Tribute to Kavita S Datla: A Conversation with "The Language of Secular Islam"

Kavita Datla's book suggests that the resources to rethink our own present might lie in the not so distant past. 

Kavita S Datla (b 1975) passed away on 22 July 2017 after a courageous battle with a rare form of cancer. Kavita was an associate professor at Mount Holyoke College at the time of her death and was promoted to the position of professor posthumously, in recognition of her role as an exemplary teacher and scholar. A year after her passing, as her friends and colleagues, we engage with her brilliant first book The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India (hereafter referred to as the book) in this tribute.


The book challenges the predominant ways in which modern histories of South Asia frame language politics as vehicles of identity and as inevitably subservient to an Anglophone linguistic order. In contrast, Kavita takes seriously the idea that the persistent demand for the recognition of South Asian languages was equally a demand to fulfill the promise of non-majoritarian democracy and describes how this promise took root in unlikely places—such as institutions of higher education. Rather than a history of popular mobilisation or imperial governance that cemented language as a representative index of identity, Kavita explores language politics through an edifying pedagogical experiment, the establishment of Osmania University in the princely state of Hyderabad.


At the time of its founding in 1918, Osmania University was the first public university to use a modern Indian language, Urdu, as the medium of instruction in all subjects. It is remarkable that this bold linguistic reimagination concerned Urdu, a language that is today associated almost entirely with Muslim culture, the histories of which tend to be located largely in North India and are subsumed by narratives about the country’s partition. Kavita, on the other hand, describes how Osmania’s pedagogical project, located as it was in a princely state, offers an alternative way to understand South Asia’s modern histories of languages. The establishment of Osmania elucidates attempts by Indian intellectuals to engage with their classical and literary linguistic traditions and imagine futures other than ones deemed for them. She thus scrapes away Urdu’s parochial and untimely image from the 21st century to foreground how, in the period before independence, Urdu was conceived of as a language capable of expressing the cutting edge of science and modernity. Far from being a minority language, Kavita shows how “Urdu and Arabic (with all their associations with Islam and Muslim) could have stood at the centre of the nation-building enterprise” (2013: 3).


Colonial- and missionary-led educational interventions, as we well know, generated a reassessment of South Asia’s many literary and scholarly traditions. In a now classic essay, Bernard Cohn (1996) argued that the colonisation of India was a conquest of knowledge in which languages played a central role. Colonial institutions began the work of abstracting knowledge from the corpus of classical texts in Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian and preparing administrators to converse in the “vulgar” languages. This was a one-way street in official eyes. Colonial policy, most famously articulated by Thomas Macaulay, deemed Indian languages, especially those spoken widely, to be underdeveloped for the project of governance and for a future which had to be thought in English.  As Gauri Viswanathan (1998) has shown, Macaulay’s opinions were, in fact, a sleight of hand which hid the extent to which English literary studies was created in the theatres of colonialism, rather than diffused to the colonies. English education profoundly challenged language politics and learning in India by providing a model of secular education. But Kavita notes that remarkably little is known about the depth and scope of the institutional work and creativity of those who contended with English and sought to think otherwise about modernity. At Osmania and for Urdu advocates who Kavita writes about, this entailed drawing on Islamic traditions to formulate secularised understandings of the self, experience, and history and creating a vocabulary for socio-economic, material, and political engagement with the world in an Urdu that all citizens could imbibe. In these ways, the Osmania project also tried to intervene in critical debates about what it meant to be an Indian. It testifies to explorations of a pressing question that haunts our amnesiac present: what might a secular national culture look like and what could be the place of the Muslim past within it? 


For many involved in the Osmania project in the early 20th century, this question became especially urgent with the rise of mass politics that also brought with it statistical majorities and minorities. In the face of numerical and fast intensifying social, political, and psychic divisions between the Hindu majority and minority communities, intellectuals associated with Osmania took care to posit Urdu as more than an expression of Muslim cultural and religious identity vis-à-vis Hindi. Urdu, they believed, could be inhabited as a worldly national language adequate to the task of iterating multiple public concerns, characteristics, and secular lives.  For example, the scholar and linguist Maulvi Abdul Haq, who would eventually migrate to Pakistan during the partition and advocate for Urdu as its official language, was associated with Osmania from the very beginning. His encounters with Gandhi and the language politics of the 1930s alerted him to forms of secularism that merely tolerated minorities and had thus already caved in to the majoritarianism underway in late colonial India (Datla 2013: 132–136). Through his attempts to institute Urdu as a “worldly vernacular” available to a diverse population (Datla 2006; 2009), Haq sought to counter such a secularism and the attendant minoritisation of Muslims. He was not alone. Kavita describes how other Osmania University educators like Muhiuddin Qadri Zore similarly created pathways for the formation of a national culture that could make the majority-minority/major-minor distinction redundant. These efforts were however quickly buried in the din of linguistic nationalisation that accompanied independence. In the years leading up to independence and partition, a non-majoritarian future for all became more and more distant. Today, in 2018, it sometimes feels entirely lost.


Appreciation of this lost history requires a careful unravelling of the present. Take, for example, the book’s last chapter. Here Kavita’s reading of a controversy over the singing of the song Vande Mataram at Osmania exemplifies her methodological sophistication and the enduring political implications of her interventions.


In 1938, the Osmania University authorities attempted to ban striking students from singing Vande Mataram within the university, later expelling the students from hostels and the university. The university administration argued that the controversial and political nature of the prayer could hurt the sentiments of non-Hindu students. Vande Mataram, written by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (sometime in the 1870s) and used extensively by Congress had become the “unofficial hymn” of the nationalist movement. In response to the criticism that the song excluded Muslims, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress adopted the first two stanzas to enhance it as a “symbol of national resistance to British imperialism” (Datla 2013: 146). The striking students at Osmania countered the Congress, emphasising the religious nature of the song as central to their version of nationalism. Kavita’s work helps capture the importance of this resignification, elucidating a more complex debate about Hinduism that the prayer generated in Hyderabad. Akbar Hydari, the Chancellor of the Osmania University explicitly denied a Hindu identity to the song and argued that a prayer of recent origin such as Vande Mataram was necessarily distinct from older Hindu texts such as the Vedas. The students in turn rejected any official definition of Hinduism by either the Osmania authorities or the Hindu Mahasabha that was also trying to intervene in the movement. Instead they were keen to define Hinduism as a much more flexible and pluralistic religion in their embrace of Vande Mataram “by defining their right to create their religion together and observe it as they chose” (Datla 2013: 151). This was not a mere matter of asserting freedom of expression. 


As Kavita (2013: 162) makes this point, she challenges two dominant modes of understanding the Vande Mataram movement in Hyderabad: namely, that it either “symbolised the triumph of a purely democratic and secular sensibility” or that it represented a protest by mostly Hindu students against an oppressive Muslim ruler, the Nizam. Neither understanding captures that moment. The first framework ignores student attempts to use religious practice even as they refused a narrow definition of Hinduism promoted by exclusivist organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha. The second framing of the movement as communal ignores the anti-communal stances of both the students and the Nizam during the debate. Instead Kavita (2013: 163) urges us to think of “the ways in which the secular itself was being negotiated in this moment of conflict.” 


In retracing the multiple resignifications of Vande Mataram in Hyderabad, Kavita points to the much broader scope of the student agitation as a formational moment in Hyderabad’s student politics. What appeared on surface to be about a prayer being banned revealed important fault lines regarding demands for ethics courses, uniforms, and other pedagogical agendas. Students highlighted the need for high school-level education in Indian languages such as Telugu, Kannada, and Marathi to be prioritised alongside Urdu and the inadequacy of resources for non-Urdu speakers at the primary school level. The discussions on whether religion was a private or public matter, and its “proper” parameters were imbricated in larger debates on education and the building of a secular civic future.

There is perhaps no better way to reconsider the present. Under a Hindu right-wing government, India’s public universities currently struggle under the pressures of curricular revisions, the erosion of long term institutional norms, and controversies around identity and food practices integrally related to exclusions and inclusions in nationalist projects. Kavita’s nuanced reading of the Vande Mataram movement in Hyderabad of the 1930s can be read as a call to reject simple explanations and to study the contestations of alternate secular and national imaginations in the past and present more closely. Kavita’s work reflects on the contours of the nation that was imagined, and that was lost. She does not insist on the redemptive potential of the intellectual, cultural, and linguistic life that her protagonists sought to institute, nor does she argue that it can be reproduced. Nevertheless, her book reminds us of another polity that was once sought to be realised and suggests that resources to rethink our own present might lie in the not so distant past. 

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