Speech by Dr. J. Bhagwati, High Commissioner of India to the UK at Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on 7 May 2013

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1 Speech by Dr. J. Bhagwati, High Commissioner of India to the UK at Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on 7 May 2013 Languages of the Ruling Elite of Northern India : From Past to Present Professor Farhan Nizami, Professor Raychaudhuri, Ladies and Gentlemen, It is a privilege to address this distinguished audience at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. This Centre s credentials for promoting an informed understanding of Islam are widely respected. In India, the profundity and beauty of Islam have been internalised over more than a millennium. Islam speaks to us in India through its teachings and also through art, architecture, music and most literally through several Indian languages. As you may be aware, India s many languages have been enriched by Persian, Turkish and Arabic and the process of absorption and diffusion of related cultures across India was fascinating. 2. The topic for our interaction today is languages of the ruling elite of Northern India : from past to present. And, the history of our languages provides insights into the changing mosaic of Indian society over time. I must add at the outset that I am not a scholar of Indian history or our languages. Hence I apologise in advance to academics at this gathering for any errors of detail or interpretation. I urge the audience to focus on the overall drift of my presentation. 3. In India, as is true in other parts of the world, the language of the elite is not necessarily the language of the masses. India s past is replete with instances of foreign invasions and conquests. It was logical for new rulers to encourage the use of languages imported from their ancestral lands. I will talk about the languages of the past in a little bit. 1

2 First, I would like to briefly cover the many languages which are alive in India today. 4. Contrary to the perception in some quarters, Hindi is not the National Language of India. When India gained Independence in 1947, the framers of the Constitution had a delicate task at hand. They had to not only preserve and foster political unity but also acknowledge the reality of our linguistic diversity. The initial proposal to adopt Hindi as National Language became contentious and was dropped. The fiercest opposition came from southern India and Bengal in eastern India where regional languages have a long literary tradition. Hindi was, therefore, accorded the status of Official rather than the National Language and English was made an associate official Language. The opposition to Hindi in certain non-hindi speaking states also led Government of India to allow correspondence in English between the Union Government and non-hindi speaking states. 5. By the same logic, although the business of the national Parliament is usually transacted in Hindi or in English, Members of Parliament can opt to speak in their mother-tongue. The language of the law in India is predominantly English as we have inherited our judicial system from Britain. Our Constitution stipulates that English is to be used in the Supreme Court and also in High Courts. However, in some subordinate courts local languages are allowed. 6. In addition to Hindi and English, regional languages have been given official language status by including them in the 8 th schedule of the Constitution. They are called scheduled languages and are spoken by around 97% of the Indian population and India has 22 such scheduled languages. In addition, India has another 100 or so non-scheduled languages which though not listed exhaustively in the Constitution are recognised by Government. It is because of the rich and the continuous 2

3 influence of Islam through the medium of Arabic and Persian that they are included as non-scheduled Indian languages. 7. India s 28 states and seven Union Territories have the right to adopt Hindi or any language used in their territories as their official language or languages and every Indian state has its specific language policy. The official language of a state need not be one of those listed in the Eighth Schedule and several states have adopted official languages which are not so listed. Examples include French in Pondicherry and Portuguese in Goa. 8. While India can be proud of the width and depth of its linguistic diversity, we are concerned about losing some 196 languages and dialects as per UNESCO s Atlas For Languages in Danger. Government of India is taking steps to revive such languages. 9. The Indian languages which are vibrantly alive are written in 11 distinctly separate scripts. These are Devnagari for Sanskrit & Hindi, Perso-Arabic for Urdu, Gurmukhi for Punjabi, Gujarati, Assamese- Bengali, Oriya, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam and Roman. This, in extremely broad-brush terms, is the current status of languages in India. 10. I do not want to make a case that is India is an exception. However, just this information about our many highly developed languages provides a sense of just how complex it is to administer India, which is a deeply heterogeneous democracy. Please take a look at a map of today s India which shows its States and respective languages. 3

4 Punjabi Urdu, Punjabi Dogri (Himachal & Jammu border Nepali, Bhotia Assamese Arunachal -English H I N D I English Gujarati Bengali Mizo Oriya Marathi Telugu Kannada Malayalam Tamil 4

5 11. I would now like to go back more than two thousand years in time and speak about Indian languages of that era. Emperor Ashok ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent and eastern Afghanistan between 269 BC and 233 BC. I draw your attention to a map which shows the extent of his empire. It is a popular belief that after inflicting a savage defeat on the people of Kalinga (modern state of Orissa in East India) Emperor Ashok was so overcome with remorse that he became a Buddhist. Around this time, Buddhism challenged the orthodoxies of Vedic Hinduism. Ashok propagated Buddha s teachings by inscribing edicts on the faces of cliffs, rocks and pillars. Ashok s inscriptions used three different languages and four different scripts. The most important and the largest in number are composed in Prakrit, a non-standard vernacular language of north India of that time and interestingly Ashok had a few inscribed in Greek and Aramaic as well. The scripts used for Prakrit inscriptions were Brahmi and Kharoshti as also Greek and Aramaic. Inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic should not be surprising since Greek and Aramaic speaking people had settled in the region. The province of Gandhara (present day Peshawar) was part of the Iranian Achaemenidempire in 6 th century BC and would have probably used Aramaic. 5

6 ASHOK EMPIRE 6

7 12. Prakrit as a language has now caught the attention of Indian and Western scholars after long years of neglect. The renewed interest in this language is because we have access to a large pool of information from manuscripts in this language. After Ashok s rule Prakrit was used for inscriptions for a few more centuries. 13. The next great empire in Indian history was that of the Gupta period, which was a dominant political force throughout northern India from around 4 th century AD to 6 th century AD. Historians have viewed this period as one of thriving commerce, prosperity, creativity and sophisticated culture. Guptas patronised Sanskrit which included secular literature, poetry and art of which Kalidas Sanskrit plays and poems are well-known examples. The Guptas built and endowed temples and wrote inscriptions in Sanskrit. Sanskrit became the language of the elite, of political power and high culture and displaced Prakrit from its preeminence which may, however, have continued to be spoken by commoners. It is believed that it was during the Gupta period that two great Sanskrit epics Mahabharat and Ramayan acquired a written form. Of course, the four Vedas, 200 Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita go back to at least 1000BC. These important Hindu philosophical texts were mostly in old Sanskrit and usually passed down from one generation to another through an oral tradition. Present day Indian languages in the North, East and West but not the South are derived from Sanskrit. In the South, Malayalam and Kannada, which are Dravidian languages and were perhaps somewhat influenced by Panini s Sanskrit grammar. However, Tamil and Telugu have more strictly Dravidian roots. 7

8 GUPTA EMPIRE 8

9 14. Fast-forwarding and turning to Delhi, it was founded around 8 th century AD by a Hindu king AnangpalTomar of a warrior clan popularly called Rajputs. This clan ruled Delhi till 1192 AD when the last Rajput King PrithvirajChauhan was defeated by an Afghan ruler Mohammad Gori. Prithviraj became a cult figure among Hindu Rajputs and stands eulogised by his court poet Chand Birdai in the Dingal language. Linguists believe that Dingal was a Hindi dialect and the first such dialect to achieve literary prominence. It is likely that over the four hundred years of their rule, Rajputs used early Hindi dialects including Dingal and Apabhramsha. Apabhramsha, which some regard as a version of Prakrit may have been a progenitor of the Hindi language. There are few confirmed records about Rajput languages and the conventional belief is that literary works of that period may have been destroyed after Mohammad Gori defeated PrithvirajChauhan in 1192 AD. 15. Gori handed Delhi to his trusted slave QutubiddinAibak who after the death of Gori in 1206 crowned himself the Sultan of Delhi and laid the foundation of a dynasty which lasted till 1290 AD. For the next 200 years or so till 1526 AD, the Delhi Sultanate witnessed the emergence and downfall of four other dynasties : the Khiljis ( ), the Tughlaqs( ), the Sayids( ) and the Lodhis ( ). 16. Although the rulers of Delhi s Sultanate were mainly of Turkish origin, the court language for over three hundred years of the Delhi Sultanate was essentially Persian. Rulers of the Delhi Sultanate such as Firoz Shah Tughlaq and SikandarLodhi are credited with getting literary works translated from Sanskrit to Persian. SikanderLodhi who was also a poet attracted many scholars to his court and it is under his patronage that the first book on Indian music in Persian the Lahjat-I- 9

10 SikanderShahi was written based on existing Sanskrit manuscripts. Another interesting work of this time was a voluminous book on medicine titled Ma'dan-ul-Shifa or Tibb-i-Sikanadari, in which theories and prescriptions of Indian medicine were consolidated. 17. The Delhi Sultanate ended when the last king of the Lodhi dynasty Ibrahim was defeated by Babur, of Ferghana Valley and Samarkhand fame (both located in the present day central Asian republic of Uzbekistan) in the Battle of Panipat in 1526 AD which also laid the foundation of Mughal rule in India. Although the Mughals were from Central Asia and spoke Turki and the Babur Nama was written in Turkish, their court language and language of bureaucracy was Persian. There was robust patronage of Persian music and literature throughout the Mughal period. Babur s grandson Akbar had a profound and philosophical interest in art, literature, poetry and religion. His famous court poet AbulFazl wrote classics in Persian and two popular ones were A-i-niAkbari& Akbar Nama. 18. It is during Akbar s time that many Hindus who initially did not take kindly to Persian began to use this language. Akbar s policy of Sulh-e Kul (Peace to all) in Persian won him many Hindu friends and admirers. His Hindu Revenue Minister Todar Mal called upon fellow Hindus to support the language of the court and administration. It is possible that during this period, local languages and the Persian used in Delhi borrowed freely from each other. 19. Trading links between Arab lands and Western India go back at least 1500 years. The language of the Holy Quran is Arabic and after the advent of Islam Arabic words and inscriptions spread all over India and particularly in the kingdoms of Muslim rulers. For instance, the famous Taj Mahal has inscriptions in Arabic. Although Arabic words were assimilated into Indian languages throughout the country and 10

11 particularly the northern States Arabic did not get the same primacy in administration as Persian. 20. It seems that during Mughal rule, while Persian remained the language of the court, the indigenization of Persian and inclusion of Arabic words continued. Akbar is also credited with patronising Hindi poets and Faizi is credited with writing in Braj, a Hindi dialect. Akbar s policy of building political alliances with Rajput kings by marrying Hindu princesses also led to the import of various Hindi dialects into the royal household and explains the interest of the Mughals in Hindi poetry. 21. This tradition of promoting Persian and local languages continued till the rule of Shahjahan, Akbar s grandson who remained in power till It is believed that he and his eldest son, DaraShikoh who was an erudite scholar had several Upanishads translated from Sanskrit to Persian and composed verses in the spoken language of the people. This led to the Hindi language and literature acquiring decorum in the court and royal harem. Consequently, it is not surprising that JaganNath a Hindi poet was conferred the title of MahaKavi i.e. a Great Poet by Shahjahan. 22. To sum up, while Persian remained the language of both literature and empire, Mughal rulers supported versions of Hindi and Sanskrit texts and encouraged Persian translations of Sanskrit literature. The influx of numerous Persian writers from outside India continued and local talent too became well versed in Persian. 23. Aurangzeb, after Shahjahan, was less interested in art or literature and continually busy with military campaigns, whichextended the Mughal empire (map showing the Mughal Empire during Aurangzeb s reign). The British East India Company seized the initiative to fill the power 11

12 vacuum post Aurangzeb at the start of the 18 th century. However, through the 18 th century the prestige of the Persian language continued despite the rapid decline of the Mughal Empire. 12

13 AURANGZEB S EMPIRE 13

14 24. Over time British domination eventually brought about significant linguistic changes. In the 1830s, English replaced Persian at higher levels of administration and Indian vernaculars were used at lower levels. In the Presidencies of Bombay and Madras, English and Indian vernaculars replaced Persian by In 1838, the Bengal Presidency mandated that vernacular languages would replace Persian for districts under its jurisdiction i.e. Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. In the North Western Provinces Urdu replaced Persian by

15 BRITISH INDIA 15

16 25. Urdu, an Indian language, which had borrowed from Persian, Arabic, Turkish and vernacular languages is closely affiliated to Hindi. They are similar in phonology and grammar. However, Urdu uses a modified form of the Perso-Arabic script while Hindi uses Devnagari. The history of the language of administration in India in the 19 th century is an account of contending arguments, namely whether Hindustani (a loose combination of Urdu and Hindi) in Persian script or Hindustani in Devnagari script should become the official vernacular. British policies were inconsistent and if conspiracy theories are to be believed these policies created an artificial distancing between the two languages. A W. Croft, an Inspector of Schools in Bihar, writing about "Hindi as the Court Language of Bihar," in June 1875 said: To call Hindi and Urdu two languages is to perpetuate a vicious error.they have the same syntax, and the same stock of words for most simple objects and conceptions. 26. All through the 20 th century,before and after India s Independence, differences of opinion stemming from linguistic chauvinism have occasionally caused controversies.on balance, most Indians agree that the many languages in which we express ourselves have profoundly enriched our literature, culture and thinking. To conclude, my sense is that it is the same spirit of accommodation and synthesis which marked the evolution of our languages in the past which will help India to pursue development and excellence in the future. Thank you for your attention. 16

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