“Where are you? Call out to me”: The All India Radio Urdu Service's Letters of Longing
Shortly after the end of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war and largely in response to Radio Pakistan’s campaign to incite anti-Indian sentiment, Indira Gandhi, then Indian Minister of Information and Broadcasting, inaugurated a new radio service directed at West Pakistan. While the service targeted “foreign” Urdu-knowing audiences, it quickly gained popularity in North India as well, where Urdu was widely understood. In addition to news programs, the Urdu Service aired entertainment programs, including music and radio drama, but at the heart of the service were letters from fans on both sides of the border sharing pre-Partition memories. This talk focuses on the late 1960s and 1970s and considers how the practice of writing letters to radio stations sought to mitigate the distance between listener and broadcaster. This practice effectively turned listeners into broadcasters and enabled cross-border connections between India and Pakistan at precisely the time when the western Indo-Pakistan border became physically impassible. Moreover, the talk grapples with the limitations of the Urdu Service. The nostalgia and sentimentalism that programs fostered helped forge Urdu into what I call a “language of nostalgia,” ensuring that Urdu in post-independence India became associated with bygone pre-Partition days.
Isabel Huacuja Alonso is an Assistant Professor at California State University (CSUSB) and an historian of Modern South Asia with interests in media and the politics of state borders. Her current book, Radio for the Millions: Hindi-Urdu Broadcasting and the Politics of Sound, follows radio stations in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Germany and parts of Southeast Asia as it argues for a new geography of radio based on language groups rather national or regional borders. The book expands on her dissertation, which won the 2015 Sardar Patel Award for "the best dissertation in any aspect of modern India defended at a US institution."
In addition to her work on sound and borders, Dr. Huacuja Alonso has researched the anti-colonial leader M. N. Roy’s unconventional sojourn in Mexico and translated an excerpt of an Urdu-language radio travelogue on the Grand Trunk Road, which crisscrosses the Indian subcontinent. The American Institutes of Indian and Pakistan Studies, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Institute for Historical Studies at University of Texas at Austin, where she completed her doctorate, have funded her research. Her publications have appeared in Public Culture, South Asia, SAGAR, The Caravan, Scroll, and the Spanish-language magazine, Algarabia. At CSUSB, Dr. Huacuja Alonso teaches courses on South Asian history, world history, Sound Studies, and media history.