A paper on the primacy of language in the

formation of identities.

An exploration of the relationship between

language, territory, and religion.

copyright 1996









If the predominance of secondary texts impedes the connectedness of a language with its people, then all languages that have escaped “academic-journalistic interposition” may be fuller and more natural expressions of a people. And since, "to speak of the generation and condition of language, is to speak of that of man," the story of a language such as Urdu—-full of reversals and regeneration—-may provide us a closer look at the processes that form identities. Language, together with religion, and territory—-all three, usually not chosen, and invariably, acquired at a very early and formative age—-reside at the core of identity. Though central, and fundamental, the idea of the self cannot exist without, at the same time, creating the idea of the other.

The beginnings of Urdu as a language can be traced back to the year 1027 when Mahmud of Ghazni annexed the Punjab and settled his army in Lahore. However, it took 800 years from its inception for the language to form itself, develop, create its own literature, become a distinct world-view, and to be installed as the language of the royal court. But the arrival of the British and the establishment of their rule saw the creation of a new style of Urdu to “satisfy the social and religious needs of the Hindus.” Hindus mobilized support for the replacement of Urdu with this new language that came to be known as Hindi. By 1872 Hindi Prachar Sabhas (Societies for the propagation of Hindi) had sprung up in several cities. Muslims denied that Urdu was a Muslim language and bitterly opposed the introduction of Hindi. Thus, even before the birth of the Indian National Congress in 1885, the seeds of a discord that would ultimately split the Indian nation were already sown. After almost a thousand years of living together, the Hindus and Muslims could not resolve their linguistic differences even in the face of a sustained freedom struggle against a common enemy. Distinct early signs of trouble between communities are invariably provided by language since it “crystallizes the inner history, the specific world-view of the Volk or nation.”

In post-independence India Urdu became one of the recognized languages though it could not find a territory--a state that would adopt it as its own exclusive currency. However, it has held its own because of its long association with popular culture thereby granting the people, access not only to an additional literature but to a whole new world of food, architecture, dress, dance, music, painting, culture and etiquette, providing them with a “second window on the landscape of being.”

While linguists still debate whether or not Hindi and Urdu are two different languages, the two continue to race away from each other. But a repeating pattern of history is overtaking them. As multiple and overlapping identities emerge, as new worlds are born and collapse, as new attitudes and new languages surface from the depths of human experience, it is yet to be seen as to what will constitute the ethnicities of the future. What will become the center of the self?


Ashok Ahuja 1996

The long paper was read at public lectures at the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions on February 13, 1996, and at the Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame on February 14, 1996.

This research is being further pursued.


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