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Urdu:An ‘Early Mistake’ of Pakistan 2021-08-02

Monday, 2021, June 21
newsweekpakistan.com/ Newsweek
File photo. Rizwan Tabassum—AFP
Khaled Ahmed

Imposing Urdu as a national language on then-East Pakistan actually damaged ‘national unity,’ rather than bolstering it
Dr. Naazir Mahmood, in his book of collected essays Politics Pictures Personalities (2005), highlights some “mistakes” of Pakistan soon after Partition in 1947, suggesting these foreshadowed the “big” mistakes it was to make later.

Shortly after Partition, Pakistan imposed Urdu as a national language on Bengali-speaking East Pakistan. Seeking a “concession,” some members of parliament from East Pakistan demanded that the Constituent Assembly should “meet alternatively in Dacca and the members should be allowed to speak Bangla on the assembly floor.” Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan vociferously opposed this suggestion and reiterated his resolve to allow the use of only Urdu for the sake of national unity. This decision was to have a lasting effect on “national unity.”

In March 1948, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, addressing the annual convocation of Dacca University, made it clear that there would be one and only one national language in the country, i.e., Urdu, and no other language could be considered for “national status.” The population of East Bengal constituted around 55 percent of the total population of Pakistan. And the Bengali populace was averse to adopting Urdu as the sole national language. Bengali had already produced enough great literature to earn a Nobel Prize (in 1913); while its greatest poet, Rabindranath Tagore, provided the national anthems of three states in South Asia: India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

In pluralist India, the Constitution, too, contains a “national language” provision, but any expressed intent of enforcement even at the federal level is likely to be met with strong opposition at the provincial level. Former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav tried to impose Hindi as “official language” in Uttar Pradesh in 2013, triggering a Tower of Babel of competing idioms in a province with a population bigger than that of today’s Pakistan.

Urdu in Pakistan is a vector of emotion, mainly religious and nationalistic. In fact, most great Urdu literature was produced during the British Raj, with great literary journals like Naqoosh actually being shuttered after 1947 with the consolidation of the “ideological” state. English, the colonial idiom, has a rational discourse, not because we become rational when writing it, but because English cracks under emotion and starts sounding ridiculous—“drunk with the wine of nationalism,” as an example—which you say daily in Urdu, doesn’t fit right into English speech.

You can stuff the bureaucracy with Urdu-medium and madrassa-based graduates, but the private sector will favor only graduates from English-medium institutions. Private-sector schools are almost all English-medium, which means they teach in English right from Class I, as opposed to Urdu-medium schools where English is a separate subject onwards from Class VI. Of course, this is all before the upcoming implementation of a “single national curriculum” by the incumbent government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, which seeks to compound the linguistic crisis by imposing Arabic as an “additional” compulsory language from the primary level in both English- and Urdu-medium schools.

The crazy-at-birth tendency was no doubt in evidence. An early Muslim League president, Aga Khan, thought Pakistan should adopt Arabic as the national language. Pakistan couldn’t do it, but General Ziaul Haq made it compulsory. That, too, didn’t work. Many politicians, including Imran Khan, say Pakistan should not have a “dual” system of education, pledging to do away with English-medium schools that are expensive and out of reach for the poor masses. Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood calls it “linguistic apartheid.” We can become a “split” Afghanistan, which was never colonized and is linguistically divided between the north and the south, without the glue of English that binds India and makes it a power to reckon with in a globalized world.

The “elite language” theory was dented long ago by the opening of education in the private sector under General Zia. Whereas in the 1960s, a city like Lahore had only six English-medium schools educating the offspring of the rich, in the 1990s, it had 900 where the entire middle class was now educating its children in English. In this way, the stranglehold of the rich on new knowledge was broken and resultantly the world of the sciences today lies open to all citizens.

Daily Pakistan reported on July 22, 2015, that the Supreme Court “has translated its latest decisions into Urdu which is full of blunders,” adding that an earlier effort to get the lower courts to issue verdicts in Urdu had made shipwreck in the 1980s. It then added a tricky proposal: Instead of getting a paid translator to convert the decisions into Urdu, the honorable judges should write the decisions in Urdu.

In India, English binds the various linguistic groups together, and resultantly binds India with the rest of the world. As part of the global market and its “monoculture,” we have a tough time maintaining nationalism and ideology, which require a walled environment repelling external ideas that puncture our thinking through the Internet. And if your nationalism is arrested in a warlike posture and your ideology is arrested in time, your national language is a toxin that will disable generations till the nation-state has metamorphosed into a new demonic form.

Dr. Naazir Mahmood sums up: “At least six important seeds were sown in the very first year of the nascent country that grew into thorny bushes. First, the early signs of the power-play between the head of state and the head of government became visible. Second, an unnecessary limelight was provided to the Deobandis who later craved for even greater chunk of the pie and kept encroaching upon the social space.

“Third, the dismissals of the provincial governments in the NWFP [now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa] and Sindh—without any vote of no-confidence in the assemblies—set the country on the path of similar dismissals. Fourth, the detention of political opponents and imposing bans on their activities could hardly cultivate democratic traditions. Fifth, the use of corruption charges became a hallmark of the establishment against political rivals. And last, the disregard shown to legitimate demands of the provinces in terms of not recognizing other language has continued to this day.”

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