Nehru's Word: Urdu is not a rival to Hindi but to a communal mind

'A more insidious form of nationalism is the narrowness of mind... when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority, actually separates them even more'

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

Pointing out the dangers of a narrow nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru warned against the negative impact of the policies being followed with regard to Urdu in many states, treating the language as if it was something dangerous. Nehru reminded his countrymen of Gandhiji’s approach to the language problem and his stress on encouraging Urdu.


"The question of Urdu, and the way it is being treated in many parts of India, has distressed me greatly. This is not only for cultural reasons but even more so for basic political reasons. I could enter into the merits of this question, and I think these merits are very substantial. But in such matters, it is not merely merit that counts but a psychology that is created and the mental reaction that is produced among large numbers of people.

There is no doubt at all that there are large numbers of people who speak and write Urdu. In the Punjab, in Delhi and in the northern UP a very considerable number do so. In many other parts of India there are large groups, especially in the big cities.

In fact, there are such groups all over India and sometimes the numbers are fairly large. I was surprised to find the number of people speaking and writing Urdu in the South, especially in the border regions of Hyderabad and Andhra. When I go there, my language is easily understood by most of the people.

That fact alone is important as showing that Urdu has a certain vitality in India, and creating an impression that we are against it will hurt those large numbers of people and make them feel that we are against something that they cherish. The test of this, as of other matters, is not what we feel about it but what those concerned feel; not what a majority thinks but how a minority reacts, for our objective always is to produce a sense of fulfilment in the minds of the minority.

When I speak of Urdu, I include the Urdu or Persian script. This may be alien to us in some historical sense, but it has been in use in India to a considerable extent for many hundreds of years. It has been and is today a link with the world of Western Asia and partly Central Asia. It connects us politically and otherwise with countries whose friendship is important to us.

From the cultural point of view, Urdu brings in some trends which have in the past strengthened Hindi and in future might well do so. It is of course not a rival of Hindi; it cannot be. It may even gradually lessen in significance in India. That will be a historical development. Gradually, Hindi and Urdu might well approximate in phraseology and structure.

The Nagari script is bound to become much more widespread as it should. But to endeavour to do this by creating an impression of suppressing Urdu and its script is a bad policy and is a narrowing of our cultural outlook. Incidentally, it is opposed to the scheme of our Constitution.

But I am most concerned with the effect produced on large numbers. Even if that effect appears to us to be unreasonable, it is nevertheless a fact to be reckoned with both from the political and the cultural points of view. We have to meet that situation wisely.

There can be no doubt that there is a very strong feeling of distress and frustration, which is not confined to Muslims alone, but which is shared by a considerable number of Hindus and others, in regard to present policies being pursued relating to Urdu and its script.

In some provinces, the governments have taken definite steps to discourage Urdu and have stopped giving aid to schools where Urdu is taught. Many children and their parents who want to learn Urdu have no opportunity of doing so.

Active and aggressive campaigns against Urdu are in progress in many places, as if Urdu were some dangerous enemy in our ranks. If that is so, then we tend to make those who believe in it also feel not only unhappy but rather hostile. I feel strongly on this subject because all my cultural standards are affected by it. Even more so, the future integration of India appears to me to suffer.

Most of us seem to have forgotten the wisdom that inspired Gandhiji in his approach to some of the vital problems of our country. Among them was the language problem and he laid the greatest stress on our encouraging Urdu.

Conditions have changed since then and perhaps we cannot go as far as Gandhiji wanted us to go in this respect. But the basic approach must still be the same and it would be an ill day if we surrendered to popular clamour and prejudice in this or any other matter.

The feeling of nationalism is an enlarging and widening experience for the individual or the nation. More especially, when a country is under foreign domination, nationalism is a strengthening and unifying force. But a stage arrives when it might well have a narrowing influence. Sometimes, as in Europe, it becomes aggressive and chauvinistic and wants to impose itself on other countries and other people.

Every people suffer from the strange delusion that they are the elect and better than all others. When they become strong and powerful, they try to impose themselves and their ways on others. In their attempt to do so, sometimes they overreach themselves, stumble and fall. That has been the fate of the intense nationalism of Germany and Japan.

But a more insidious form of nationalism is the narrowness of mind that it develops within a country, when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority, actually separates them even more…Communal organisations are the clearest examples of extreme narrowness of outlook, strutting about in the guise of nationalism. In the name of unity, they separate and destroy… We have to contend against these forces.”

(Selected and edited by MRIDULA MUKHERJEE, former professor of history at JNU and former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)

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