Double standards and dreams

Published: November 30, 2015
The writer is a subeditor at 
The Express Tribune’s Peshawar desk

The writer is a subeditor at The Express Tribune’s Peshawar desk

Language is at the heart of Pakistan’s experience with cultural imperialism. However, such clashes of civilisation are only dressed up as threats to nationalism when they are politically expedient. The country’s history bears testimony to the fact that conflicts over the hegemony of one language over the other have always been weighted against the weaker party. As a result, the danger of a language becoming extinct appears to be taken in stride and given limited importance.

Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s attempt in July 1972 to pass a Sindh Language Bill in the provincial assembly is a fascinating case in point. Under the law, Sindhi would return to public schools as a medium of instruction. The language bill required officials of the Sindh government to learn Sindhi in order to preserve their jobs.

A dispassionate look at the legislation suggests that it was an attempt to impose a language on people. Bhutto, himself, was a strong proponent of the bill and received flak for its separatist undertones. The decision was justified on multiple occasions as a bid to safeguard the richness and complexity of Sindhi. It was also defended as a workable formula that had prevailed before martial law was imposed by Field Marshal Ayub Khan.

The bill did not threaten the status of Urdu. And yet, a series of demonstrations were held in Karachi to prevent the national language from being eroded. Historians believe 12 people, including a minor, lost their lives in the protests. Even the Sindhi department at the University of Karachi was set ablaze to drive home the point.

Eventually, Bhutto was forced to qualify his statement through an ordinance that stated no one would lose their jobs for the next 12 years if they did not speak Sindhi.

However, the reaction shown to the dominance of English over Urdu in Pakistan pales in comparison to such an effusive response. For a majority of citizens, any attempt to rail against English is not viable as the language greases the wheels of commerce. The undisputed hegemony of English over Urdu is a political and social reality that has been accepted as the need of the hour — a convenient compromise.

Meanwhile, a regional language is viewed as a vehicle that connects people to their roots and therefore cannot be compromised on. Be it a double standard or a matter of convenience, the politics of language seems to be a contentious issue.

At the end of the day, we have a choice as to which battle we can fight.

However, for a child in a small village who can only speak a regional language and is expected to learn in English or Urdu, the absence of
a choice comes at a heavy cost. If, as a society, we cannot provide children the opportunity to read and write in a language that they are comfortable with, there is little we can do to carve out a better future for them.

No form of imperialism can deprive a child of a language in which he or she thinks and articulates ideas most effectively. Language should be a means of expression, not a tool for subjugation.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st,  2015.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • ajeet
    Dec 1, 2015 - 3:54AM

    Indian states have the full power to implement their regional language in their states and that’s the reason federalism is strong in India except for Muslim majority Kashmir as Muslims don’t coexist in harmony with anyone.Recommend

  • Komal S
    Dec 1, 2015 - 1:20PM

    It is puzzling, why Pakistan chose Urdu as their official language. It is not a native language to any of the original people from the Pakistan region. ironically it is the language of the so called Mohajirs. Most of the urdu speaking people were left back in India at partition. India has 3-4 times more people calling Urdu their mother tongue as compared to Pakistan. Only 10-15% of Pakistani population call urdu as their mother tongue. Recommend

  • Frank Mossman
    Dec 1, 2015 - 5:38PM

    Komal S hits the nail on its head with the statement “It is puzzling, why Pakistan chose Urdu as their official language.”

    Persian was the language of Indian Muslims, of the Indian government and of its arts & culture for many hundreds of years prior to British colonialism. In order to destroy the state fabric, as a prelude to imposing its own government, the British actively promoted Hindi & Urdu over Farsi (look up Fort William College, Calcutta on the Web. This was the nerve-centre of British efforts in this regard). Fort William College quite literally moulded these two languages, the national languages of India & Pakistan respectively, into their present forms.

    Not only are Hindi & Urdu very restricted in their vocabulary compared to Farsi, but their common grammar is also unnecessarily cumbersome (masculine/feminine words & case-endings, lack of vowels in Urdu, redundant letters with the same sounds in Urdu etc). It is likely that this was done by design. These inadequacies would stunt the intellectual development of Indians (and later Pakistanis) into the far future.

    Since the days of Fort William College, there has been very little progress in either Hindi or Urdu, apart from importing words from Sanskrit & Farsi/Arabic into Hindi & Urdu respectively. This is a similar situation to the (British) Indian Penal code, which is the basis of both the Indian & Pakistani legal systems. This code dates back to 1862 & was designed by the British, replacing all other laws then extant in India. It is a matter of fact that this system, now more than 150 years old, has survived without major amendments. It is as if both the Indians & Pakistanis have been bequeathed by their former colonial masters with grandfather clocks. Thereafter these clocks have been maintained in their original form.

    No attempt has been made by either nation to design a new clock, especially one which takes account of present-day conditions & circumstances.

    To this day, the former colonials of the Indian subcontinent, are in awe of their former masters. The natives are incapable of thinking for themselves, of innovating for themselves, of judging good from bad, by themselves. Such is the power of colonialism. It destroys self-confidence and self-belief. And it acts across space and time. Each new generation is re-infected by the same mental disability.

    The matter of the inadequacy of the language in these lands, is a subset of this overarching problem.Recommend

  • stevenson
    Dec 2, 2015 - 2:44AM

    @Komal S: Most educated Pakistanis don’t really care about the use of Urdu or its cousin Hindi apart from when they watch Indian movies. English is the first language of education, commerce and development all over the world. Educated Pakistanis understand this reality.Recommend

  • John B
    Dec 2, 2015 - 8:34PM

    @Frank Mossman:
    While I agree in most aspects of your comment, I disagree on your narration on languages of India and your comment did not adress the issue “why did pak choose Urdu as the national language”.

    Persian was the official language of British Raj until early 1900 and it is inevitable that it will shift towards English. The English never imposed a language criteria and indian languages and their literature gained far more prominence during British raj Asia Society efforts than any other period in India history.

    No language can remain pure and have all the vocabularies to express the human creativity and mind and admixture of foreign vocabularies is inevitable. The dominance of English in today’s world is principally due to the thousands of foreign vocabularies in English language and more indian language words are in English language than Persian or Arabic or Chinese language, demonstrating the syncretic development in India languages and English.

    Hence your comment on languages of India is ill founded on basic thesis. No one can say for sure why pak chose Urdu while it was not the native language of pak region , east or west. Perhaps the dominance of Urdu speaking mojahirs in early government ?

    The state language becomes an issue when a society is a polygloists and it is a serious issue if the languages are not dialects, as it is in China. As the world is fast becoming a polygloist society , the state language often issue often pops up, as it was in Canada , UK, EU, and even in the US.

    English has become a mother /native tongue in almost all parts of the world, through various reasons and spread of modern science through colonialism is one of the reasons, contributed by the rich vocabulary in English freely borrowed from other languages.

    If EU were to have English as the only official language, EU would collapse, even though every european knows English. Recommend

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