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Who is Urdu-speaking?

Will someone help me find the origin of the term ‘Urdu-speaking’ – not in academic terms for people living across South Asia or elsewhere but its use in Pakistan’s social and political parlance to define an ethnicity or a nationality? When was it first used and by whom?

How can a somewhat recent term in the English language define a local ‘ethnic’ group in the country? Or is it an ‘ethno-linguistic’ group or even only a ‘linguistic’ group? Or maybe some people thought the term ‘Mohajir’ meaning immigrants sounds derogatory for permanent Pakistanis for three generations; therefore, ‘Urdu-speaking’ should be used instead? Or does the term define people who have a language but not a land?

Let us briefly discuss these questions before moving on to Altaf Hussain’s recent speeches about the rights of those he calls Urdu-speaking immigrants from India.

Urdu is one of the standardised registers of the Hindustani language along with its real sibling Hindi. Hindustani is seen as the lingua franca of northern India and Pakistan. The pluri-centric Hindustani’s Urdu register is associated more with South Asian Muslims even beyond both northern India and what now constitutes Pakistan. For instance, Muslims in places like Gujarat and Maharashtra in western India, Bengal and Assam in eastern India, and Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala in southern India learn and use the Urdu register of Hindustani.

Hindus and people belonging to other faiths may not be associated with the Hindi register of Hindustani in other states outside northern India as much as Muslims are with Urdu. Over the years, it has become Pakistan’s main, rather singular common language of public discourse used across different provinces, nationalities and communities, besides being called the official language.

We must, though, recognise that effectively English remains the official language due to an elite and affluent middleclass-capture of the state. For most people, however, Urdu is the common language in the market, media and the workplace. In the Indian constitution it is one of the twenty odd scheduled languages and the official language in five Indian states.

If a language is so widespread in the Subcontinent and used by so many diverse peoples, how can it be used to define an ethnic or provincial group within Pakistan? In India, if people living in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra have distinct ethnic, state or provincial identities even if they speak Urdu or its associated dialects as either their mother tongue or first language, how can they all become one ‘ethnic’ or ‘ethno-linguistic’ community in Pakistan? If those whose ancestors migrated from different Indian states and who now speak Urdu as their first language are to be seen as people without a defined piece of land within Pakistan, why is the language then the chief language of the whole country?

Besides, what about the millions of others in Pakistan who now use Urdu as their first language and have not come from what is now India? Interestingly, the Gujarati-speaking people in Karachi and other parts of Sindh – who now politically constitute a large part of the so-called Urdu-speaking population of Sindh – have similarities or dissimilarities between their native tongue and Urdu like those that exist between Sindhi and Urdu.

The point I am trying to arrive at is that to use the term ‘Urdu-speaking’ liberally to define the ethnicity of the followers of the MQM is problematic. Many of the party’s followers are successor generations of those who did speak Urdu but also spoke other dialects and languages in India as their native tongues which were as distinct if not more from modern Urdu as Punjabi and Sindhi. Even if they have been Urdu speakers for a few generations, there are many Punjabis, Seraikis, Hindko-speakers and others in Pakistan who have been speaking Urdu as their first language or one of their first languages for at least a couple of generations.

Those Pakistanis who are perfectly bilingual in their mother tongue and Urdu constitute the majority of this country. Urdu is a shared language and the contributions to its literature made by those who do not belong to Delhi and the northern Indian states, from Kashmir and Punjab to Gujarat and Andhra, are overwhelming. A large number of the most significant Urdu poets and fiction writers do not belong to places that were traditionally considered the habitat of Urdu.

If Urdu is the language of a particular ethno-linguistic group in Pakistan, as they claim, then it shouldn’t be the national or official language of the country. (It shouldn’t be known as the only national language anyway. But it does remain the lingua franca.) And if people are struggling for their rights in the name of being Urdu-speaking, then what do they have to say about Urdu being historically pitched against other native Pakistani languages to further the agenda of a unified state rather than a federation with equal rights for all nationalities and languages in our country?

Since the debate about a separate province within Sindh for the Urdu-speaking people or a zoning of the province has unfortunately started again, one is compelled to repeat oneself by saying what was said before in these columns in response to a similar demand made by the MQM leader in 2011. Whatever the political compulsions are for the MQM to retain its power and domination over the two largest urban centres of Sindh, somehow demanding a separate province or even hinting at the creation of a separate state if the rights of the ‘Urdu-speaking’ followers of the MQM are not realised has grave consequences for people across Sindh.

How ironic that the descendants of those South Asian Muslims who championed the cause of creating a country on the basis of a Two-Nation theory – all Muslims living in India are one nation – now insist on having a separate ethno-linguistic identity and demand a dedicated piece of land. The identity they claim to have today does not emanate from any primary characteristics determined by physical, racial or geographic factors. Immigrants came to Sindh from different provinces of India and their bond is based on a shared sense of grievances whipped up by their political leadership much before the MQM was formed.

Some grievances are real but most are wrongly perceived as many across Pakistan live in similar conditions. In fact, the Baloch, the Sindhis and the Seraikis are worse off than those the MQM represents. Who else has had the longest serving governor in the second largest province of the country? The MQM remained in power for more than a decade, controlled formidable resources in Sindh when in provincial or district governments, played – and continues to play – a key role in federal and provincial legislation and decision-making.

Mohajirs from the provinces of British India other than East Punjab, or what the MQM and others wrongly term ‘Urdu-speaking’ now, undoubtedly formed a political identity for themselves in Sindh. But whatever language you speak, if you live in Sindh, you are Sindhi.

Interestingly, when the MQM leader – during his speech in Karachi – asked for zoning Sindh into two, he said people speaking all languages other than Sindhi will live peacefully in his zone. The facts are completely contrary to what he said. It is, in fact, the Pakhtuns, the Baloch and the MQM who have been fighting tooth and nail over land and resources in Karachi over the past few years.

There is no basis for dividing or zoning Sindh on ethnic or linguistic lines. The MQM should toil for the rights of Sindh as a whole as it did at the time of the last NFC awards for the distribution of resources between the federation and the provinces. Perhaps the real divide in Pakistan today is between the product of Sindhi and Urdu-medium schooling and mindset, who struggle to survive, and the product and mindset of the affluent English-medium, who continue to rule.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad. Email: harris.khalique@gmail.com

Harris Khalique, "Who is Urdu-speaking?," The News. 2014-01-08.
Keywords: Social sciences , English language , Urdu language , Decision making , NFC Award , Muslims , Languages , Altaf Hussain , Pakistan , Gujarat , India , Sindh , MQM