The Fifth Global Urdu Conference: Urdu and peace in South Asia
It was worth waiting an hour for the session on an issue the two nations of India and Pakistan have been waiting decades for — peace. The group discussion focused on the role that creative forces can play in achieving sustainable, or what diplomatic circles call irreversible, regional peace.
Unfortunately, four of the six participants whose names were listed on the schedule were not in attendance, some of whom I was personally looking forward to listening to. But those who replaced the ones missing were also a treat to hear, particularly BBC Urdu journalist Wusatullah Khan who summed up the entire conversation beautifully with his thought-provoking five-minute speech. The discussion began with Intizar Husain, who simply quoted the words of an Indian writer who had summarised the Muslim contribution to the subcontinent by listing two things: Urdu and the Taj Mahal.
Shamim Hanafi took that quote a step ahead, adding that Diwan-i-Ghalib as one of the masterpieces of Muslim culture has enriched the shared heritage of South Asia. “What is lamentable is that not only have these important contributions been ignored by the South Asian population, they have been forgotten by Muslims themselves,” he said, citing in particular the musical tradition of the subcontinent.
For a man who claimed inadequate familiarity with politics, Hanafi was remarkably lucid in his analysis of the isolation of Urdu in present-day India. “Maulvi Abdul Haq’s famous quote that it was Urdu and not the Muslim League that made Pakistan was instrumental in that,” Hanafi said. “Take the example of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, a devout Muslim who wrote in Malayalam. So, Urdu is not the only language that Muslims [of the subcontinent] use. Ghalib’s works have even been translated into Sanskrit and 10,000 copies of the Tamil translation of Diwan-i-Ghalib have been sold [in India]. What we need is to increase awareness of this shared heritage.”
But will increased awareness of Muslim contribution to South Asian history de-politicise Urdu? “It is pertinent to understand the connection between Hindi and Urdu,” said journalist Ghazi Salahuddin. “Literature is a form of communication, and there cannot be lasting peace until communication links are formed. Secondly, regions develop economically, not countries in isolation. So, languages may be different but cultures can be the same. Europe is a great example of that.”
The moderator then moved on to music composer Arshad Mahmud — whose work, particularly with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, is hugely popular in both India and Pakistan — asking him if South Asian music has the power to bring together an entire continent.
To prove that the subcontinent’s music is indeed strong enough, Mahmud chose to speak about South Indian music instead of North Indian music, which has dominated Pakistani musical tradition.
In June, he said, he was in the Indian city of Mangalore for a festival organised by the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth where some of the biggest Indian singing stars were to perform for young children. “I took two students from the National Academy of Performing Arts and we met a musical great who taught them a raag unique to South Indian tradition. The students quickly learnt it and were asked to perform on stage,” Mahmud said. “This is the magic of music. Two students from Karachi were singing a Karnataka raag and people were appreciating it. When this cultural fusion becomes a movement, it will become a political goal as well.”
It was Khan, however, who raised a most pertinent question. “Before we continue with this discussion, we should set some parameters based on which we can be sure that things can change. Otherwise, this is just discussion for the sake of discussion. For instance, Shamim Hanafi knows who [Indian Prime Minister] Manhoman Singh is, but does Manmohan Singh know who Shamim Hanafi is? The day Singh reads a book by Hanafi, I will believe that the ice has begun to melt,” he said.
He didn’t stop there though and in true journalistic fashion, he pressed on with an even more uncomfortable question. “Yes, trade has freed up between India and Pakistan. But how many trucks carrying books, magazines and newspapers will be traded?”