“A quick read of the eight volume series on Urdu learning textbooks for school children published by the maktab Jamia Millia is revealing. Almost all the anecdotes and tales in these books center around lower middle class if not poor Muslim households. The impression one gets of Muslim social life is that of an average household hard pressed for money. The head of the family is a sipahi, a clerk, a postman, or a peon in the local kutchehry. And this is the lifestyle at the upper end of the social scale. Other characters that pop up lead even more difficult lives: Iddu the tongawala, the grasscutter and so on. The life in the family hinges around the maintenance of earthen stoves (choolhaas), hand operated fans (pankhaas) and chickens and goats that cohabit with the residents of the house. Little children always go to local madrasas with their slates and chalk where they are explained the working of the dak system, the intricacies of sending a telegram. Their holidays to grandparents mean grueling train rides in third class overflowing compartments.
The premium on high moral training is overbearing. There is an overdose in almost every story of the values of honesty, sincerity, friendship and most of all bhaichaara (brotherhood) with people of all religions. Almost every Muslim boy in the stories has a Hindu friend; the Mirza sahib who surfaces has always a pandit munshi for a confidant. The selection of poets, national leaders also is carefully done so as to emphasise the values of living together with the Hindus in peace. Interestingly, even though these books center around Muslim lives there is no talk anywhere about Islam. Neither its prescriptive tenets nor its history is engaged with. On the whole the books almost forget that they are meant to creatively teach the language to beginners. They end up being pamphlets of a desperate if not helpless Muslim voice making a plea to recover its lost space in Indian society.
Why is it that only Muslim lives constitute the focus of almost the entire series of Urdu learning textbooks? Why is it that only a very lower middle class Muslim lifestyle is chosen as representative of Muslim lives is India? Why is it that school learning focuses on the working of the telegram and telegraph when such modes of communication are increasingly being phased out? Why is it necessary that every Muslim child should invariably have a Hindu friend?”
Seema Alavi, Associate Professor, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi, here.