March 29, 2020
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When Language Unites

Ever since - or at least from the times leading to - Partition, Hindi and Urdu have always been pitched as hostile to each other. A US campus initiative seeks to bridge the gap.

When Language Unites

Every UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) student has heard numerous boasts about UCLA’s diversity, but few have seen concrete examples of intergroup communication and bonding. Thus, I am greatly pleased to announce that there is at least one class on campus that bridges the gap between two places that have been no less than mortal enemies for decades: the foreign language class, Hindi-Urdu.

Hindi and Urdu are near-identical languages spoken in India and Pakistan, the two countries embittered by the violent partition in 1947 on the basis of religion. Religious tension between Hindus and Muslims dates back to the reign of the Muslim Mughals in India and finally came to a head after independence from the British. Even today, the children of Indian and Pakistani immigrants are often exposed to sentiments that demonise or alienate the other, whether through the news media, films, or their families. After Partition, Hindi (in addition to English) became the official language of India while Urdu became the national language of Pakistan – many people actually believe that it was only then that the two were sought to be made more distinct.

The two languages have identical grammar, and, at the conversational level, the vocabulary is the same. Only in formal scenarios do the two spoken languages diverge – where Hindi borrows words from Sanskrit while Urdu borrows from Persian and Arabic. Since such language is rarely used -- other than in "official" news channels or documents -- and is often even unintelligible to native speakers, the UCLA program only teaches the most common-spoken tongue. The scripts are also different, with Hindi using Devanagari and Urdu using Nastaliq (a Perso-Arabic script). However, this is just a matter of representation; varying scripts have no effect on oral communication. The Hindi-Urdu program teaches both scripts.

Despite the glaring fact that the two languages are really one language where it matters, universities across the nation (including UC Berkeley) continue to teach the two languages separately, causing a great deal of hostility between Hindi and Urdu students where the language is taught as such.

“The anecdote is that at Berkeley, people don’t even talk to each other,” said linguistics and Hindi-Urdu professor Gyanam Mahajan. “(It is) really ridiculous that students who come to a major university (can) be so ignorant and stupid as to not interact with each other. ... Our emphasis on creating a community is directly violated if we separate out Hindi and Urdu.”

Most universities probably won’t admit it, but teaching the two languages separately is far more political than practical as it divides students on utterly arbitrary national and religious lines. At schools like UC Berkeley, Indian or Hindu students take Hindi while Pakistani or Muslim students take Urdu – whether or not they have any prior knowledge of the language. Students who do not belong in any of these groups are blindly forced to choose one largely based on loose understandings of the two.

This does absolutely nothing to promote diversity or community bonding, one of the most basic reasons for teaching foreign languages in the first place. And if top American universities choose to divide American students – who may be unaware of why the two languages are separated – along political lines, what hope can there be for reconciliation between Indians and Pakistanis? There is no harm in teaching the classes together, but certainly great harm in teaching them separately.

Tejpal Ajji, a first-year student in the art department currently in Hindi-Urdu 3 and who does not fall into a neat national category, said, “Hindi and Urdu do not belong to Hindus and Muslims. ... If one continues along the religious register then we have to consider, well, where do the Sikhs fit in, where do the Jains and Parsis fit in, who also speak this language of Hindi-Urdu? What this course allows us to do is think very critically about the languages that get ascribed to a certain people and a certain geography.”

Although the most salient reason for teaching Hindi-Urdu as one class may be its identical conversational form, there are numerous other critical reasons why a consolidated class is beneficial. The combined Hindi-Urdu language is the third or fourth (depending on the estimate) most widely spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish; the Urdu script is highly useful since it uses a modified form of Arabic, the second most commonly used alphabet system in the world; and being able to cite fluency in two languages instead of one looks impressive on anyone’s resume.

“If you think that Hindi and Urdu are different, fine! It’s buy one, get one free,” said Mahajan.

The class also allows Indian- and Pakistani-Americans to embrace a unique South Asian identity that citizens of those countries are not afforded: In today’s global world, such an identity is more useful than either the Indian or Pakistani identity alone and is also far more conciliatory. As Americans, we have the unique opportunity to stretch the national identities we are born with by becoming advocates for the common South Asian identity.

UCLA hosts the largest Hindi-Urdu program in the nation in terms of enrollment. Yet, unlike at other universities, there has only ever been one professor involved in it – Professor Mahajan – making it a relatively low-maintenance program. Still, it has been plagued by the budget cuts and risks elimination next year.

The discontinuation of this class would be a deep loss not only to the school but also to the national and the world community. And UCLA would no longer be able to boast the program as an exemplar for other schools to follow.

For now, UCLA should be immensely proud that it is one of few universities willing to challenge the ideological division between India and Pakistan, Indians and Pakistanis. Mahatma Gandhi, who was against the partition, wanted Hindi and Urdu to be referred to as one common language named “Hindustani.” Unfortunately, this never truly materialized.

By teaching two major languages of the countries together in a neutral academic setting – indeed, by forcing Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans to sit next to each other and discover their commonalities – UCLA takes a much-needed step in eradicating stereotypes and dissolving tensions between the two national identities.


This article was first published in Daily Bruin and appears here with the author's consent


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