(downloaded June 2007)

Indian Express, June 29, 2007

Boycotting Urdu is copying Pakistan’s bad manners, wrote Mahatma in his letter now on auction block

by Vijay Rana

Nehru Memorial may be asked by Govt to bid for the letter on July 3

LONDON, JUNE 28: The letter Mahatma Gandhi wrote on January 11, 1948 — just 19 days before he was shot dead on January 30 — underlines how, even when he had failed to stop Partition, he had an enduring belief in Hindu-Muslim harmony. And one way free India could see the two communities come closer was by learning to enjoy their shared linguistic heritage.

The Indian Express has the full text of this document. The 427-word letter is to be auctioned by Christie’s on July 3 at the reserved price of £9,000-£12,000 (Rs 7-10 lakh). Experts believe that the bidding would go much higher than this.

Written in English on seven small pages, Gandhi has crossed out many parts of the letter. The text that is crossed out is given here between parentheses.

The letter begins with his anguish over the declining circulation of the Urdu edition of the Harijan journal: “Two weeks ago I hinted in the Gujarati columns that Harijan printed in the Urdu script was likely to be stopped as its sale was steadily dwindling. Apart even from financial considerations, I saw no meaning in publishing it, if there was no demand for it. The dwindle was to me a sign of resentment against its publication, (when there were very few readers who wanted it. If that was so I should read that sign of the times...).”

Gandhi believed that in independent India, Hindi and Urdu should flourish together. He wanted both the Devnagri and Urdu to be jointly recognised as the national scripts.

“My view remains unaltered especially at this critical juncture in our history,” he writes. “It is wrong to ruffle Muslim or any other person’s feeling when there is no question of ethics (behind mission recognition of Urdu as national script side by side with Nagri). Those who take the trouble of learning Urdu script in addition will surely lose nothing & will gain a knowledge of Urdu script which many of our countrymen know.”

It was the fractious politics of Partition that the communal ownership of Hindi and Urdu was established. Hindi became a Hindu language and Urdu was reduced to be a mere Muslim language — a situation that pained Gandhi. Therefore, in this letter he asks Hindus not to abandon the learning of Urdu.

Besides its poetic beauty, Gandhi argues, Urdu could also evolve as medium of short hand. Gandhi writes: “The limitations of this script in terms of perfection are many. But for elegance and grace it will equal any script in the world. It will not die as long at least as Arabic & Persian live, though it has achieved a status all its own without outside aid. With a little adaptation it can serve the purpose of short hand.”

Gandhi aspired to see the most idealistic linguistic scenario: “As a national script if it (Urdu) is set free from the bondage of orthodoxy, it is capable of improvement so as to enable one to transcribe Sanskrit verses without the slightest difficulty.”

And finally, the Father of the Nation admonishes his children not to learn bad manners. He tell Hindus: “Those who in anger boycott Urdu script put a wanton affront upon the Muslims of the Union who in the eyes of many Hindus have become aliens in their own land.”

And then comes the punch line, his view of Pakistan: “This is copying the bad manners of Pakistan with a vengeance. I invite every inhabitant of India to join me in a stern refusal to copy bad manners.”

But hold on, he was equally demanding of Muslims. He asked them, “Will Muslim friends rise to the occasion and do two things — subscribe to the Urdu edition (of Harijan) and diligently learn Nagri script and enrich their intellectual capital?”