdu as the medium of their sentiments and ideas. The narrow-mindedness of Muslim historians of Urdu literature has prevented the just appraisal of this contribution, but the fact cannot be gainsaid. If more Hindus have not taken to Urdu, the fault is partly that of the Muslims themselves. An attitude of superiority, in spite of the fact that many Muslim poets learnt to lisp their numbers at the feet of Hindu masters of poetry, hurt the self-respect of many an aspirant to literary fame.

Then the poison of revivalism and communalism, which entered the vitals of the two communities, has sharpened the differences between them. Although the Muslims monopolized political power during the middle ages, yet they did not consider it beneath their dignity to cultivate Braj Bhasha, Avadhi, and other Indian languages. In fact they produced writers whose names will live as long as these languages are studied. But they have shown less and less inclination to study the culture of their Hindu fellow-countrymen during recent times.

However that may be, the charge that Urdu literature breathes an alien atmosphere is very much exaggerated. It is true that much of Urdu literature is steeped in the traditions of [the] Muslim community: but the Muslim community is an Indian community, and it is but natural that its longings, ideals, and traditions should to some extent find expression in the literature produced by its members. It would be most unnatural if that were not so. The communities in India which profess faiths of non-Indian origin—the Parsis, the Christians, and the Muslims—cannot be considered alien to India simply because they follow religions which are not indigenous. Those who think otherwise are the strongest supporters of schemes of India’s partition.

Again, those who know Urdu literature in its totality and not merely in some of its aspects, know how cruelly wrong the charge of alienness is. Read the works of the Dakhini Urdu poets, especially their masnavismarsias, and allegorical poems; or those of Sauda and Mir, their masnavis, qasidas, and marsias; or Mir Hasan’s Masnavi Sihrul Bayan or Daya Shankar Nasim’s Gulzar-i-Nasim; or themarsias of Anis; or the poems of Nazir Akbarabadi; or the longer poems of modern writers like Azad, Hali, Sarur Jahanabadi, Akbar Allahabadi, Chakbast, and many living poets; you will find that the atmosphere of Urdu poetry cannot be regarded as alien. Even when, as in marsias, the names of heroes and the scenes of their heroism are non-Indian, the background of sentiment, emotion, and culture is Indian.

Again, study Urdu prose like the early ethical novels of M. Nazir Ahmad, or Sarshar’s masterpiece Fisana-i-Azad, or the short stories of Premchand, and you will not be able to maintain that Urdu literature is untrue to Indian life or ignores India’s variegated cultural environment. If Shakespeare’s HamletJulius CaesarAnthony and CleopatraMerchant of VeniceRomeo and JulietOthelloTroilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens; Milton’s Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes; Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon; Scott’s Quentin Durward and Talisman; Lytton’s Rienzi; George Eliot’s Romola; and numerous works of translation from Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Portuguese, German, Russian, Chinese, etc., are not regarded as alien to English literature, why should translations from Arabic and Persian into Urdu lay the latter open to the charge of breathing an alien atmosphere? There are innumerable references and allusions in English literature to Greek, Roman, and Jewish traditions and historical incidents, and historical and mythological personages, yet we have never heard an outcry against them from the most fervent Anglophiles. Why, in the name of good sense, condemn Urdu because a section of the Indian people whose religious affinities are not confined to the frontiers of India, make allusions to extra-Indian traditions?

It is then said that Hindi “is allied to all the major languages of India.” I do not wish to overdo the point; but the statement is obviously inaccurate. What about the Dravidian languages? Is not Urdu as much allied as Hindi to Punjabi?

Having considered Prof. Jha’s reasons for giving preference to Hindi over Urdu, let me pass on to his remarks about Hindustani. He seems to feel a peculiar delight in showering contempt upon Hindustani. He once dubbed it as a hybrid monster; he calls it now a “funny” language. I wonder what is at the back of his mind. Surely there is no language in the world which is not hybrid. English, which has borrowed unashamedly from almost every language in the world, ought to be given the first place among hybrid monsters. Is Sanskrit a pure language? If so, what about the numerous Dravidian and Munda words which have entered it? Does not Weber in his history of Sanskrit literature point out a considerable number of Arabic astronomical terms which the Indian astronomical works in Sanskrit contain?

Is Urdu with Indo-Aryan verbs and many Persian nouns not a hybrid? What about Hindi? Did not Tulasidas, Bihari Lal, Keshav, and others employ Arabic and Persian words, and does not modern high Hindi contain loan words from English, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Persian, besides Dravidian, Munda, and Chinese? Take Dakhini Urdu, which was used as the medium of literature for nearly four hundred years; its writers and readers did not regard the use of Prakritisms and Persianisms in juxtaposition as funny. It is the case of some persons liking onions and some garlic, but some liking a mixture of both. Have those who like onions a right to abuse those who prefer garlic or a mixture of onions and garlic?

Let Prof. Jha be not so sure about the sympathies of the country towards Sanskritized Hindi. People of provinces where Hindi and Urdu are not spoken as mother-tongues want a lingua franca for the whole of India. They believe that some form of the language spoken in the north by both Hindus and Muslims should serve the purpose. But they are not so certain about the specific form which should be adopted. Dr. S. K. Chatterji, the eminent linguist, advocated at one time a Hindi or Hindustani shorn of all its grammatical complexities, e.g. the gender of verbs, etc.

Sri M. Satyanarayan, one of the most ardent and indefatigable workers for the propagation of Hindi in the South, writing in the Hindi Prachar Samachar, the organ of the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, warns those who are anxious to fill Hindi with Sanskrit words. Says he: “If we have to accept a language which is filled with Sanskrit, or is dominated by Sanskrit, then we need not fix our gaze upon the languages of the North, for the languages (of Bengal, Maharashtra, and the South) are not so poor that they will go bankrupt in this matter of give and take. In this argument (for Sanskritization) there is not that much of advantage as appears on the face of it—on the contrary, there is certain likelihood of loss.”

Dr. Dhirendra Varma some time ago, commenting upon the demands of non-Hindi speaking provinces for the modification of the Hindi language, said: “The truth is that the honor and temptation of becoming the national language of India has thrown the speakers of Hindi into a delusion at present, and they are either ignoring the real problems of their language, or have lost the power of considering them from the right point of view.”  (Vina.)

Prof. Jha, in order to please the very few who will learn Hindi because it will be the language of inter-provincial intercourse in place of English, advocates its Sanskritization; but he does not realize that in this process he is antagonizing the millions of Muslim neighbors of Hindus who live in the region extending from the Indus to the Kosi, from the Himalaya to the Satpura. Is the game worth the candle?

Let me now examine the other points which have been made against Urdu. Says Prof. Jha: “The entire atmosphere of Urdu literature is non-Indian; hardly a single Indian metre is in use in Urdu.” I need not repeat what I have said about the Indianness of Urdu. But what about metre? In the first place no specific metre is identified with any language, for in the development of literature metre frequently varies. The phenomenon is so well known that I need not elaborate on it. But let me draw attention to two literatures,English and Bengali.

In English, as every student of its literature knows, experimenting with new forms of verse has been the hobby of the poets of every new period. The most recent phase of this tendency is the use of what is known as ‘sprung verse’ which was brought into vogue by Gerard Hopkins during the last world war, and which is replacing the syllabic verse of Hardy and Bridges. In Bengali, besides the old Matra-vritta and Akshara-vritta metres, there is a third form known as the Svara-vritta. The first two are common to many northern Indian languages, but the last, whose basis appears to be stress, is peculiar to Bengali. Some philologists think that its origin is non-Aryan.

Apart however from these considerations, let me point out that Urdu and Hindi are alike in the use of rhymed verse, and both are unlike Sanskrit, which is entirely unrhymed. Again, Urdu has a considerable amount of songs whose rhythms make them indistinguishable from similar songs in Hindi. Although the problem of versification in Urdu and Hindi has not been studied scientifically, I make bold to say that Urdu prosody is not entirely different from Hindi. Anyone can satisfy himself on this score by comparing the Hindi Chaupai with the Urdu Bahr-i-Mutaqarib.

Then in support of his contention that the atmosphere of Urdu is entirely non-Indian, Prof. Jha draws attention to the list of words in the well-known dictionary Farhang-i-Asafia. I am constrained to say that the manner in which the statement is made is very misleading.  Prof. Jha does not state that the dictionary lists more than 54,000 words and that of them 13,500 are Persian and Arabic; i.e. the proportion of the foreign words to the total is just one-fourth. How can anyone venture to say on the basis of this proportion that Urdu is non-Indian?

In the end let me say that no attempt to prove that Hindi and Urdu are two different languages has the least chance of success. In spite of Messrs. Purushottamdas Tandon, Sampurnanand, and the prominent men of letters of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan foregathered at Abohar, the fact is indisputable that Urdu and Hindi are only two literary styles or forms of one spoken language. Nor will the attempt to prove that Braj Bhasha, Avadhi, and Modern Hindi are identical find any support from the science of language, whatever popular writers may assert. Identities of languages cannot be based upon the ground of glossic similarities.

If the extremists among the writers of Urdu and Hindi, who affect styles burdened with classical borrowings, are in the majority today, that does not mean that they will continue forever to be in the ascendant. When writers of Urdu, under the influence of misplaced notions of phonetic and linguistic purism, rejected numerous good, simple, effective words of common speech, and laid down rules for pruning the vocabulary of Urdu, in spite of the centuries of practice to the contrary, they committed a grievous mistake.

Today writers of Hindi—some under an utterly mistaken notion of what Indianness consists in, and some moved by frankly communal sentiment—are inflicting a worse injury upon Hindi by (1) driving out simple, easy, and widely understood words of foreign origin; (2) substituting Sanskrit tatsamas for common tadbhavas; (3) employing Sanskritic rules of forming derivatives which are contrary to the genius of Prakritic growth and a burden upon the sound system of Hindi; (4) borrowing all kinds of suitable and unsuitable words exclusively from the treasury of Sanskrit.

The whole truth about Hindi and Urdu is not that Urdu alone had replaced good words in use in Hindi by words of foreign origin, but that modern high Hindi has been built up from Urdu by substituting for words of Persian derivation Sanskritic words.  The fact is that compared with high Hindi, Urdu has a hoary past, and the real grievance of speakers of Urdu is that the advocates of Hindi are endeavoring to oust an old Indian language by a new-fangled one.

It is a gross misrepresentation of facts to say that in moving along these lines Hindi and Urdu are following the lines of natural growth, for we know that these tendencies are being deliberately fostered. In fact the widening of the gulf between Urdu and Hindi is merely an expression in the literary field of the communalism which is so rampant in our social and political life. Notwithstanding protestations to the contrary, propaganda on behalf of a Sanskritized Hindi is not a healthy national movement, for it supports exclusionism.

India is a composite country; it has many races, many religions, many cultures, many languages. Indian nationality cannot be the sort of unitary homogeneous society and civilization which obtains in England, France, Italy, or Germany. A common Indian lingua franca must reflect the composite character of the Indian nation, and therefore all endeavors to make that language the national language of India which rests upon the exclusive basis of one cultural tradition is fraught with strife, and destined to fail.

An appreciation of difficulties of this kind led the Indian National Congress to adopt Hindustani as the national language of India. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, perceiving clearly the implications of the situation, asserted: “I have no doubt in my mind that Hindi and Urdu must come nearer to each other, and though they may wear different garbs, will be essentially one language.” A desire to put an end to the estrangement between the two communities actuated Mahatma Gandhi recently to say: “I would like to form an association advocating the learning of both forms of speech and both the scripts by its members ,and carrying on propaganda to that end, in the hope finally of a natural fusion of the two becoming a common inter-provincial speech called Hindustani. Then the question would be not Hindustani=Hindi+Urdu, but Hindustani=Hindi=Urdu.”

I hope all thoughtful persons will give their earnest attention to the problem, and on my part I fervently wish that the proposal of Mahatma Gandhi may soon be accomplished.

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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at

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