Hindi–Urdu controversy

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The station board of Hapur Junction railway station in Northern India in Hindi (top), Urdu (bottom-right) and English (bottom-left).

The Hindi–Urdu controversy arose in 19th century colonial India out of the debate over whether Modern Standard Hindi or Standard Urdu should be chosen as a national language.

Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible as spoken languages, to the extent that they are sometimes considered to be dialects or registers of a single spoken language together referred to as Hindi–Urdu, or the Hindustani language. The respective writing systems used to write the language, however, are different: Hindi is written using Devanagari, whereas Urdu is written using a modified version of the Arabic script, each of which is completely unintelligible to readers literate only in the other.[1] Both Modern Standard Hindi and Urdu are literary forms of the Dehlavi dialect of Hindustani.[2] A Persianized variant of Hindustani began to take shape during the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526 AD) and Mughal Empire (1526–1858 AD) in South Asia.[2] Known as Deccani in southern India, and by names such as Hindi, Hindavi, and Hindustani in northern India and elsewhere, it emerged as a lingua franca across much of India and was written in several scripts including Perso-Arabic, Devanagari, Kaithi, and Gurmukhi.[3] Hindi as a standardized literary register of the Delhi dialect arose in the 19th century; the Braj dialect was the dominant literary language in the Devanagari script up until and through the nineteenth century. Efforts by Hindi movements to promote a Devanagari version of the Delhi dialect under the name of Hindi gained pace around 1880 as an effort to displace Urdu's official position.[4]

The Perso-Arabic script form of this language underwent a standardization process and further Persianization in the late Mughal period (18th century) and came to be known as Urdu, a name derived from the Turkic word ordu (army) or orda and is said to have arisen as the "language of the camp", or "Zaban-i-Ordu", or in the local "Lashkari Zaban".[5] As a literary language, Urdu took shape in courtly, elite settings. Along with English, it became the official language of northern parts of British India in 1837.[6][7][8]

The last few decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the eruption of the Hindi–Urdu controversy in the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh, then known as "the North-Western Provinces and Oudh"). The controversy comprised "Hindi" and "Urdu" proponents each advocating the official use of Hindustani with the Devanagari script or with the Nastaʿlīq script, respectively. Hindi movements advocating the growth of and official status for Devanagari were established in Northern India. Babu Shiva Prasad and Madan Mohan Malaviya were notable early proponents of this movement. This, consequently, led to the development of Urdu movements defending Urdu's official status; Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was one of its noted advocates.[citation needed] In 1900, the government issued a decree granting symbolic equal status to both Hindi and Urdu. Hindi and Urdu started to diverge linguistically, with Hindi drawing on Sanskrit as the primary source for formal and academic vocabulary, often with a conscious attempt to purge the language of Persian-derived equivalents. Deploring this Hindu-Muslim divide, Gandhi proposed re-merging the standards, using either Devanagari or Urdu script, under the traditional generic term Hindustani. Bolstered by the support of the Indian National Congress and various leaders involved in the Indian Independence Movement, Hindi, in the Devanagari script, along with English, replaced Urdu as one of the official languages of India during the institution of the Indian constitution in 1950.


Status change of languages
Hindustani in Perso-Arabic script and English made official languages in northern parts of British India, replacing Persian 1837[9] [10]
Hindustani in Kaithi and Devanagari scripts replaced Perso-Arabic script in Bihar by British Raj 1881[11][4]
Hindi in Devanagari granted equal status to Urdu in the United Provinces 1900[12]
Urdu declared sole national language in Pakistan 1948[9]
Hindi granted separate status and official precedence over Urdu and other languages in the Republic of India 1950[13]

Hindustani was the native language spoken in northern India (what is historically known as the region of Hindustan), and it belongs to the Western Hindi language class of Central Indo-Aryan languages.[2] Mughal rulers brought with them to India the Persian language.[14] In cities such as Delhi, Hindustani began to acquire some Persian loanwords and continued to be called "Hindi" as well as "Urdu".[2][15] While Urdu retained the grammar and core vocabulary of the local Delhi dialect, it adopted the Nastaleeq writing system.[2][16]

Urdu, like Hindi, is a form of the same language, Hindustani.[17] It evolved from the medieval (6th to 13th century) Apabhraṃśa register of the preceding Shauraseni language, a Middle Indo-Aryan language that is also the ancestor of other modern Indo-Aryan languages. Around 75% of Urdu words have their etymological roots in Sanskrit and Prakrit,[18][19][14] and approximately 99% of Urdu verbs have their roots in Sanskrit and Prakrit.[20][21] The remaining 25% of Urdu's vocabulary consists of loanwords from Persian and Arabic.[18][20]

The conflict over language reflected the larger politicization of culture and religion in nineteenth century colonial India, when religious identities were utilized in administration in unprecedented ways.[22] In time, Hindustani written in Perso-Arabic script also became a literary language with an increasing body of literature written in the 18th and 19th century. A division developed gradually between Hindus, who chose to write Hindustani in Devanagari script, and Muslims and some Hindus who chose to write the same in Urdu script. The development of Hindi movements in the late nineteenth century further contributed to this divergence.[4] Sumit Sarkar notes that in the 18th and the bulk of the 19th century, "Urdu had been the language of polite culture over a big part of north India, for Hindus quite as much as Muslims". For the decade of 1881-90, Sarkar gives figures which showed that the circulation of Urdu newspapers was twice that of Hindi newspapers and there were 55% more Urdu books as Hindi books. He gives the example of the author Premchand who wrote mainly in Urdu till 1915, until he found it difficult to publish in the language.[23]

Professor Paul R. Brass notes in his book, Language, Religion and Politics in North India,

The Hindi-Urdu controversy by its very bitterness demonstrates how little the objective similarities between language groups matter when people attach subjective significance to their languages. Willingness to communicate through the same language is quite a different thing from the mere ability to communicate.[4]


British language policy[edit]

In 1837, the British East India company replaced Persian with local vernacular in various provinces as the official language of government offices and of the lower courts. However, in the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, Urdu in Nastaliq was chosen as the replacement for Persian, rather than Hindi in the Devanagari script.[4][24] The most immediate reason for the controversy is believed to be the contradictory language policy in North India in the 1860s. Although the then government encouraged both Hindi and Urdu as a medium of education in school, it discouraged Hindi or Nagari script for official purposes. This policy gave rise to conflict between students educated in Hindi or Urdu for the competition of government jobs, which eventually took on a communal form.[12]

Hindi and Urdu movements[edit]

In 1867, some Hindus in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh during the British Raj in India began to demand that Hindi be made an official language in place of Urdu.[25] Babu Shiva Prasad of Banares was one of the early proponents of the Nagari script. In a Memorandum on court characters written in 1868, he accused the early Muslim rulers of India for forcing them to learn Persian. In 1897, Madan Mohan Malaviya published a collection of documents and statements titled Court character and primary education in North Western Provinces and Oudh, in which he made a compelling case for Hindi.[12][26]

Several Hindi movements were formed in the late 19th and early 20th century; notable among them were Nagari Pracharini Sabha formed in Banaras in 1893, Hindi Sahitya Sammelan in Allahabad in 1910, Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in 1918 and Rashtra Bhasha Prachar Samiti in 1926.[26] The movement was encouraged in 1881 when Hindi in Devanagari script replaced Urdu in Persian script as the official language in neighboring Bihar. They submitted 118 memorials signed by 67,000 people to the Education Commission in several cities.[4][26] The proponents of Hindi argued that the majority of people spoke Hindi and therefore introduction of Nagari script would provide better education and improve prospects for holding Government positions. They also argued that Urdu script made court documents illegible, encouraged forgery and promoted the use of complex Arabic and Persian words.

Organisations such as Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu were formed in defence of the official status given to Urdu.[4] Advocates of Urdu argued that Hindi scripts could not be written faster, and lacked standardisation and vocabulary. They also argued that the Urdu language originated in India, asserted that Urdu could also be spoken fluently by most of the people and disputed the assertion that official status of language and script is essential for the spread of education.

Communal violence broke out as the issue was taken up by firebrands. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had once stated, "I look to both Hindus and Muslims with the same eyes & consider them as two eyes of a bride. By the word nation I only mean Hindus and Muslims and nothing else. We Hindus and Muslims live together under the same soil under the same government. Our interest and problems are common and therefore I consider the two factions as one nation." Speaking to Mr. Shakespeare, the governor of Banaras, after the language controversy heated up, he said "I am now convinced that the Hindus and Muslims could never become one nation as their religion and way of life was quite distinct from one another."

In the last three decades of the 19th century the controversy flared up several times in North-Western provinces and Oudh. The Hunter commission, appointed by the Government of India to review the progress of education, was used by the advocates of both Hindi and Urdu for their respective causes.

Gandhi's idea of Hindustani[edit]

Hindi and Urdu continued to diverge both linguistically and culturally. Linguistically, Hindi continued drawing words from Sanskrit, and Urdu from Persian, Arabic and Chagatai. Culturally Urdu came to be identified with Muslims and Hindi with Hindus. This wide divergence in the 1920s was deplored by Gandhi, who exhorted the re-merging of both Hindi and Urdu, naming it Hindustani, written in both Nagari and Persian scripts.[4] Though he failed in his attempt to bring together Hindi and Urdu under the Hindustani banner, he popularised Hindustani in other non-Hindustani speaking areas.[26]

Muslim nationalism[edit]

It has been argued that the Hindi–Urdu controversy sowed the seeds for Muslim nationalism in India. Some also argued that Syed Ahmad had expressed separatist views long before the controversy developed.[4]

Linguistic purism[edit]

Because of linguistic purism and its orientation towards the pre-Islamic past, advocates for pure Hindi have sought to remove many Persian, Arabic, and Turkic loanwords and replaced them with borrowings from Sanskrit. Conversely, formal Urdu employs far more Perso-Arabic words than does vernacular Hindustani.

Urdu to Hindi[edit]

In April 1900, the colonial Government of the North-Western Provinces issued an order granting equal official status to both Nagari and Perso-Arabic scripts.[27] This decree evoked protests from Urdu supporters and joy from Hindi supporters. However, the order was more symbolic in that it did not provision exclusive use of Nagari script. Perso-Arabic remained dominant in North-Western provinces and Oudh as the preferred writing system until independence.[12]

C. Rajagopalachari, chief minister of Madras Presidency (where a majority of the population would have spoken Tamil or other Dravidian languages) introduced Hindi as a compulsory language in secondary school education though he later relented and opposed the introduction of Hindi during the Madras anti-Hindi agitation of 1965.[28] Bal Gangadhar Tilak supported Devanagari script as the essential part of nationalist movement. The language policy of Congress and the independence movement paved its status as an alternative official language of independent India. Hindi was supported by religious and political leaders, social reformers, writers and intellectuals during independence movement securing that status. Hindi, along with English, was recognised as the official language of India during the institution of the Indian constitution in 1950.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Hindustani language | Origins & Vocabulary | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Archived from the original on 1 April 2022. Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e Taj, Afroz (1997). "About Hindi-Urdu". The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Archived from the original on 19 April 2010. Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  3. ^ "Rekhta: Poetry in Mixed Language, The Emergence of Khari Boli Literature in North India" (PDF). Columbia University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 March 2016. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Language, Religion and Politics in North India by Paul R. Brass, Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated, ISBN 978-0-595-34394-2
  5. ^ Alyssa Ayres (23 July 2009). Speaking Like a State: Language and Nationalism in Pakistan. Cambridge University Press. pp. 19–. ISBN 978-0-521-51931-1.
  6. ^ Coatsworth, John (2015). Global Connections: Politics, Exchange, and Social Life in World History. United States: Cambridge Univ Pr. p. 159. ISBN 9780521761062. Archived from the original on 18 August 2017. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  7. ^ Tariq Rahman (2011). "Urdu as the Language of Education in British India" (PDF). Pakistan Journal of History and Culture. NIHCR. 32 (2): 1–42. Archived (PDF) from the original on 23 March 2014. Retrieved 1 July 2016.
  8. ^ Metcalf, Barbara D. (2014). Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. Princeton University Press. pp. 207–. ISBN 978-1-4008-5610-7. Archived from the original on 22 September 2023. Retrieved 15 April 2021. The basis of that shift was the decision made by the government in 1837 to replace Persian as court language by the various vernaculars of the country. Urdu was identified as the regional vernacular in Bihar, Oudh, the North-Western Provinces, and Punjab, and hence was made the language of government across upper India.
  9. ^ a b Maria Isabel Maldonado Garcia (2015). Urdu Evolution and Reforms. Punjab University Department of Press and Publications, Lahore, Pakistan. p. 223.
  10. ^ Ahuja, Sparsh (7 January 2020). "Yes, Hindi and Urdu are the same language". archive.ph. Archived from the original on 2 October 2022. Retrieved 2 October 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  11. ^ "Kaithi: This 200-year-old script is fading into oblivion". archive.ph. 1 May 2022. Archived from the original on 1 May 2022. Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  12. ^ a b c d Religious Controversy in British India by Kenneth W. Jones, p124, ISBN 0-7914-0827-2 Google book
  13. ^ JAVAID, ARFA (1 April 2022). "What is the national language of India?". Archived from the original on 31 March 2022.
  14. ^ a b Taj, Afroz (1997). "About Hindi-Urdu". University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Archived from the original on 7 November 2017. Retrieved 27 March 2018.
  15. ^ First Encyclopaedia of Islam: 1913-1936. Brill Academic Publishers. 1993. p. 1024. ISBN 9789004097964. Whilst the Muhammadan rulers of India spoke Persian, which enjoyed the prestige of being their court language, the common language of the country continued to be Hindi, derived through Prakrit from Sanskrit. On this dialect of the common people was grafted the Persian language, which brought a new language, Urdu, into existence. Sir George Grierson, in the Linguistic Survey of India, assigns no distinct place to Urdu but treats it as an offshoot of Western Hindi.
  16. ^ "Urdu language | History, Origin, Script, Words, & Facts | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Archived from the original on 4 April 2022. Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  17. ^ Maria Isabel Maldonado Garcia (2015). Urdu Evolution and Reforms. Punjab University Department of Press and Publications, Lahore, Pakistan. p. 223.
  18. ^ a b Ahmad, Aijaz (2002). Lineages of the Present: Ideology and Politics in Contemporary South Asia. Verso. p. 113. ISBN 9781859843581. On this there are far more reliable statistics than those on population. Farhang-e-Asafiya is by general agreement the most reliable Urdu dictionary. It was compiled in the late nineteenth century by an Indian scholar little exposed to British or Orientalist scholarship. The lexicographer in question, Syed Ahmed Dehlavi, had no desire to sunder Urdu's relationship with Persian, as is evident even from the title of his dictionary. He estimates that roughly 75 per cent of the total stock of 55,000 Urdu words that he compiled in his dictionary are derived from Sanskrit and Prakrit and that the entire stock of the base words of the language, without exception, are derived from these sources. What distinguishes Urdu from a great many other Indian languages ... is that is draws almost a quarter of its vocabulary from language communities to the west of India, such as Persian, Turkish, and Tajik. Most of the little it takes from Arabic has not come directly but through Persian.
  19. ^ Dalmia, Vasudha (31 July 2017). Hindu Pasts: Women, Religion, Histories. SUNY Press. p. 310. ISBN 9781438468075. On the issue of vocabulary, Ahmad goes on to cite Syed Ahmad Dehlavi as he set about to compile the Farhang-e-Asafiya, an Urdu dictionary, in the late nineteenth century. Syed Ahmad 'had no desire to sunder Urdu's relationship with Persian, as is evident from the title of his dictionary. He estimates that roughly 75 per cent of the total stock of 55.000 Urdu words that he compiled in his dictionary are derived from Sanskrit and Prakrit and that the entire stock of the base words of the language, without exception, are from these sources' (2000: 112-13). As Ahmad points out, Syed Ahmad, as a member of Delhi's aristocratic elite, had a clear bias towards Persian and Arabic. His estimate of the percentage of Prakitic words in Urdu should therefore be considered more conservative than not. The actual proportion of Prakitic words in everyday language would clearly be much higher.
  20. ^ a b India Perspectives, Volume 8. PTI for the Ministry of External Affairs. 1995. p. 23. All verbs in Urdu are of Sanskrit origin. According to lexicographers, only about 25 percent words in Urdu diction have Persian or Arabic origin.
  21. ^ "Urdu's origin: it's not a "camp language"". dawn.com. 17 December 2011. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 5 July 2015. Urdu nouns and adjective can have a variety of origins, such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Pushtu and even Portuguese, but ninety-nine per cent of Urdu verbs have their roots in Sanskrit/Prakrit. So it is an Indo-Aryan language which is a branch of Indo-Iranian family, which in turn is a branch of Indo-European family of languages. According to Dr Gian Chand Jain, Indo-Aryan languages had three phases of evolution beginning around 1,500 BC and passing through the stages of Vedic Sanskrit, classical Sanskrit and Pali. They developed into Prakrit and Apbhransh, which served as the basis for the formation of later local dialects.
  22. ^ Jones, Kenneth (1981). "Religious Identity and the Indian Census," in The Census in British India: New Perspectives, ed. by N.G. Barrier. New Delhi: Manohar. pp. 73–101.
  23. ^ Sumit Sarkar (1983). Modern India, 1885-1947. Macmillan. pp. 85–86. ISBN 978-0-333-90425-1. Archived from the original on 1 August 2023. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  24. ^ John R. McLane (1970). The political awakening in India. Prentice-Hall. Inc, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. p. 105.
  25. ^ Urdu-Hindi Controversy Archived 27 April 2006 at the Wayback Machine, from Story of Pakistan Archived 19 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  26. ^ a b c d e Status Change of Languages by Ulrich Ammon, Marlis Hellinger
  27. ^ Christopher R. King (1994). "Chapter V: The Hindi-Nagari movement" (PDF). One language, two scripts. Oxford University Press. p. 155. ISBN 0-19-563565-5. Archived (PDF) from the original on 27 June 2010. Retrieved 28 February 2015.
  28. ^ Venkatachalapathy, A. R. (20 December 2007). "Tongue tied". India Today. Archived from the original on 6 February 2016. Retrieved 1 January 2016.

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