Plain Mr Jinnah, as he called himself, would be turning in his grave at the large number of private vehicles with the number plate of al-Bakistan. He did not even like the name ‘Pakistan’ in the beginning when it came to his attention. The Cambridge-based student, Chaudhary Rahmat Ali, who had coined it, talked wildly of having a number of Muslim enclaves in India — no matter whether the inhabitants of that area were mostly Muslim or not — called Osmanistan, Bangistan, Farooqistan, etc. Jinnah felt that if there was the notion of ‘Pak’ (pure), there would also be ‘Napak’ (impure). He expressed his irritation by calling Pakistan a ‘bad name’ and said: ‘give a dog a bad name and then hang it’. However, his colleagues pointed out to him that the Congress press had gone to town with the name and it would be best to own it now. Reluctantly, Jinnah accepted the name ‘Pakistan’ for the new country.
So what would he think of the new name al-Bakistan, the Arabised version of Pakistan, which one finds on the number plates of cars now. He would no doubt rail against it, pointing out that we are not Arabs and that we have a /p/ sound in both Persian and Urdu, hence the original name Pakistan need not be pronounced with /b/ just because Arabic does not have a /p/.
One should further add that Arnold Toynbee pointed out in his multi-volume study of history that the subcontinent was in the Persian zone of cultural influence rather than the Arabic one. Islam had been brought in Sindh and Multan by the Arabs in the 8th century no doubt, but it was only after the Turkish rulers had consolidated their rule over north India in the 12th century that it had taken root in Hindustan proper. And it was then that the local language of the Delhi area, the Khari Boli and its sister dialects, picked up Persian words and the ancestor of modern Hindi and Urdu emerged. It is this language — called Hindi for a long time as the name Urdu emerged only in the late 18th century — that is the basis of the composite civilisation of the Muslims and Hindus of north India, called the Ganga-Jamni Tehzeeb (civilisation). It is from Persian that the word Pakistan takes its meaning, even if the letters themselves stand for the various regions of the country.
Now to change that for a would-be Wahabi ideology from Saudi Arabia would be a negation of all our civilisational history. It is a symbolic reversal of our cultural and historical roots in India and Persia. This implies that we are turning our backs to the great inclusive cultural experience of mystic (sufi) Islam in India and to the Bhakti movement and the tolerance and plurality, which were part of some of our most humane traditions. So, if one experiences a sense of alienation, despair and anxiety at witnessing this new experiment in social engineering, which would wipe out our tolerant past and bring in Arab, Wahabi exclusiveness and lack of plurality, one may be forgiven.
The attempt at Arabisation of Indian and Pakistani Muslims is not new though. If one looks at the scientific terms made in Osmania University, one finds that Arabic was the preferred language, not Persian. Moreover, local Hindi-Urdu words, shared by both Hindus and Muslims, were abhorred. In Pakistan, a number of agencies took up the task of making new terms for the sciences, bureaucracy, military and commerce. Unfortunately, these, too, were dominated by the desire to increase the share of Arabic in formal Urdu. I need not quote many examples, but just look at the term ‘Qartas Abiaz’. If you do not know the meaning of this, you may be forgiven because it is not Urdu, but Arabic and that kind of Arabic which has not been adopted and made familiar in our language. It means ‘white paper’ as qartas means document or paper and abiaz is the colour white. We could have called it ‘sufaed qaghaz’ also, but that would have privileged Urdu and not Arabic. Hence our decision-makers, in this case the committee of experts which chooses neologisms, chose pure incomprehensible Arabic over comprehensible Urdu.
By the way, this is exactly what happens when they make new terms in India. They go to pure Sanskrit, which makes official Hindi incomprehensible for ordinary Indians. This has the effect of moving modern Sankritised Hindi and Persianised Urdu further from each other. The ordinary version of the two languages spoken in the streets of Indian and Pakistani cities is almost the same; the formal, official versions are almost two nearly incomprehensible languages. Does this make any sense? ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Yes, if your aim is to separate the Muslims from the Hindus, Pakistanis from Indians, and emphasise differences. No, if your aim is to communicate meaning and bring people closer together. Since the aim of the decision-makers among Hindus and Muslims, and now India and Pakistan, is to emphasise differences, they prefer to make their common language incomprehensible, rather than easy-to-understand. Arabic signals a Muslim identity and Sanskrit a Hindu one — hence, the emphasis on these two iconic languages at the expense of meaning and ease of communication.
The al-Bakistan phenomenon is, however, different from the qartas-abiaz one. The latter was state-sponsored and people were never too enthusiastic about it so the terms lay buried in dusty shelves. But the new phenomenon is a civil society one and one sees it on aggressive display. But therein lies the danger of it.
Are we yielding to the Arabised, extremist worldview, which will usher in more intolerance and increased possibility of cultural authoritarianism? If so, and I suspect this very much, we should cringe every time we see a vehicle with al-Bakistan on it. If al-Bakistan has arrived, how long will it be before we encounter ‘al-Bunjab’? In fact, I wonder why /p/ and /ch/ are not being abandoned altogether. We may lose our moon (chaand), but we will be better Arabs. Anyone for it?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2014.