Monday, April 8, 2013

Signboards in Delhi - and the language debates in India

-by Aishwarya Pramod

If you drive through the streets of central Delhi, you'll come across road signs like this one:

Dr. Zakir Hussain Marg is an arterial road leading south-east from India Gate
The name of the road is written in the four main languages of Delhi - from top to bottom, these are:
- Hindi (in the Devnagri script)
- English (in the Roman alphabet)
- Punjabi (in the Gurmukhi script) and
- Urdu (in a modified form of the Persian nastaliq script).

Under Mughal rule in Old Delhi, the official court language was Persian, the formal and elaborate language of scholars.

A section of an official firman from the Mughal Emperor 
Aurangzeb's rule, late 17th century

Although Persian was used for official purposes, the real lingua franca was Hindustani - a language which pre-dated the Mughals. Hindustani arose in the 11th century AD, through contact between the local Indian population, and various Muslim invaders, traders and religious men who settled in Hindustan from the north-west. It was a hotch-potch language which allowed speakers of Turkic, Arabic and Persian to communicate with native Indian speakers. In Delhi, the popular local language was Khadi Boli. Hindustani retained the grammar and structure of Khadi Boli but also absorbed a large number of Persian, Arabic and Turkic words for better cross-cultural communication. Typically, Hindus wrote Hindustani in the native Devnagri script, while Muslims wrote Hindustani in a modified version of the Persian script. 

When the East India Company came to power after the Mughals, they continued to use Persian for administrative purposes. Only in the 1830's did the Company replace Persian by introducing English as the official language at higher levels of administration. At the lower levels, government business was conducted in Indian vernacular languages. In much of north India, this language was Hindustani. 

When the British declared Hindustani with Persian script to be a co-official language in much of north India, Hindus cried foul. They wanted the native Devnagiri script to be used.

The terms 'Hindi' and 'Urdu' came to be used for two versions of Hindustani. Both started out very similar, but slowly,  'Hindi' became the Devnagri script based, increasingly Sanskritized version, and 'Urdu' became the Persian script based version. Hindi became a Hindu language and Urdu became a Muslim language (see this article for a more detailed explanation). 

Signboard for a Unani medicine shop in Old Delhi. The Devnagri script is on the right
After the British left, the issue of official language came up again. Adopting a Constitution written in English, the colonizers' language, was offensive to many members of the Constituent Assembly. An Indian language had to be chosen.

But India had more than 400 living languages. Even apart from the growing communal divide between Hindi and Urdu, the south Indian states spoke Dravidian languages, which were entirely different. So, in which language should the affairs of government be run? And of course, which language (and which script?!) should be designated India's rashtra-bhasha, the national language?
The Constituent Assembly of India with Jawaharlal Nehru at the rostrum.
The Assembly saw many heated arguments regarding the language issue.
Nehru and Gandhi both felt that Hindustani could be used as an all-India language of communication, using both the Urdu and Devnagri scripts. Gandhi especially tried to promote Hindustani as the perfect language to bridge the gap between Hindus and Muslims.

The Partition of India effectively killed all talk of Hindustani. It significantly reduced the number of Urdu speakers in India, as many Muslims went to Pakistan (although Old Delhi still has many Urdu speakers). Partition also brought in a large number of Hindu and Sikh Punjabi-speaking refugees to Delhi.
A Sikh family on the move. Post Partition, nearly 500,000 refugees poured
 into Delhi from western Punjab, Sindh and the Northwest Frontier. 
The refugees spread out through the city, squatting wherever they could. Eventually they were allocated land to the south and west of Lutyens' Delhi, where today we can see the large number of colonies dominated by Punjabis. Displaying thrift and business skills, the Punjabis eventually came to play an important role in Delhi's trade and commerce. Thus Delhi has made multiple transformations, from a Mughal, to a British, to a Punjabi city.

The refugees moved into camps, gurudwaras, temples, 
schools, military barracks, pavements as well as parks in Delhi.

After Partition, Hindi became further Sanskritized. But Hindi was even less acceptable to the Dravidian states than Hindustani (as this photo from a South Indian newspaper shows!).

Front page of Periyar E. V. Ramasamy's Tamil 
periodical Kudi-arasu (3 September 1939). 
The headline reads "Veezhga Indhi"
 (Down with Hindi)
Finally, in spite of protests, the Assembly decided that Hindi in Devnagiri script would be the government's official language. To give the non-Hindi speaking states time to learn Hindi, the Assembly decided that English would continue for the next 15 years for Centre-State communication. Also, each State and Union Territory could have their own official language for official communication within the state.

After the expiry of the 15-year period, in 1963, attempts were made to end the use of English. But large scale protests from non-Hindi speaking states ensured the continued use of English as the official language of the government.

Delhi, as a Union Territory, originally adopted Hindi as its official language. It also continues to issue orders and circulars in English. In 2003, Urdu (in the Urdu script) and Punjabi (in the Gurmukhi script) were added as official languages. Since then, all government signs, roads, etc. bear names in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English.
Raj Path (King's Way), with the President's House at the far end


Anonymous said...

Amazingly written.. and an eye opener as well.

Unknown said...

Very nice, Aishwarya!


Unknown said...

Very nice, Aishwarya!


shoba said...

very nice &informative

outofthecave said...

Nice. I do write about delhi and around and I have recently written an article on road behaviour in delhi.

Sign Boards Chennai said...

I have enjoyed this post very much.Thanks for sharing. Very nice Aishwarya..

Metal Letters Chennai said...

The old signs are wonderful,keep sharing.

LED Sign Boards in Chennai said...

Nice one, Good to learn about Historical scripts.

Name Board Makers in Chennai said...

Good Blog, Happy to learn about Historical scripts.

Unknown said...

Thank you Aishwarya a good overview.

Unknown said...

Article explains about Hindi and Urdu, but just mentions "Hindusthani", So now what is Hindusthani language?