Lok Sabha elections, software imperialism and the Urdu language: Anant Maringanti

Guest post by ANANT MARINGANTI. Kapil Sibal may have unwittingly erased a whole historical geography of pre-windows software development in India. If the Times of India report on the release of Urdu fonts developed by National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language ( NCPUL) last week is accurate,  Sibal said that India developed Urdu Software and fonts and thereby ended a longstanding dependency on Pakistan. This, according to him is beneficial to the 15 crore Urdu language users. There is a  ‘pre-election Muslim wooing’ feel to the story which nicely blends with the  ‘massaging of Indian (read Hindu) nationalist pride’ feel.  The sense of triumph and pride at this historic achievement by Indian programmers would have been justified even if it could be read as symptomatic of the postcolonial condition that Amitav Ghosh captures in his recounting of the breakdown of conversation between himself and the Imam of Lataifa and Nashawy.  Unfortunately however, Urdu language users in India were never dependent on Pakistan for software and fonts.  This can be said in two different senses: first that Indian Urdu language computing originated in Hyderabad almost 25 years ago and has contributed significantly to local cultural economy. Second, to the extent that there has been exchange between India and Pakistan in Urdu language computing, the participants in that exchange have seen it primarily in terms of exchange. Afterall, people cannot help making language tools even if nation states do not pay them much attention.   

The record can be and must be set right.  But that is the easier part of the challenge. The more difficult part of the challenge is how to respond to the political motivation behind Sibal’s  claim. Is the Indian National Congress clutching at straws ? Why did its spokesperson make such a superfluous claim? Is there something to be gained by trying to recover the erased historical geographies of Urdu language computing at this point – when everything in the country appears to be gearing towards the general elections ?

So, let us deal with the easier part first and set the record straight.  Indian Urdu publishers and writers have been using Urdu software and fonts developed in Hyderabad for nearly 25 years now.  The first ever use of Urdu publishing software in the subcontinent was demonstrated on August 15th in 1989 when the editor of Siasat Daily in Hyderabad, Abid Ali Khan used it to write the independence day editorial. To commemorate this event, the programmer, Ashhar Farhan and his team named the fonts after Abid Ali Khan – simply as Abid. By 1992 almost every Urdu daily in India had already adopted this software called Urdu Composing System (UCS/1) followed by its successor the Urdu Page Composer. Among the early adopters of the system were the largest circulated newspapers like the Hind Samachar, Siasat, Rehnuma, Inquilab and the also India’s largest circulating monthly – The Shama. Shortly afterwards, Pakistan also adopted the same software.

Even the Keyboard now adopted by the Muqtadra Quami Zabaan is actually the keyboard that was designed by Hyderabadi programmer  – Ashhar Farhan for UCS/1. As UCS/1 was already in use in 1989 much before Muqtadra standardized this keyboard for whole of Pakistan.

Soon after Urdu publishing industry began to adopt the publishing software,  the Andhra Pradesh Urdu Academy started to train people to operate the Urdu Page Composer. With this fillip, Hyderabad soon emerged as the leading publisher of Urdu books. This advantage is maintained by Hyderabad till today as it continues to be the largest Urdu publishing industry in the country.

National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language that has now claimed to end the dependence upon Pakistani fonts, had contracted Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) in 1999 and in turn C-DAC had acquired rights to use the Hyderabadi software for further development of Urdu font.

Hyderabad’s lead in the development of Urdu language publishing technology is owing to the fact that the development of Urdu language has a long history in the city in which hundreds of scholars and technologists contributed over the years. The Osmania University was the first university in the country to offer education not only in Urdu but in any Indian language. In order to provide textbooks in Urdu langauge, the then government of the Nizam state established the Bureau of Translation which not only translated important scientific texts in Urdu, but also undertook to create new terminology in simple Urdu. The work of Osmania University and the Bureau of Translations is unsurpassed even to this day. No comparable project has been undertaken in either India or Pakistan.

The immediate impulse for the development in the 80s actually came from the newspaper market.  Until the adoption of the Urdu software, the entire newspaper was handwritten by calligraphers. This was a labour intensive process and forced the editors to stop news gathering at 6 pm so that the calligraphers could get down to work. The only entry that could go into press after this was the ‘chhpte waqt’  piece that the editor could scribble in his own hand.  As a result of this, Urdu newspapers were way behind all other newspapers. So, when the first sign of speeding up the composing became visible Abid Ali Khan took it even though it involved investment in technology that they were not familiar with until then.

The historical geography that Kapil Sibal erased may seem like a minor issue that can be set right easily. But it is deeply problematic at two levels. First, the story of the development of Indic fonts and Indic publishing systems for Urdu is an intercontinental story of social classes, exchanges, trade, trespasses and treachery. It is also the story of a period in Indian history where computing technology was driven by the needs of Indian market rather than by global outsourcing agencies. As a result, we witnessed a tremendous amount of innovation in the development of dedicated systems that identified and addressed large and small problems in Indian society, institutions and markets, created livelihoods and transformed neighborhoods. There are important political and economic and cultural lessons to be learnt from that decade.

Following on that, secondly, and more immediately, the erasure of this historical geography is in aid of positioning the national government – particularly the Indian National Congress led government – as the benefactor of the Muslims. An idiom that has worn out from overuse. And that signals a frightening prospect. Can the Indian National Congress really woo substantial numbers of voters to whom Indian nationalist pride and the wellbeing of the Muslims matters.

P.S. The  special value of the fonts that NCPUL developed apparently lies in the fact that they can be used  with Windows 7 and android. Apparently, that is a first in India. The empire is dead.  Long live empire.

3 thoughts on “Lok Sabha elections, software imperialism and the Urdu language: Anant Maringanti”

  1. One is aware that Urdu software were developed in India long time back. Besides Hyderabad, even C-DAC in Pune had developed Urdu computing facilities through its GIST-card systems in early 1990s. But I have no problem even if Pakistan develops a great software that we have to use. We can live with (and love) all the American software giants in every facet of our lives, but have such discomfort if we have to depend on Pakistan? What a hypocrisy.

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  2. This is very informative. But for clarification’s sake, Sibal could have mouthed only what he had been told by the NCPUL folks, who in turn had in mind only the software called Inpage, the most commonly used Urdu software now in India and very much a ripoff of some Pakistani software. Some comments concerning Inpage might be useful

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