Inqilab in Court: What does Urdu word really mean?

Umar Khalid is an undertrial prisoner in Delhi violence case
Umar Khalid was booked under UAPA by Delhi Police for his alleged “provocative speeches” during the visit of American President Donald Trump to India. He is accused of being a conspirator in the Delhi pogrom. Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Last week, the Urdu word inqilab and its meanings were under discussion in the Delhi High Court. In the court, inqilab came under deliberation to determine whether or not Umar Khalid, a student activist who is in jail in connection with the Delhi pogrom, should be granted bail.

The judges argued that inqilab meant revolution and that ‘at its core, revolution is violent’. If this was not the case, they continued, the adjective ‘bloodless’ wouldn’t be used to refer to peaceful revolutions.

It is clear that critical to their argument is a linguistic issue—the semantics of the word inqilab and the sociolinguistic settings where it is used.

In 1984, the police in Los Angeles charged Paul Prinzivalli with making false bomb threats to Pan Am’s flights. The police, after listening to the recordings of the caller who made threats, concluded that the east coast accent on the tape was that of Mr Prinzivalli’s, who hailed from New York City (NYC).

A few months later, the judges called the famous sociolinguist William Labov as an expert witness; based on a fine analysis of the linguistic features of Prinzivalli’s New York City accent and the one on the tape, Labov demonstrated that the person on the tape wasn’t a New Yorker; he showed that the person on the tape had linguistic features of someone from Boston. Following the testimony, Paul Prinzivalli was acquitted. 

The linguistic question in Umar Khalid’s case is if the word inqilab semantically involves the use of violence. The word inqilab came to Urdu from Arabic where it means “to change”.

According to Firoz Al-Lughat, an authoritative Urdu dictionary first published in 1897, this meaning is retained in Urdu. The first meaning the dictionary lists are “taghayyur, tabaddul”, which is ‘change’.

The second meaning, which is a metaphorical extension, is the replacement of an old political/economic system with a new one, which could be a peaceful transition or a violent military coup. In Urdu, the first meaning is more common than the second one. The meaning of violent transition has a limited context. 

Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810), considered the greatest poet of classical Urdu poetry, uses the word in the meaning of ‘change’ in this couplet.

Shayad keh qalb-e-yar bhi Tuk is taraf phire

Main muntazir zamane se hun inqilab ka

‘perhaps my beloved’s heart will turn towards me, I have been waiting for this inqilab, ‘change’ (of the heart) for ages’. Here Mir uses inqilab to mean change in his beloved’s heart. The poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, similarly, uses inqilab to refer to an internal change in our intellectual understanding of the role of humankind in this world. He says:

Teri khudi mein agar inqilab ho paida,

Ajab nahin hai ke yeh char su badal jae

Iqbal is calling for an inqilab, ‘change’ in khudi, defined as the highest level of self-realization that human beings can possibly achieve, which he believes, will bring about a change in society at large. The context clearly doesn’t allow for the second meaning—change of political system peacefully or by force as in political coup. 

Raghupati Sahay, known in the literary world as Firaq Gorakhpuri uses inqilab in the same sense.

tere gham ki umr-e-daraaz mein kai inqilab hue magar

wahi tul-e-shaam-e-firaaq hai wahii intizaar-e-sahar bhi hai

‘In my long life in your grief, many inqilab(s) happened,

the long evenings of separation and the wait for the morning, however, remained the same’.

Here, Firaq describes the pain and sorrow the lover must endure because of separation from his beloved. Firaq says that although many things underwent inqilab, meaning ‘changes’ during separation, the unbearable length of being away from the beloved stayed constant, and so did his wait for the dawn, a metaphor for his eventual union with his beloved. 

Trideep Pais, Umar Khalid’s lawyer, based on the general meaning, argued that the use of the word is not a call for violence; it means ‘change’ in the context within which Umar used it and that Umar Khalid was asking for the law to be called back, and that is also revolution. In Urdu, a call for the withdrawal of law can be described as a revolution, as argued by Pais.

Justice Mridul, in response, posed another question, “You were asking for renunciation of the government?”, which insinuates the use of force.

The second meaning of inqilab, which is ‘revolution’, is related to the first in that it is also a change but of a monumental degree with the use of force or without it. The meaning of a forceful change of a political system gained prominence during the Indian freedom struggle against British rule; many Indian revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh and Khudi Ram Bose believed in this meaning.

Others such as Mahatma Gandhi also believed in revolution but without the use of force. 

The word inqilab, outside of the context of the struggle against British rule, does not include the use of force. There are myriad examples of this in Urdu literature. Many poets, especially those belonging to the Progressive Writer’s Association (PWA) called for an inqilab, meaning ‘change’ against the oppressive political, economic, and social system, which did not involve renunciation or overthrow of the government. Consider some examples. Ali Sardar Jafri (1913-2000) is not only a Bollywood lyricist, producer, and director but a towering figure of the PWA. In his poem entitled Utho ‘Rise,’ he appeals to the youth, farmers, and workers, belonging to different parts of India to rise against slavery and injustice. He tells them that the flag of inqilab has blossomed, similar to the rise of the sun. 

Utho khil gaya parcham-e-inqilab

Nikalta hai jis tarha se aftab 

Finally, consider Akhtar Payami’s poetry (1931-2013). In this poem, he proclaims that the existing system of injustice and oppression is breathing it’s last and that the inqilab, ‘revolution’ is already here.

Chut rahi hai nabz e hasti aa raha hai inqilab

Uth raha hai aj farsouda aqaid ka suhag

So, the word inqilab in Urdu has multiple meanings ranging from change in one’s thinking and attitudes to social change, and revolution with or without force. The meaning of revolution with force as I have shown is quite restricted in a specific context of a struggle against colonial rule. The broader meaning of inqilab, referring to change, is quite pervasive in prose and poetry both. In prose, it is captured in expressions such as san’ati inqilab, the ‘industrial revolution’, which nobody will argue happened by force.

The court’s insistence on only one meaning has the potential for a miscarriage of justice as Urdu speakers use the whole semantic range of the word inqilab. When the delivery of justice critically depends on a linguistic issue, justice requires that the word is understood properly in its social, linguistic, and historical contexts, and linguists know the social life of words quite well.

Rizwan Ahmad is an associate professor of linguistics at Qatar University.