The Queen, the Begam and the Princess

In his book One Language Two Scripts, Christopher King writes about a Hindi drama from late nineteenth century India — a personification of the language and script conflict in Northern India. In the play, Queen Devanagari pleads to Begum Urdu to return her rightful place. King believes that the drama needed one more character, Princess Kaithi, who like Begam Urdu, had made several attempts to usurp the place of Devanagari.

Right up to the late nineteenth century, the language spoken in most parts of Northern India was Hindustani. A confluence of vocabularies, this language had been identified by different people at different times as both Hindi and Urdu. Hindustani was written in Persian and Devanagari, as well as the many cursive variants of Devanagari. The most popular of these variants was Kaithi. In fact, there was a time when Kaithi was more popular than Devanagari itself. Statistics from the North-West Province (NWP) in 1854 suggest that the number of Kaithi (77368) primers being used in schools was three times more than the number for Devanagari (25151) or Mahajani (24302).

To pin down a single incident that caused the fissure of Hindustani would be impossible, but the events that transpired at Fort William College are usually considered decisive. In 1800, an initiative to teach Hindustani to the newly-appointed officers of the East India Company was started by the Professor of Hindustani at the college, John Borthwick Gilchrist. He set out, with many Indian scholars and translators working under him, to create a body of work the students would read to familiarize themselves with the language. One of the Indian scholars who was working with Gilchrist was Lallooji Lal. In the words of Alok Rai — ‘(Lal) is believed to have “practically newly-invented” modern Sanskritized Hindi by excising “alien” words from the “the mixed Urdu language of Akbar’s camp-followers and of the market where men of all nations congregated”’. In Gilchrist’s attempt to find the true and original form of Hindustani, he gave recognition to two kinds of Hindustani — the version spoken colloquially at the time, and another one purged of all words of Muslim origin that was suitable for Hindus. From the this point forward, the energies of the supporters of Hindi in the language conflict became concentrated towards differentiating their language from Urdu as much as they could.

With the spoken language ‘cleansed’ of foreign words, the next step was to write it not in Persian, but an appropriately Hindu script. This is where Devanagari won over Kaithi. Kaithi is the script of Kayasthas. Though they are Hindu, the Kayasthas were known to be well-versed in Urdu and Persian. A script that bore their name was corrupted by the attachment of the Kayasthas to Islamic culture and to Hindustani, and thus was not pure enough to write Hindi in. For this reason, Kaithi received absolutely no support from the Hindi propagandists. In 1912, the Nagari Pracharini Sabha of Arrah urged the Government of Bihar to print textbooks for lower primary classes in Devanagari instead of Kaithi despite the popularity of the latter. Similarly, in 1913 the Hindi Abhyudaya of Allahabad appealed to the government to instate Devanagari as the court script of Bihar in place of Kaithi.

Moreover, their proficiency in Urdu and Persian gave Kayasthas monopoly in the government services along with the Muslims. This too was unacceptable to the Brahmin elite. Mahabir Prasad, a champion of Hindi, wrote —

The extinction of Kaithi, it is said, had as much to do with language politics as it did with the politics of caste. It was only by displacing Persian and Kaithi as the scripts of administration and business that high-caste Brahmins could claim their place at the top of the power pyramid. Devanagari, the script of the high-caste, became the vehicle for Hindi, while Kaithi disappeared.

Comments 2

  1. Mahesh August 3, 2011

    Super blog post, Pooja!

    A similar scene played out before 1947 with Hindi, Hindustani and Urdu. Hindi won but permanently alienated a large section of our Urdu-fluent population. This was an important factor in triggering the demand for a pure, separate Islamic nation. Interestingly, the Hindi champions were Premchand (yes, Munshji) and MK Gandhi.

    All carefully chronicled in Chapter 17 – The Progress of Hindi, Part 2: Hindi and the Nation by Prof. Harish Trivedi from “Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia” ed. Prof. Sheldon Pollock, 2003.

    • Pooja August 3, 2011

      Thank you Mahesh!

      I recently read Alok Rai’s Hindi Nationalism about the Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani conflict, very interesting; also started on ‘Language of Gods in the World of Men’ on your recommendation! Looks like I should get my hands on Literary Culture in History too.

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