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The Politics of Language- Rekhta

Languages live and die with human interests. Language does not have with in it to carry itself through public apathy. Language cannot survive vacuum and apathy. One of the biggest loss of the 21st century is the death of languages. While technology has been one cause of it, religious appropriation and attribution is another important reason. Suddenly we have Latin for Christians, Sanskrit for Hindus and Urdu for Muslims.

Absolutist religions have brought clash of civilization to our doorsteps. This reflects in the election of Donald Trump in the US and the books on Islamic supremacy being in best-sellers in France. It is not totally unfounded. Technology connects the mankind in unprecedented manner. Therefore, famines of Bengal in 18th and 19th century could not cause mass transfer of humanity from Asia to Europe nor could most bloody of wars in 7th century push people westwards, as much as it could today. One can easily call names to people who are simplistic and intellectually brow-beat them, but the fact remains that immigration without assimilation is invasion, not immigration. There is an old story of Parsis who landed on the Western coast of India and were brought to the King. When the King questioned them, placing a glass full of milk in front of the refugees, as to how do we accommodate you when my resources are not sufficient for my own people? The immigrant leader took a spoon full of sugar and mixed in the milk. When you land into another country and insist that the local people change their way of life and insist on not only insulting rather changing the existing customs and way of life, insecurity rises. That reflects everywhere.

In the latest edition of Rekhta, an annual event to celebrate Urdu, noted journalist Tarek Fateh was allegedly heckled. It was cited as a proof of intolerance on the part of organizers of Rekhta. There are multiple literary events happen in the country these days, and on all counts, by selection of panels, selection of guests, Rekhta has been the most honest effort for celebrating Urdu or Rekhta. Tarek Fateh is a brave journalist and has suffered much at the hands of authorities in Pakistan. He also calls himself an Indian, considering, like many either side of the border, the partition of India and creation of Pakistan on religious lines a grave folly. I am with him on this, I was with him on changing the name of a road after Aurangzeb.

Tarek Fateh who has vigorously spoken in the past against Urdu and the attempt of Pakistan government to enforce Urdu, as against Punjabi, which he loves, did wander off in the festival to look at Urdu literature, since he was told (as per his tweet) that there were wonderful Urdu books available there on the stalls. He tweeted however later calling Rekhta an Islamist festival. I would believe this was his later thought. Given his history, I would not suppose he would walk into Islamist festival (although given his dislike for Urdu, I do not know why he would walk in to an Urdu festival either). I was in the festival the two days, although, I was not at the place where the incident happened. Probably I was attending the discussion on Urdu in Global literary market at the time it happened. However, if there was hugely violent, Islamist environment; I, for one, did not notice it.

I was there. I am a Hindu and proud one at that. There were volunteers there, I do not suppose all Muslims. No one was checking the religion of the attendees, No one noticed the saffron thread on my wrist. The biggest attractions of the event were Dr. Gopi Chand Narang, great Urdu Scholar, and one Sardar Sampooran Singh Kalra also known to most of the people as Gulzar. Neither of us were heckled, nor were any of my other co-religionists at this supposedly Islamist event. Muslims formed a large number of attendees, there is no denying that. That is possibly because our politicians somewhere feed this into the mind of Indian muslims that Urdu is a Muslim language. As a reactionary response to which Hindus tend to shun Urdu, at least in public, while most Whatsapp inboxes are full of couplets by Ghalib and Meer. Mr. Fateh was not a speaker at the event, so I am not able to understand how his freedom of expression was gagged. If at all, we have an example of gagging of Freedom of expression, it was Salman Rushdie being barred from JLF last year and Taslima Nasreen being barred this year. Media houses have also take to organizing literary fest, which are mostly propaganda fest, with propagandist debates as highlights. Times Litfest had Dr. Swamy and Owaisi debating, neither of them exactly men of literature, ending with ABVP’s Saket Bahuguna debating with Kanhaiyya Kumar of JNU. India Today did another literary festival with TV anchor and journalist interviewing Javed Akhtar, trying to bring the topic time and again to demonetization and feels-like-emergency narrative in current government.

Rekhta on the other hand is least pretentious in this regard. It is pure literature which gets space in Rekhta. And as is the wont of literary minds, it is quite iconoclastic, if not blasphemous. No one seems to mind that. Last event, Javed Akhtar mentioned as to how Muslims are wrongly caught in the stereotype, that they all were descendent of Mughals with all Hindus as their legitimate subjects. He was upfront, witty and dismissive of this nonsensical idea, as he referred to the fact that it was mostly deprived, down-trodden Hindus who converted to Islam and were no way inducted into Mughal aristocracy. The attendees largely where the same as this year and no one hooted him. He got a big applause instead. This time Prof. Irfan Habib quoted an interesting case of UP, where huge hiring was done for promotion of Urdu language. He plainly mentioned that in a meeting with new teachers he found that most of them did not know how to write Urdu and had only one thing in common- they were all Muslims. He also plainly put in front of the people that since giving job to one religion was not possible due to SC guideline, Urdu promotion was a fa├žade used by UP government to give jobs to Muslims who knew nothing about Urdu. At many panels, concerns were raised that attempts were being made to identify Urdu with Muslims, while Urdu did not came from the birthplace of Islam. It came from India. It was termed as  Rekhta, or thrown away, because it was looked down by the purists writers of those days who preferred to write in Persian. An interesting event detailing the journey of Progressive writer’s association, mentioned an anecdote about noted poet, Majaaz. To a great applause the narrator explained how when the poet went to Aligarh, for a lock exhibition (Aligarh is famous for locks), and saw a huge lock at the stall. He asked his friends what that thing was. When his friends responded that it was a Taala (Lock in Urdu/Hindi), he shook his head and responded thoughtfully, “Na, Allahtala”. Will such jokes go in an Islamist event?  An Islamist event will not celebrate Meer who himself wrote about himself- 
Meer ke deen-0-mazhab ko, kya poochte ho unne to, 
kashka khaincha, dair mein baitha, kabka tark-islaam kiya 

(What do we speak of religion of Meer,
he (Meer) who has put on a Tilak, 
sits in a temple and has disowned Islam long time back). 
This man is also called Khuda-e-Rekhta , the God of Urdu, quite blasphemous, no? Can we trust a Hafiz Sayeed to preserve Meer. No Fateh Saab, Fanatics are not cut out to carry forward literature. Rekhta is not an Islamist event.

People have jumped over Rekhta. Outrage builds over outrage. I would only say, please attend Rekhta once. It is not about Urdu only. It is about a language. That language is not a Muslim or foreign language. It is our own language. We made Sanskrit language of Brahmins and killed it. Let us not do it to Urdu. While in western countries, one is not considered cultured enough without the knowledge of Latin, in India, pushing for Sanskrit makes you a Sanghi and pushing for Urdu makes you’re an Islamist. Mr. Tarek Fateh must not look at India as he looked at Pakistan. Urdu is not a contradiction to secularism and local language. Both Urdu, Sanskrit and Hindi are custodians of the jewels of world’s oldest civilization. Languages are too big and important to be left to religious fanatics. Language needs scholars not fanatics. It is sad that right-wing thinkers are jumping into the debate and in process, trying to belittle Urdu. This language has served us well. It gave us writers like Premchand. True writers are bigger than politics and do not go about returning awards because the government is not of their liking. Let us read Urdu, read Ghalib and Meer, and lest you feel offended, instead of outraging against a language, read Dinkar, Kalidas and Nirala as well. Lost languages erase the past and history of a civilization, eventually leaving it rootless. We cannot let this happen to India. A language cannot be appropriated by a religion or an ideology. Left acts as if literature and all things cultural belongs to it, in India. Through our own stupidity, let us not substantiate this fallacy. Religion rides over language and not vice-versa. Religious writings survive centuries not only because they are true, rather, because they are written well. Virginia Woolf wrote- “When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke around me I am in darkness- I am nothing.” This is as true for an individual as it is for a nation and a civilization.
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