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The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India

The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India
Item Code: NAF598
Author: Kavita Saraswathi Datla
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788125050186
Pages: 244 (2 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.5 inch X 6.5 inch
weight of the book: 470 gms

About the Book

During the turbulent period prior to colonial India’s Partition and Independence, Muslim intellectuals in Hyderabad sought to secularize and reformulate their linguistic, historical, religious, and literary traditions for the sake of a newly conceived national public. Responding to the model of secular education introduced to south Asia by the British, Indian academics in princely Hyderabad launched a spirited debate about the reform of Islamic education, the importance of education in the spoken languages of the country, the shape of Urdu and its past, and the significance of the histories of Islam and India for their present.

The Language of Secular Islam pursues an alternative account of the political disagreements between Hindus and Muslim in South Asia, conflicts too often described as the product of primordial and unchanging attachment to religion. The author suggests that the political struggles of Indian in the 1930s, the very decade in which the demand for Pakistan began to be articulated, should not be understood as the product of an inadequate or incomplete secularism, but as the clashing of competing secular agendas. Her work explores negotiations over language, education, and religion at Osmania University, the first university in India to use a modern Indian language (Urdu) as its medium of instruction in all academic subjects.

Grounded in close attention to historical evidence, The Language of Secular Islam has broad ramifications for some of the most difficult issues currently debated in the humanities and social sciences: the significance, the inclusions and exclusions and enacted by nationalist projects, the place of minorities in the forging of Indian nationalism, and the relationship between religion and modern political.

This book will be of interest to historians of colonial India, scholars of religion, and all who follow language politics. Kavita Datla is assistant professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, USA.


No university logo better expresses a commitment to linguistic diversity than that of Osmania University. Unfurling banners at its bottom declare Osmania Vishwavidyalayamu, Osmania University in Telugu. The motto at the top, tamso ma jyotirgamay- lead us from darkness into light -is drawn from the Sanskrit Brhadarnyaka Upanishad and is written in the Devanagari script (the same script used to write modern Hindi). At its center is the solitary letter 'ain, the Urdu-and Perso-Arabic-e-letter with which the name Osmania begins. The appearance of English in the logo comes as no great surprise since Osmania University is located in the city of Hyderabad, a city of over eight million people known internationally as an English-language business hub. Given that Osmania University is an English-medium university, a fact in keeping with the near-absolute dominance of the English language in Indian higher education, the proliferation of language and scripts in its logo is perhaps puzzling.

The presence of several Indian languages is meaningful only when considered against the background of the unique and politically charged history of language discussions in South Asia. South Asia's modern history is characterized by persistent political demands that vernacular languages be, accorded recognition, prestige, and patronage, not simply to fulfill the identitarian claims of varied publics but also to fulfill the promises of democracy itself. Discussions of language in South Asia have always been bound up in larger questions of access to education, opportunity, and political debate and in questions of who is allowed to speak on behalf of particular language communities and how. Languages have been and continue to be mobilized for the sake of specific political agendas even as they become a site from which, to think through political possibilities and consider the very success and failure of democratic politics on the subcontinent.'

So the languages of Osmania University are registered in its logo as some-thing more than an effort to represent its student constituencies; they also gesture at the city's and the university's roles in some of the most important events in the political history of Indian languages. At its founding, Osmania was a vernacular university. Departing dramatically from the practice of the colonial state, it was the first public university to use a modern Indian language as its medium of instruction in all subjects, from science and medicine to history and the humanities. The language that it employed, Urdu (associated with the subcontinent's Muslim community), vied with Hindi (associated with Hindus) for status as a national language in colonial India. After independence and partition; as Urdu became the national language of Pakistan, the question of a national language for India continued to loom; especially in the 1950s and 1960s, language move- ments concerned with what would happen to India's other vernacular languages (and the people who spoke them) in the shadow-of Hindi erupted in various quarters of the country, posing significant challenges to the stability of Indian democracy.' Hyderabad became the capital of the first linguistically demarcated state, Andhra Pradesh, which was established for Telugu speakers. The establishment of Andhra Pradesh inaugurated a larger political redrawing of the map of Indian states and created nationally) recognized provincial arenas in which to fulfill language demands and aspirations. With this reorganization of states on a linguistic basis in the 195Os, the-central government was able to contain- successfully, many scholars argue-some of the energy of separatist movements that threatened national stability in the early decades of independence.

Prior to independence, and the incorporation of Hyderabad into the Republic of India, the logo of Osmania University was written entirely in Urdu, crowned not with Sanskrit but with lofty Arabic. It is in its postindependence history that the Arabic language disappeared altogether and Urdu was scaled down to only a single somehow illegible letter. This book attempts to recover the solitary letter 'ail lying at the center of the Osmania University logo in order to understand its significance for the history of colonial India and that of Indian nationalism. In India today, Urdu is associated almost exclusively with Muslims; in Hyderabad, it is associated predominantly with the old city, its past, and not with university campuses and their part in forging the city's future. Contrary to the expectations created by such a parochial image of Urdu, the history of Osmania University and its use of this language in the decades be-fore India's independence is central to understanding the larger political issues entailed by recourse to and engagement with vernacular languages in modern South Asia. This history is essential for understanding several things: the effects of and responses to English education in colonial India-understanding, in other words, the consequences of colonial education; the complex engagement of Indians in the modern era with their own vernacular and classical (Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit) languages and literary traditions; the place of language in the forging of Indian nationalism; and ultimately also the cultural and political negotiations that accompanied nationalism on the eve of independence.

Colonial education forced a reevaluation of non-Western scholarly and literary traditions both by British administrators and Indian subjects. It is by looking at the work of the mostly Muslim educators of Osmania University in the 1920s and 1930s, the high period of anticolonial nationalism, that one can begin to understand how Muslim literary, linguistic, and scholarly forms were negotiated in the late colonial period, as well as begin to understand the larger cultural and political possibilities that attended the move toward Indian and Pakistani independence. What I hope to explain in this book is how Urdu and Arabic (with all their associations with Islam and Muslims) could have stood at the center of the nation-building enterprise at Osmania University in the period before independence and how that history, as in fact the Urdu and Arabic languages in the logo, came to be elided as India and Pakistan became independent.

Secular Education and Language

In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the law member of the Council of the Council of India, famously declared that “a single shelf of a European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,! Often cited for its resounding dismissal of non-European literary traditions, Macaulay's intervention in language debates was specifically intended to shape educational policy. While Macaulay's pronouncement about the superiority of English literature, and ultimately English education, over that of Indian languages did not go uncontested either in official British circles or among Indians, this was a fateful moment in the history of Indian education. Although the teaching and study of Indian languages in British-funded educational institutions never disappeared, the system of higher education developed by the British in India over the course of the nineteenth century came to prioritize the English language as a medium of instruction and as a subject for study. Though institutions of higher learning like the Madrasa and Sanskrit College in Calcutta, the Sanskrit College in Benares, Delhi College, and later Punjab University offered an education through the medium of Oriental languages (Sanskrit, Arabic, and Urdu), the attempt to teach the modern sciences in Oriental languages met with limited and fleering success? The general trend of higher education in India was toward English-medium universities and colleges, especially with the foundation in 1857 of the Universities of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, which as degree-granting institutions served as the linchpin and institutional core of a proliferating set of affiliated colleges.

Macaulay's minute came at a moment between initial experiments with Oriental languages in Indian colleges and the English-medium university sys- tem that was to become dominant in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It contributed to a discussion among British officials about whether the English East India Company should patronize the teaching and study of English or Indian languages-a discussion conducted in stark contrasts. By Indian languages, Macaulay and many of his colleagues considered seriously only Sanskrit and Arabic, the classical languages of South Asian education, and the eastern languages already patronized by the British at the Madrasa and Sanskrit College in Calcutta. Macaulay admitted that the study of Oriental languages like Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit might provide some access to great works of imagination, especially in poetry (though even here he asserted the superiority of the Western poetic tradition), as well as allow the company to fulfill the directives of Parliament to ascertain and digest the laws of India But he added, When we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable,? It was therefore, according to Macaulay, precisely as a language of education, a language in which facts were recorded and principles investigated, that English distinguished itself.

Macaulay's taking only the classical South Asian languages, Arabic and Sanskrit, as possible alternatives to English was owing to his impression that other Indian languages were underdeveloped. The vernaculars, or modern Indian languages, were, Macaulay assumed, not ready for the task of education:

All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India, contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are, moreover, so poor and rude that, unit they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.

Macaulay's vision of Indian education was a diffusionist one, intended first to teach a select group of Indians through the English language, or in the words of his oft-quoted directive, to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. It was to this class of Indians that Macaulay assigned the additional goal of enriching the vernaculars of India: to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. Indian vernaculars, albeit allegedly underdeveloped, were ultimately very important to Macau- lay's diffusionist vision of modern education in South Asia.

Already with Macaulay one sees that, in discussions of Indian education, questions of imperial governance came together with those of language. Whereas in principle the superiority of English was asserted, Indian languages, it was conceded, were not unimportant. Laws had to be translated and interpreted and a population governed. What Macaulay's comments disguise, however, in their insistence on the developed state of English and the underdevelopment of Indian languages is the extent to which English literary studies were forged in a colonial context. As Gauri Viswanathan has compellingly argued in her account of literary studies in colonial India, education and the development of literary curricula in colonial India were implicated in an imperial project of rule, as a mask of conquest; the constitution of English as a field of study took place not before its arrival in the colonies but on, colonial terrain as part of negotiations over the contours and future of British rule in India.

English education, in this account, was considered an alternative to an education in Christian morality, introducing Indians to English morals and values under the cover of literary study. Following Viswanathan, one could argue that experiments in English education in India formed a model of secular higher education worldwide, because there, in a context where the British operated by a rule of colonial difference and were particularly defensive about injuring the religious susceptibilities of their subjects, they forged academic subjects that were explicitly defined as not Christian nor necessarily classical (which was the dominant content of higher education in England at the time), curricula that were defined foremost as secular and scientific. Viswanathan presents a productive argument: because the constitution of curricula in higher education was never merely an academic subject but was entwined with discussions of the character of the modern state and its relationship to both religion and the public-issues that were by no means settled in England at the time-it provoked a debate that raged between the British state, the government of India, missionaries, and local administrators. The other side of this story, how Indians engaged in this complex debate over education, modernization, language, religion, and literary study, remains largely untold. It is a central contention of this book that the inauguration of English education in India provided both a model of secular education and, in doing so, a profound epistemological challenge that lay at the center of language politics in early twentieth century Hyderabad. This, as much as the contest with Hindi speakers, explains the projects of reform enacted upon the Urdu language and in Urdu language scholarship by intellectuals at Osmania University.

Significantly, colonial India saw the constitution of English as a subject of academic study central to the emerging secular practices of the colonial state at the same time that Indian languages were themselves constituted as bounded objects, with distinct and mutually exclusive literary and linguistic traditions, associated with specific peoples and territories. It was not surprising, there- fore, that in the face of an increasing dominance of. English education, Indians should call for educational institutions and universities that acknowledged and promoted the status of their own languages, insisting on the ability of Indian languages to be vehicles of a modern education at even the highest level. With Hindi and Urdu the efforts of men like Sayyid Ahmad Khan to create and Urdu college and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya to establish a Hindi university had foundered because of the lack of British approval and patronage. These two men did eventually succeed in establishing two institution of higher education, the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, latter Aligarh Muslim University, and Benares Hindu University however, both were English-medium institutions whose novelty was marked by their severing especially-though not exclusively –Muslims and Hindus, respectively, not (despite the initial intentions of their founders) by their use of Urdu or Hindi as a medium of instruction. The creation of a university providing instruction in all subject through an Indian vernacular happened first in a territory not directly ruled by the British, in the Princely state of Hyderabad.



  Acknowledgments vii
  Abbreviations xi
  Note on Transliteration xiii
  Introduction 1
Chapter 1 Muslims and Secular Education: The Beginnings of Osmania University 20
Chapter 2 Reforming a Language: Creating Textbooks and Cultivating Urdu 56
Chapter 3 Muslim Pasts: Writing the History of Indian and The History of Islam 82
Chapter 4 Locating Urdu: Deccani, Hindustani, and Urdu 106
Chapter 5 Secular Projects and Student Politics: VANDE MATSRAM In Hyderabad Conclusion: From National to Minority Subject 138
  Notes 173
  Bibliography 207
  Index 223

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