Urdu has a unique status among major Indian languages in the sense that its speakers are not confined to any particular region. Rather, they are spread across the country.
North India, particularly Uttar Pradesh, has always been considered the bastion of the language. However, the 2011 census data on languages has revealed a decline in the number of people who register Urdu as their mother tongue. Though the census figures were released a couple of years ago, the data on languages and mother tongue has been released only recently.
Among languages that are spoken by over 1 crore people, only Urdu has shown a decline. While the overall population has grown substantially, the number of Urdu speakers has fallen to below 4.2%. Apart from Konkani, Urdu is the only language that has registered a fall in number of speakers.
The fall in the number of Urdu speakers is a reversal of the growth rate that was recorded in earlier census data. The number of Urdu speakers was 2.86 crore in 1971. It increased to over 3.5 crore in 1981 and a decade later, it reached 4.4 crore. The 2001 census recorded 5.15 crore Urdu speakers. But in 2011, the figure dropped to 5.07 crore.
Urdu was the sixth most spoken language according to the 2001 census data, but has fallen to seventh (overtaken by Gujarati) in the 2011 census.
The data also shows Hindi has added about 10 crore speakers between 2001 and 2011.
Languages aren’t associated with religions and it is known that far more people understand and speak Urdu than those who register it as their mother tongue. But, it is generally people from the Muslim community who record Urdu as their mother tongue.
Even on this account, Urdu is declining in the north. UP has 3.85 crore Muslims, but just 1.08 crore Urdu speakers were recorded in the state. If it is believed that only Muslims register Urdu as their mother tongue, then just 28% Muslims in UP recorded Urdu as their primary language.
Growth in south India
In sharp contrast, Urdu has been gaining in south India. A large number of Urdu speakers were recorded not just in Andhra and Telangana states, but also in Maharashtra and Karnataka.
There are 75.4 lakh Urdu speakers in Maharashtra. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana recorded 75 lakh speakers together. In Karnataka, 66.18 lakh recorded Urdu as their mother tongue.
These four states put together amount to more than 2.15 crore Urdu speakers. This figure is almost double the number of Urdu speakers in UP.
In other north Indian states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Urdu speakers are 9.16 lakh and 6.64 lakh respectively. However, Bihar has 87.7 lakh Urdu speakers.
However, this doesn’t mean Urdu is dying. Languages evolve over centuries and spread to new areas. Urdu remains a pan-Indian language with millions of speakers in different states. States such as Jharkhand (19.6 lakh), West Bengal (16.6 lakh) and Tamil Nadu (12.6 lakh) also have sizeable Urdu speaking population.
The statistics may suggest that Urdu’s famed north Indian bastion is crumbling. In south India, the Deccan region – spreading from Aurangabad to Gulbarga and Hyderabad to Vellore – which was the abode of Urdu in the past, continues to remain so.
By Shams Ur Rehman Alavi for The Wire