Hindi–Urdu controversy

Status change of languages
Urdu replaces Persian 1837[1]
Urdu and English made official languages of the British Raj 1857
Hindi granted equal status to Urdu in the United Provinces 1900
Urdu declared sole national language in Pakistan 1948[1]
Hindi granted separate status and official precedence over Urdu and all other languages in the Republic of India 1950
Urdu (top) and Hindi (middle) along with English (bottom) on a road sign in India

The Hindi–Urdu controversy is an ongoing dispute—dating back to the 19th century—regarding the status of Hindi and Urdu as a single language, Hindustani (lit "of Hindustan"), or as two dialects of a single language, and the establishment of a single standard language in certain areas of North India. Although this debate was officially settled by a government order in 1950, declaring Hindi as the official language, some resistance remains. The present notion among some Muslims about this dispute is that Hindus abandoned the Urdu language, whereas some Hindus claim that Urdu was artificially created during Muslim rule.[2]

Hindi is a literary register of the Hindustani language, derived from the Khariboli dialect of the Hindi languages. 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.[3][not in citation given] Urdu, along with English, became the first official language of British India in 1850.[4][5] Urdu was being written, spoken and translated to and from English in all courts, schools, official documents, and government institutes. Although the need to have a language for Hindus developed in the 1850s, the irrevocable momentum of the Hindi language movement occurred around 1880. Urdu is a name derived from the Turkic word ordu (army) or orda. When the Turco-Persian Mughals who invaded the Indian subcontinent made camps, the colloquial Persian spoken by the soldiers, known as the "language of the camp", or "Zaban-i-Ordu", became gradually more and more Indianised, as they themselves settled and married into the local communities, until the dialect they spoke was readily intelligible to the native Hindu population.

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" protagonists 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; Syed Ahmed Khan was one of its noted advocates.

In 1900, the Government issued a decree granting symbolic equal status to both Hindi and Urdu, which was opposed by Muslims and received with jubilation by Hindus.[citation needed] 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 the official language of India during the institution of the Indian constitution in 1950.


The main cause of this divide may be attributed to the aspirations of both communities (Hindu and Muslim) to spread their cultural views, which became open contention during Indian independence. Muslims have mostly looked towards their Muslim Ummah for cultural inspiration whereas Hindus generally get inspiration from the ancient cultures such as that of the Vedic. During the rule of Muslims in the subcontinent, often having been Turkic and Afghan, a number of people who converted to Islam readily adopted aspects of the culture of the Turko-Afghan conquerors and rulers brought with them. Persian at that time was considered a prestigious and important language in many parts of Islamic world like Central Asia, which they thus brought with them. The founders of Islamic rule in India were from different ethnic backgrounds viz. Turks, Mongols, Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, etc. and all of them used Persian as their lingua franca and court language. In general, from its earliest days foreign Muslim culture was imported and patronised in the subcontinent by Turks and Afghans, laying the firm basis for what would, eventually, develop further under the Mughals.[6] Hindus considered these things as an alien culture. With the passage of time things like Sanskrit language, Dhoti, Ayurveda etc. came to be associated with Hindus, and Arabic, Persian, Chaghatai, Yunani medicine with Muslims.[7] There also came to be differences in the cuisine and culture of two communities.

As the Muslim rule spread in the northern subcontinent, Hindustani interacted with various vernaculars and introduced Persian and Arabic words into local languages and absorbed local vocabulary, and over a period of time developed into a distinct spoken language. Urdu in the Persian script became the language of the courts of Muslim rulers during the eighteenth century. It developed from the Khariboli dialect of the Delhi area with an infusion of words from Arabic and Persian. The modern vocabulary is derived from Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit, together with Prakrit.[8] Hindi also developed from Khariboli, albeit with the assimilation of words from local languages and Sanskrit, and a smaller component of Arabic and Persian words.

Several factors contributed to the increasing divergence of Hindi and Urdu. The Muslim rulers chose to write Hindustani in Perso-Arabic script instead of Devanagari script. 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[9]


British language policy[]

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 Urdu script was chosen as the replacement for Persian, rather than Hindi in the Devanagari script.[9][11] This was done despite the fact that the great majority of people in the northern plains of India were Hindu with an affinity for Hindi and for the Devanagri script. Why exactly this decision was taken is unclear.

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[]

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.[13] 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][14]

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.[14] 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.[9][14] 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 for the advocacy of Urdu.[9] 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 Ahmed 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[]

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.[9] 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.[14]

Muslim nationalism[]

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.[9]

Linguistic purism[]

Because of linguistic purism and its orientation towards the pre-Islamic past, Hindi and especially its standard literary form has removed many Persian, Arabic and Turkic loanwords and replaced them with borrowings from Sanskrit (that is, from its own ancestral form). Conversely, Urdu retains the Perso-Arabic words that were introduced into the Khariboli dialect during Muslim rule and in formal settings employs far more Perso-Arabic words than in vernacular Khariboli.

Hindi to Urdu[]

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.[15] 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 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.[16] 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.[14]

See also[]


"Indo-Persian Literature and Amir Khusrau, University of Delhi - PDF

  1. ^ a b Maria Isabel Maldonado Garcia (2015). Urdu Evolution and Reforms. Punjab University Department of Press and Publications, Lahore, Pakistan. p. 223.
  2. ^ Abdul Jamil Khan (2006). Urdu/Hindi: an artificial divide. Algora. p. 290. ISBN 978-0-87586-437-2.
  3. ^ "A Historical Perspective of Urdu". National Council for Promotion of Urdu language. Archived from the original on 11 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-15.
  4. ^ Coatsworth, John (2015). Global Connections: Politics, Exchange, and Social Life in World History. United States: Cambridge Univ Pr. p. 159. ISBN 9780521761062.
  5. ^ Tariq Rahman (2011). "Urdu as the Language of Education in British India" (PDF). Pakistan Journal of History and Culture. NIHCR. 32 (2): 1–42.
  6. ^ Sigfried J. de Laet. History of Humanity: From the seventh to the sixteenth century UNESCO, 1994. ISBN 9231028138 p 734
  7. ^ The New Cambridge History of India, Volumes 3–5, page 180
  8. ^ Maria Isabel Maldonado Garcia, Mustafa Yapici (2014). "Common Vocabulary in Urdu and Turkish Languages. A Case of Historical Onomasiology" (PDF). 15 (1). Journal of Pakistan Vision: 193–225.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Language, Religion and Politics in North India by Paul R. Brass, Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated, ISBN 978-0-595-34394-2
  10. ^ Sumit Sarkar (1983). Modern India, 1885-1947. Macmillan. pp. 85–86. ISBN 978-0-333-90425-1.
  11. ^ John R. McLane (1970). The political awakening in India. Prentice-Hall. Inc, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. p. 105.
  12. ^ a b c Religious Controversy in British India by Kenneth W. Jones, p124, ISBN 0-7914-0827-2 Google book
  13. ^ Urdu-Hindi Controversy, from Story of Pakistan.
  14. ^ a b c d e Status Change of Languages by Ulrich Ammon, Marlis Hellinger
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Venkatachalapathy, A. R. (December 20, 2007). "Tongue tied". India Today.

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