Urdu, Hindi etc

The post is my attempt to disambiguate some of the terms used in the discussion around the old Urdu-Hindi controversy, on which some (digressive) debate has been happening elsewhere on BP.

I’ll trying to enumerate my thoughts point-wise, to give some structure to the debate and let people comment on specific points raised. Since this topic is quite prone to digression to related (and sometimes politically charged) topics, I reserve the right to delete comments that go off on tangents. I apologize for this ex ante.


Urdu, Hindi, Hindostani, khaRi boli etc are labels, which are use both by laypersons in non-specialist, mundane ways and by specialists (linguists) in very specific and well-defined manner. E.g. one of our close family-friends are a British Indo-Pak (Muslim) couple, where the husband’s parents are originally from Bihar and the wife’s are Pakistani mohajers from Hyderabad (Deccan). The language that the husband’s mother speaks is referred to informally as Hindi by my wife (Bombay-born London-bred who knows v little Hindi), and as Urdu by the Pakistani friend (Karachi-born London-bred), when it is neither Hindi nor Urdu but Awadhi.

Therefore, the usage of the label “Hindi” or “Urdu” differs depending on whom one asks, and that is perfectly natural. One must be careful about what sort of usage is implied when using such (simplified) labels in a discussion.


The label “Urdu” itself is, in language evolution time-scales, quite a freshly minted one. There is no evidence for its use by any native- or non-native speaker to refer to the speech of the Gangetic belt before the 18th century CE. However, the speech to which the label refers is the language of Western Gangetic plains (roughly Delhi-Agra-Lucknow belt) and that is indeed much older.

On the other hand, the label “Hindi” is far older in provenance. The word Hindi (or its isomorphs “Hindvi”, “Hindawi” etc) itself is a derivative in Modern Persian (and also in Standard Arabic, via reverse-engineered Semitic tri-root h-n-d) of “Hind”, from Old Persian “Hi(n)duš”, in turn a borrowing from Sanskrit “sindhuH” (via the usual /s/ > /h/ transformation in Old Iranic) attested liberally in the Rg Veda and therefore the oldest known usage.

“sindhu” Monier-Williams entry.

However, merely because “Urdu” is a newer label one cannot argue that what Urdu currently refers to is somehow less genuine than what Hindi currently refers to. In fact, the reality is more like the opposite case.


I think it is sensible to argue that while both Urdu and Hindi are both crude approximations to a vast cluster of dialects spoken natively across North India (and in some pockets of Pakistan), what Urdu refers to is more conservative, i.e. involves less modern innovation, than what Hindi usually refers to. On the other  hand, the more innovative Hindi is used a lot more than the more conservative Urdu and this represents a genuine linguistic shift taking place as I write this. India has roughly ~260m people who self-identify as Hindi speakers, as opposed to ~16m native Urdu speakers in Pakistan and ~80m  in India.

Hindi-language movement  was a result of the politics of North India during colonial rule, whereby the majority population (mainly  Hindus) were gradually accultured to reject the use of a standard register of speech derived from Moghal courtly usage. Farsi (which played the same role in C and S Asia for a while that French played in Europe) was the language of the Moghal court for a good 2-3 centuries. Its influence on vernacular Indian speech of Western Gangetic belt gave rise to an élite register, marked by:

  • generous use of Persian syntactical devices like the efazat (borrowed wholesale  without innovation),
  • use of Perso-Arabic lexicon (nouns & adjectives, not verbs) sometimes quite odd/innovative by actual Persian standards, e.g. “murdabad” being unheard of in Farsi,
  • minor extensions of phonetic inventory, e.g. correct use of gutturals like /qaf/, /ghayn/, but re-mapping of /zhe/, /ayn/, /dhal/, /dhwa/ to usual Indic approximations etc)
  • usage of Nasta’liq  script, again with innovations for Indic retroflexes and aspirates that do not exist in Farsi/Arabic

However, this top-down effect was not just limited to high-society registers, but common speech – most explicitly in terms of borrowed lexicon. E.g. this common “Hindi” sentence has first four words from Farsi:

yaar, zara darvaza band kar de!

Its more Sanskritic form will have most Hindi-speakers in splits, precisely because that sounds so unnecessarily formal (and hard to understand):

mitra, kripya dvarAvarodhan karo!

In other words, use of Farsi-derived lexicon (up to a point)  tends to aid comprehension of the language by most speakers, as opposed to using tatsama (directly borrowed) Sanskrit vocabulary. And if more Farsi vocabulary is the yardstick for Urdu-ness, then common Indo-Gangetic speech is better described by the term Urdu than Hindi. Some people refer to this common register (with enough, but not too many Perso-Arabic loanwords) as Hindostani, whereas Urdu is reserved for a more literary (ketabi) standard.


That said, the speech of North India has undergone major changes, both during the British colonial period and even more so after Independence. The most obvious has been the rise of a parallel literary high-culture standard of the language, but one that looks to Sanskrit for inspiration – in vocabulary of course, but also in syntax (cf. samAs), in phonetics (cf. saMdhi rules) and script (Devanagari, arguably a more linguistically proper  mapping of Indic phonetics, though by no means exhaustive).

Hindi has a comparatively modern, but in terms of cultural import and the breadth of writing, a huge and important impact on North Indian speech.  Furthermore, Hindi writers never shied away from borrowing Sanskrit verbs too (obviously without Sanskrit inflections) and Hindizing them. E.g. these immortal lines by Dinkar that most (if not all) Hindi speakers will find especially moving use the Sanskrit verb morpheme “shobh” (to suit) directly as a Hindi verb.

kshama shobhati uss  bhujang ko, jiske paas garal ho;

usko kya jo dant-heen, vishrahit, vineet, saral ho!

The patronage given to standardized Hindi in schools throughout North India and also in other parts of India (including some surprising places like Arunachal Pradesh where people tend to speak Hindi rather than each others’ Tibeto-Burman tribal dialects) means that standard Hindi’s reach and depth have grown enormously and dwarf standard Urdu usage within India (and Pakistan, as the latter has a mere fraction of India’s population). Surprisingly, the influence of Hindi on Bangla within India has been orders of magnitude more successful than of Urdu on Bangla in pre-1971 Pakistan.


Hindi’s success at gaining converts (willing or otherwise) has also being due to the tendency of Hindi-wallahs to subsume all dialects near-and-far into the Hindi umbrella. The fact that Hindi movement still exists in the ancestral heartland (whereas many Urduwallahs had to emigrate to regions that had zero history of Urdu high-culture) also helps. So, now Marwari accepts Doordarshan Hindi standard and so does Awadhi, ChattisgaRhi, Haryanvi and Braj. And if Sikhs (by far the most fanatical about Punjabi language) would’ve allowed it, even Punjabi would be absorbed into the Hindi fold.

This Hindi movement has clearly political overtones, but its reach is limited by entrenched (but defensive) language movements in India.


Bollywood plays a major role in proselytization of standard Hindi. The standard clearly used to be Urdu (unless the subject of the movie was clearly religious or pre-Islamic) and to an extent still is, but diminishing. This is because the old generation of dialogue and script writers has been replaced by new entrants from N India, who had almost no exposure to the conservative Urdu standard in school. E.g. a famous recent Bollywood number goes:

sabun ki shakal mein,

beta tu to nikla keval jhaag

The use of Sanskrit “keval” instead of the usual “sirf”, would be unthinkable a decade ago. Examples of this type, of creeping Sanskrit vocab in Bollywood abound.

Besides, there has been democratization and localization in stories, i.e. a concious effort to tailor language based on the linguistic origins of the characters. Gone are the days of ethnically inspecific characters breaking into beautiful melodies in chaste Urdu. Now a couple in a Delhi wedding will sing in Hindi code-mixed with Punjabi, a Bombay mafiosi will issue threats in Mumbaiya Hindi, or characters in Haryana/Bihar will speak in the appropriate local registers.


Urdu and Hindi are in a sprachbund, organically joined at the hip and definitely have not speciated away (yet). There will be many decades (if not centuries) of future cross-talk between the two standards, and who knows how the language may evolve. However, to me Urdu will always be the graceful older sister, who takes more after the mum than the younger Hindi.

For those interested, here’s Tariq Rahman on past/recent trends in Urdu sociolinguistics:

And for a more Indian perspective, here’s Javed Akhtar holding forth on his mother tongue:


Author: Slapstik

I was born in Kashmir and a strange turn of events spanning over 2 decades led me to London, where I now live and work. I have a deep interest in linguistics, geo-political history, Science and philosophy of Science and occassionally my writings reflect that interest. I am an ardent Popperian, a technophile, a trekkie and a below average cook. Twitter: @kaeshour

55 thoughts on “Urdu, Hindi etc”

  1. The Hindi movement which began at Allahabad University sadly was not able to make Hindi cool. This can be attributed to the smugness of the Hindi poets like Harivansha Rai Bachchan who considered writing songs for Bollywood movies beneath their dignity. On the other hand, Urdu poets like Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri were able to make Urdu popular through Bollywood songs.

    1. Indeed. The “uncool” nature of Hindi perhaps has as much to do with its use by cowbelt politicians as high and mighty attitude of some Hindiwallahs.

    2. There were plenty of Hindi poets like Gopaldas Neeraj, Kavi Pradeep, Yogesh Gaur and Anjaan who wrote songs for Bollywood movies.

  2. Thanks Slapstik for a very lucid and balanced explanation. This is what I was trying to get across to Vikram on the other thread. You put it very well in your epilogue that Urdu and Hindi are “joined at the hip.” The linguistic consensus is that Urdu-Hindi is the same language but often classified as two for sociolinguistic reasons. The tendency to place a hard divide between the two and label Urdu as somehow “foreign” to India reflects post-Partition nationalisms and communalisms rather than objective reality.

    I do feel you are underplaying the role of Urdu in Pakistan, though. While there may be only 16 million “native” speakers of Urdu in Pakistan, every educated Pakistani can speak standard Urdu. It is also the lingua franca between all four provinces and is the only thing that allows a Pashtun from KPK to understand someone from Sindh (apart from English at the level of the elite). This is because of its status as the official national language of the country.

    1. I agree I have not touched more on role of Urdu within Pakistan. That is because the skew of the above piece has been towards evolution of Urdu and Hindi standards within Indian heartland. It is primarily directed towards Indians, many of whom tend to think of (shuddh) Hindi speech as some gold standard that evolved with little Persian influence.

      By the way, L2 speakers of Urdu in Pakistan number around 94m. The figure tallies well with the literate (a generous approximation of educated) population of Pakistan, which stands at around 112m.

      The above number is large enough for very interesting linguistic dynamics within Pakistan, with their own Punjabi/Pashto etc substrate effects that will drive Pakistani Urdu in interesting directions. Clearly a fascinating topic in itself!

  3. The article is missing the elephant in the room in a sense. English.

    On North Indian streets, you will often hear people say, “Apna sentence repeat kar do.” I cant remember the last time I heard the Hindi equivalent, “Apna vakya to dohrana”. I dont know what the Persianate equivalent is, but I have never heard it either.

    I saw a video purporting to teach Hindi to foreigners coming to India, and realized how normal English words have become. Sorry, room, complete, repeat, repair, loan, signal, right, left the list just goes on.

    The real irony is that this only seems to be happening to Hindi, and not to other Indian languages. For example saying “Aaplya vakya punha saangaa” remains completely acceptable in colloquial Marathi.

    Hindi’s claims to be a pan-Indian language have induced a marked Anglicization of the language. Other language speakers employ this Hinglish to communicate across communities, they continue to use a non-Anglicized register of their own language to communicate amongst themselves.

      1. I wouldnt be surprised if that was the case. Proportionally, the penetration of English language seems lower in Pakistan. For example, currently there is no operational private English language news channel in Pakistan.

        There are large population groups in India that simply refuse to speak in Hindi. And it is only a matter of time before even currently acquiescent groups like Gujaratis, Punjabis and perhaps even Maithili revolt against it.

        1. The English speaking elite is super entrenched in Pakistan and English diffusion is similar to India. The English medium private school network is super extensive in Pakistan; it simply is that Urdu has a richer tradition and therefore can resist.

          Sort of like Hebrew & Arabic; Hebrew being recently invented hybridises to some extent to stay colloquial and relevant.

      2. It is very common to hear English words in Urdu sentences in Pakistan, even among those who are not highly educated. For example, “washroom” has replaced the Urdu “ghusal-khana”, “plate” has replaced “bartan” etc. It requires quite a bit of effort these days to give an entire talk in Urdu, without using any English words, especially if the subject is at all technical.

          1. “The English speaking elite is super entrenched in Pakistan and English diffusion is similar to India. The English medium private school network is super extensive in Pakistan”

            The entrenchment of English in India occurred as a result of the resistance to Hindi outside North India. We would have seen a far higher circulation of English language newspapers and the presence of atleast one or two English news channels in Pakistan if the English diffusion was similar to India.

            Regarding hard data, 17% of Indian children go to English medium schools.

            The proportion in Pakistan seems lower.
            “In the matriculation examinations of 1999, a total of 119,673 candidates appeared from the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, Lahore. Out of these, according to the records in the Boards’ office, 6923 (5.8 percent) were from English-medium schools.”

          2. This data doesn’t account for the students who don’t take the Matric exam but rather the British O and A levels. All the better private schools in Pakistan don’t even bother with the government’s syllabus but rather teach to the British exams. These are all English medium schools. The only concession to being Pakistani is that they must teach Urdu, Islamiat, and Pak Studies.

          3. Kabir, Tariq Rehman does mention the prepondarance of A and O levels amongst the Pakistani elite. But he attributes it to the policy of Urdu-medium only government schools introduced in 1979. The A and O level schools were later permitted to allow the children of the elite to have access to English medium education. See bottom of page 26 in earlier link.

            In your opinion, what explains the relatively low circulation of English newspapers, for example Daily News + Dawn have a daily circulation of 229,000, whereas The Hindu + TOI who have a circulation of 4 million, a near 20 times difference.

          4. Vikram,my father did his O Levels back in the 1960s. In any case, it is the route that the majority of the upper-middle classes prefer for their children’s education. Matric is looked down upon as a substandard qualification. Education in Pakistan is extremely stratified. Those at the bottom go to government schools, the middle classes go to private English-medium schools like Beaconhouse, and the upper classes go to schools like Aitcheson College. The upper- middle and upper classes have no interaction with the government system at all, acquiring foreign qualifications and studying abroad or at prestigious English-medium universities in Pakistan such as LUMS.

            The low circulation of English newspapers in Pakistan can be explained by the fact that English is still very much an elite language in the country and that most of those who read newspapers read them in Urdu. The proportion of the public that actually reads newspapers is of course going down all over the world as most people prefer to get their news from TV.

          5. Yes one forgets that a very high proportion of the Pakistani elite’s scions go abroad for undergraduate university.

          6. Yes, this international O level type school mania has recently come to India as well.

            Not very happy about it personally. I myself went to a state board school (Maharashtra) and it was a good experience. There is a hegemonic push to ‘standardize’ and make Indian boards ‘uniform’, but this is of course part of the Delhi-centric elite’s (Hindutva or otherwise) drive to reduce everyone else to the periphery.

          7. I think the main reason for the O level phenomenon in Pakistan is that the government school standards are so bad that anyone with money wants their children to have the opportunity to acquire a better and internationally recognized credential. All my cousins did O and A levels and most of them then went to university abroad (except for the one who went straight to medical school in Pakistan). I have no personal experience with O levels as I studied in US public schools.

          8. Yes that’s what foreigners forget about Pakistan; the underlying feudal-class structure is radically different to
            other neighbours.

            Pakistan has a complex mixture of (Victorian) classes, (Indian) castes & (Islamic) colour gradient.

            It’s quite odd and a bit unique..

  4. “Pakistan has a complex mixture of (Victorian) classes, (Indian) castes & (Islamic) colour gradient.”

    I don’t really agree with this. Class is very much there. There is not really much of a middle class and a well-defined upper and lower class. To put it simply, you either have servants or you are a servant. In the US, even relatively rich people self-identify as “middle class”. You won’t find that in Pakistan.

    I don’t think the Indian caste system is big in Pakistan. In Islam, all believers are supposed to be equal in the eyes of Allah. In practice, people do discriminate but I would say that is on the basis of socioeconomic class and not some inherent “caste”. If someone acquires money, doors will open up to him. There is no concept of someone being inherently “untouchable”.

    As for color, yes fair skin is preferred but again this has to do with socioeconomic class (dark skin is seen as a sign of laboring outside). I don’t really know what color prejudice has to do with Islam in any case.

    1. Dhobis and Malis are direct throwbacks to Indian castes; we simply don’t recognise it but it’s very much there. Not in an overt form but more subtly.

    2. Like India, caste is the primary social/ethnic identity for most Indo-Aryan Pakistanis. Caste identities have deep roots have in Indo-European societies and are variations of the Proto-Indo-European divisions between priests, warriors and common folk.

      The lack of acknowledgement to castes is the primary reason for the low levels of democratization seen in Pakistan in comparison with India. Perry Anderson derisively called India a ‘caste democracy’, but unwittingly pointed out the critical role castes play in politicization as natural interest groups.

      In Pakistan,

      “low-caste children, both boys and girls, are deterred from enrolling when the most convenient school is in a hamlet dominated by high-caste households.”

      “settlements are far more segregated along caste/clan lines than villages.”

      “caste identity is embedded within occupational differences, which are associated with status and notions of purity and pollution. Various exclusionary norms follow from these hierarchies and are exercised in relations of mutual assistance, in social networks, and in the establishment and maintenance of political power within the village economy and without. Unlike the Indian context, there has been no official acknowledgement of caste-based discrimination in Pakistan and thus no affirmative action programs to mitigate its impacts. Caste mobility through land transactions is also extremely limited.”


  5. The daughter of a post-office employee became Chief Minister of the largest state in India. The son of a paddy farmer became Prime Minister. The son of a tailor is still a Chief Minister in Tripura. The son of a small shop keeper is President. I can list many, many more such examples.

    Nothing like this has happened in Pakistan till today. And there is little chance of it happening unless caste is acknowledged and politicized.

    1. I would say these are all examples of changes in socioeconomic status not of “caste” in the Hindu sense. In Pakistan, no one talks about “Dalits” or whatever. Islam promotes equality among all believers. Master and servant would pray together inside the same mosque unlike in India where Dalits cannot go into some temples. The Hindu-majority context of India is different from the context of Muslim-majority Pakistan and that must be recognized. Pakistan is a very feudal society but not a caste society.

      The primary social/ethnic identity for Pakistanis is whether they are Punjabi, Pashtun, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Baloch or Muhajir. Our political parties are also broken down along this axis. PPP is a Sindhi party, PML-N and PTI are Punjabi parties, MQM is Muhajir, etc.

      “Dhobi” and “Mali” are not castes but professions. If the son of a mali acquires an education and becomes a doctor for example, he would no longer be known as a mali. In contrast, if your parents are Brahmin, you are Brahmin. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you may be.

      Of course it is very difficult to change your socioeconomic status in Pakistan but that has nothing to do with some divinely-ordained system. Rather, it is an outcome of an extremely economically unequal system. The children of the poor either don’t go to school or go to Urdu-medium government schools where the education is very substandard. The children of the rich do O-levels and A-levels and go abroad to college. Where is the opportunity to transcend your social class?

      1. Regarding the original point by Vikram (which has digressed – as always – into this back and forth on class/caste system in Pakistan), the influence of English on Hindi (and Urdu and other regional languages) in India is indeed massive. However, the reason I did not mention it is because that wasn’t in the scope of the blog post.

        Languages/cultures that do not accept external influences are prone to dying out. Languages exist and evolve under a form of Darwinian selection pressure and lack of adaption means extinction. Urdu survived (and thrived) as a language by liberally borrowing from Arabic and Persian, and later Portuguese (kamra, kameez, mez, sabun etc) and now English. As the Borg say: “Resistance is futile” 😉

        I hope young Hindi-speaking Indians go ahead and borrow from English, code-mix and speak freely (without silly oldies prescribing how to speak and what words to use). That’s pretty much the point Tariq Rehman makes in his TEDx video on “Urdish”. More power to the speakers of the mongrel-tongues, for they are our future!

        PS: Go easy on the digression please (terribly interesting though it is)…

        1. This animosity towards English is the reason why Hindi speaking states of the North are far behind the Southern States. But this animosity is largely present in the political class, the public is happy to embrace English even if it is at the cost of Hindi.

      2. Kabir, you are going on and on about ‘divinely ordained systems’ as if that is some neat and well defined category.

        My point here is simple. There has been more mobility for people who find themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic order in India than Pakistan. And an important reason for this is the lack of acknowledgement of caste and ensuring protections for the weakest members of society.

        You mentioned the poor in Pakistan not getting good education. This is indeed the case. 24% of Indians go to university versus only 10% in Pakistan. The question is why.

        The clues lie in the link and quotes I had posted earlier, which you either did not see or chose to ignore.

        “low-caste children, both boys and girls, are deterred from enrolling when the most convenient school is in a hamlet dominated by high-caste households.”

        Socially and economically powerful Pakistanis are able to get away with underinvesting in common education because the most marginalized sections of society are not given the representation they need in the legislature and executive. There is nothing like a Right To Education law in Pakistan.

        We have actually been over all this before on another blog, so I am not going to waste any more time on this here.

        1. “Caste” is a Hindu system and not a useful category for analyzing a country that is 97% Muslim. Because India is justifiably criticized about the horrible regressive practice of naming people “untouchable”, defensive people like you have decided that Pakistan must share the burden of this sin as well. We have enough of our own problems. Armchair analysis of Pakistan without ever setting foot in the country is frankly worthless.

          It is possible to ensure protections for the weaker sections of society without introducing an erroneous frame of reference that does not apply to a particular cultural context. Affirmative action can be given based on socioeconomic status, on race (as it is in the US, another context that doesn’t apply to Pakistan where everyone is the same race) etc. A Right to Education law would be a very good thing and in fact the right to education is now enshrined in Pakistan’s Constitution.

          1. All my quotes were from a paper written by a Pakistani author who is considered expert enough to be employed by the World Bank.

            If you think you know more than her, then you will have to present more credentials than the ‘I happen to be a Pakistani’ argument.

          2. Fair enough. Your quoted author may believe caste is a useful category with which to analyze Pakistan but I and many other Pakistanis believe that it is not useful. Being employed by the World Bank does not automatically make someone right.

            Be careful playing the credentials game. It can easily be pointed out that someone with an Engineering background is perhaps not the most qualified to opine on matters related to sociology, anthropology and linguistics. Especially when applying frameworks from one’s native country to a country with a different social and religious context.

  6. Slapstik, regarding your comments on borrowing and the evolution of languages. I think there is a difference between borrowing and replacement.

    If Indian civilization never evolved a word for ‘a set of words with a coherent meaning’, then it would make sense to borrow the English word ‘sentence’. But we do have a word for that, its called ‘vaaky’.

    If the current trajectory continues there will be no Sanskrit vocabulary (beyond very basic nouns like ”paani’) in the daily speech of Indians. No record of the complex thought of their ancestors and the singularity of the Indian experience in the background of their life. We will be reduced to the ‘mere performance of Indianness’ by dressing up on festivals and eating a few sweets.

    Of course there may be Indian citizens who might want to have nothing to do with Sanskrit and other Indian traditions. I am in no way suggesting that their rights be infringed on.

    1. Well, that is rather lazy, isn’t it?

      If Indians want to use Sanskrit vocabulary, why not learn Sanskrit? It’s not dead as a dodo like Old Persian or Hittite, with barely any account of literature or gramnar other than a few insciptions.

      Sanskrit’s extant corpus of literature is vast and varied. Its grammar is a thing of mathematical beauty that is peerless. But instead of doing the hard work to learn it, the indolent bunch that Indians are want to use a smattering of Sanskrit words in their daily language to get an easy religious/emotional connection with “hallowed speech of the forefathers” on the cheap.

      Finally, Indianness is human cultural heritage that has (and will) change with time. Indians aren’t from Mars. Their culture is expressible in any human language and English is no exception. Code-mixing is a sign of facility with multiple languages and a marker of human creativity.

      And guess what, the Sanskrit that we know today is a result of a very similar process involving Proto-Indo-Iranian and Proto-Dravidian languages. Didn’t make early Sanskrit speakers idiots or unaware of their heritage…

      PS: A very happy new year to all of you!
      nava varSa svastikaH astu sarvebhyaH!

  7. Kabir, languages aren’t museums of the past or temples to our ancestors. And conversely, linguistic borrowings don’t imply a rejection of cultural heritage.

    For example, Armenian borrows heavily from middle Persian, reflecting the cultural prestige of that language two thousand years ago. But Armenians have, through great hardships, continued (not “preserved”) a lively culture thru the millenia. No one would suggest that, due to the extensive Persian borrowings, Armenians are engaged in a fake performance and are actually Sassanians. Similarly, the Irish are not less Irish for having adopted their conquerors tongue.

    (On a separate note, I agree with you that Pakistanis, and desi muslims generally, don’t recognize the influence of Jati in their lives. I always find it comical to read about the “tribes” of Pakistani Punjab — Awan, Arain, Jatt, etc.)

    1. Ikram,

      I agree with you regarding language. This is what I was arguing in the debate with Vikram. There is nothing wrong with the common Hindi vocabulary including many Arabic and Persian words and there is no need to find sometimes awkward Sanskrit equivalents for them. Similarly, Urdu contains words of Sanskrit origin and there is no need to excise them from the spoken language of Pakistanis.

      On the caste note: I don’t think biradari is the same as caste. For one thing, it is not a religiously endorsed concept. Awans and Arains can worship in the same mosques without anyone getting upset. This is very different from what happens when Dalits attempt to go into Brahmin temples. It is true that people tend to marry within the same biradari (in the old days people preferred to marry their cousins), but I don’t think that there is comparable violence when people from two different biradaris marry as there is if a Dalit boy is involved with an upper-caste girl in India.

      South Asian Muslims adopted many practices from the Hindu community so it is not surprising that we have a system of social stratification. Still there is nothing like “The Laws of Manu” in Islam. Pakistanis are divided based on religion, sect, ethnicity and class–not so much on caste.

      1. South Asian Muslims did not adopt, what I call, “Hinduapa”, from Hindus – they inherited it. It forms the substrate of Indic Islam.

        Manu’s Laws indeed do not exist in Islam, but nobody follows the Islamic manual literally either (though some really do try ;)). So invariably shit, good and bad, creeps in the practice of Islam.

  8. Whoops. That last one was for Vikram, although I appreciate your thoughts, Kabir.

    As for Jati in Pakistan — call it “biraderi”, call it “pineapple”, it is still real, as Mukhtaran mai knows. One of the many items of ancestral heritage Muslims kept when they converted from Hinduism. (Although new arrivals of all religions adopted it too, Google meshuchrarim).

    Happy new year!

    1. Happy new year to you as well.

      Of course “biradari” (or “jati” as you say) is real. But I think it makes a difference that it has no religious sanction in Islam. In the mosque, all social classes are equal. This is very different from Hinduism.

      We can agree to disagree. Personally, I still don’t think caste is the most useful analytic category for discussing Pakistan.

  9. I came across this short video by Devdutt Pattanaik, who is a scholar of Hinduism. It briefly discusses the Hindu caste system. I think it is relevant to the discussion with Vikram and Ikram. Note that he doesn’t try to justify what is a very regressive system (he calls it “purity nonsense”) neither does he attempt to say that it occurs in other religions as well. He acknowledges that “caste” as it operates in India (varna/jati) is unique to Hinduism. This is what I would call a healthy attitude.

    Vestiges of this kind of stratification may exist in South Asian Islam but nothing quite to this extent. As Allama Iqbal wrote in one of his poems “Ek hi saf main kharay thay Mahmood aur Ayaz/ Na koi banda raha, na koi banda nawaz” (Mahmood and Ayaz stood in the same row. There was no master or servant). There may be social stratification outside the masjid (obviously, rich Pakistanis have servants), but all believers are equal in the sight of Allah. I don’t mean to engage in what some would call “Hinduism bashing” (Islam has plenty of problems as well), but lets recognize reality.


    1. I wouldn’t call Pattanaik a “scholar” of Hinduism. He’s a bit of an apologist and tends to employ a lot of obfuscatory, but nice-sounding arguments. And I also don’t agree that caste is going to disappear in a century – not in India at any rate.

      Indian culture is deeply casteist and that stratification based on birth has been a feature of Indian society for quite a while. It almost certainly predates the existence of Classical Hinduism (with all its texts and strictures). In other words, it a deep feature of Indian society which some Indic traditions sanctioned (with typically BS justifications based on past lives) and some explicitly militated against (by rejecting prevailing orthodoxy). The churn continues…

      Christianity and Islam grew in stratified societies too, but these models did not have to contend with nearly as many (and as stratified) a people as of the Indian subcontinent. So purveyors of these ideologies have made their own Faustian compacts with the caste reality. Perhaps Pakistanis, who have almost-surely broken the umbilical cord with Indic culture, stand the best chance of ridding themselves of this feature … but who knows!

      1. Pattanaik didn’t come across as an apologist at all, at least not in this clip. He made no bones about calling the caste system “purity nonsense”. I don’t know about his other work and perhaps you are right.

        I just finished reading Sujatha Gidla’s new book “Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” which was extremely enlightening. Despite the family being Christian, Hindu society still treated them as untouchable. There seems to be no escaping caste, no matter what religion one converts to. Second, the family was highly educated but that didn’t seem to help them avoid bigotry either.

        I don’t think Pakistanis have “broken the umbilical cord with Indic culture” [ Are you using “Indic” to mean “Hindu”?]. We are still an extremely stratified and status conscious society. However, this social stratification has no religious sanction, which I think makes a huge difference.

        1. Kabir, Sujatha Gidla has written a personal memoir. It should be treated as such. She is not a scholar of sociology, and doesnt get the last word on the Dalit experience in modern India.

          Is there caste in Indian society ? Yes.
          Was this institution supported by Hindu traditions ? Often.
          Was this institution opposed by Hindu traditions ? Sometimes.
          Is this institution an essential ingredient of Hindu religion ? No. Read Patrick Oleville, Nicholas Dirks and Susan Bayly to understand this from a scholarly perspective.

          1. Haha! “She doesn’t get the last word on the Dalit experience in modern India”. She’s a Dalit and you are upper-caste. Her ancestors were Dalits for generations. Someone who has actually experienced caste discrimination in terrible ways probably knows more about it than you.

            “She’s not a scholar of sociology”. Yes and neither are you. You are an engineer. What’s your point?
            Please go ahead and keep defending the most regressive aspects of Hinduism. At this point, I just find you incredibly amusing.

        2. Despite the family being Christian, Hindu society still treated them as untouchable.

          I am not surprised. Caste is primarily about birth (and occupation, though that’s correlated to birth too) and the tainting is largely immune to faith.

          Pakistanis have “broken the umbilical cord with Indic culture” [ Are you using “Indic” to mean “Hindu”?]

          Approximately yes. But it isn’t just Hindu-ness I mean, but a general lack of cultural cross-talk within the Indosphere. Pakistan’s parameters are set for more independent evolution, esp. since the region now includes areas and people who never really were Indic so to speak. So that makes Pakistanis better able to shed India-specific cultural pathologies.

          this social stratification has no religious sanction

          I couldn’t agree more. Hinduism took Caste and built a whole Trump tower around it…

    2. It seems you find the word of a amateur author who writes popular mythology, and a poet famously prone to sentimentality, more authoritative than a scholar whom the World Bank pays to do research on such matters.

      For the sake of completeness, here are a few more references,

      “I cannot wait for this damn election to be over,” I heard a candidate’s wife say, “the lower castes have become so uppity, reminding us of insults they suffered in the past and brazenly asking for all kinds of favours.”


      The writer is a a faculty and widely cited scholar,


      She isnt using the word ‘caste’ lightly.

      Tribes claiming ‘Rajput status’ in modern day Pakistan,


      At this point, it really is a matter of your opinion and preferences.

      1. Opinion and preferences go both ways my dear. I am a Pakistani Muslim, I know more about my society than you and whatever secondary sources suit your POV.

        It’s so amusing that when sources I cite disagree with you you immediately attack them and call them “amateur”. And when an actual Dalit tells her family’s story, you say “oh she’s not a scholar”. You are really bad at social science, sorry to say. Better luck sticking to engineering.

          1. Haha! Yes, American of Pakistani origin. But I still know more about how Pakistan works than someone who has never set foot in the country.

            Sorry about the incessant wars. People who act stupid and who condescend to me just get on my last nerve.

  10. ” I don’t think Pakistanis have “broken the umbilical cord with Indic culture” ”

    There are lots of stratified societies on this planet. Pakistan having stratification is the result of a predominantly agrarian, feudal economy, and a lack of affirmative action policies.

    But in cultural and social terms, Pakistan is a very distinct society from present day India, and past societies which existed in its territory.

    An important ingredient in shaping the culture of the subcontinent has been the interplay between radically different religious beliefs. And the entry of Abrahamic traditions and Sikhism made the mix even more diverse and variegated. Indian culture has been shaped by the negotiations between the philosophies and cultures emanating from these religious viewpoints.

    Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. This is a demographic reality. The pressure of accommodating and interacting with other strong religious traditions simply does not exist there. In that sense, Pakistan is distinct from both neighboring India and its own past.

    Perhaps, in Pakistan we are seeing the first real manifestation of ‘Indo-Aryan’ Islam, which along with the other fully Islamized cultures, Turkic Islam (Turkey), Persianate Islam (Iran) and Arabic Islam (Egypt) will form another pole of Islamic civilization.

    1. Pakistan is stratified because it is a less-developed country and it doesn’t have a strong economy. There is really not much of a middle class. One is either rich or poor. One either has servants or one is a servant. The quality of education is abysmal. Even for those who somehow acquire a degree, there are not enough professional jobs. That’s why you see “educated” young men driving Careems or Ubers. The children of the rich, on the other hand, either study in the most elite private universities of Pakistan or in the West.

      What makes Pakistan different from India though is that in our society there is no concept of someone being from a “backward caste”. The Pakistani government would never officially call some of its citizens “backward”. All Pakistani citizens are theoretically equal, even if some are dirt poor and others filthy rich. Socio-economic class exists in every country. The hierarchy of the “caste system” is a unique Hindu problem.

      The major access of discrimination in Pakistan is religion not class. Sunnis get first priority, then other Muslims, then non-Muslims. This is extremely unfortunate but not surprising in a country that calls itself an “Islamic Republic”.

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