The Dawn: Feb 12, 2016

Punjab Notes: Language: colonialism, power and class — part-I

Mushtaq Soofi 

Ancient Arabs and Karl Marx both believed that in every age ideas of rulers had been the ruling ideas. Everyday experience bears testimony to the truth of Arabic adage: speech of the ruler is the ruler of speech.

When British colonialists occupied the subcontinent, aided by superiority of modern knowledge and arms, the English language inevitably became the language; the socio-cultural emblem of power and a tool that enabled the ‘native’ to get closer to power or at least achieve semblance of power. The Persian, the lingua franca of the old elite, was gradually replaced by the English language spoken by the new foreign elite. The colonial language policy was a well-thought-out strategy designed to achieve clearly defined though not loudly declared broad politico-economic and socio-cultural objectives in the context of unstoppable European hegemony predicated on the accumulated socio-scientific knowledge West had after the all-pervasive transformations triggered by Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

Colonial language policy was underpinned by economic, political and cultural considerations: nature of class relationship to be maintained at all cost to extract the maximum economic surplus, political domination of the white elite to be established and display of socio-cultural superiority of European way of life as a model to be emulated by the ‘natives’.

The British did not occupy the subcontinent in one go. It had always been too big a bite for any invader no matter how big his mouth was. So the annexation was a process spread over hundreds of years. The first task they set themselves was to change the old education system which was inspired by the indigenous knowledge. The crucial element of education was and is language, the tool through which knowledge is imparted. So the first step was to undermine the status and significance of the old languages officially patronised and religiously venerated like Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. Persian, being the court language, suffered a great setback; it was simply thrown out of the echelons of power. In its place English was declared the language of the power. The official business at higher level would be conducted in English. But the official business could not be carried without the help of the sections of compliant old and new emerging elites. So new European type of schools and colleges were set up for the children of native upper classes where medium of instruction was English. But they were obviously far and few. Such schooling was not only highly unaffordable but also frighteningly alien to the huge bulk of children from the middle and lower orders.

The new language policy evolved by the colonialists envisaged two types of schooling in a broader colonial framework. European schooling was introduced with English as medium of instruction for the local elite. And schooling for commoners, though based on European model, had elements of tradition; it employed regional/local language as medium of instruction with English language as a subject at middle level. In short, the colonial rulers introduced English at higher level of administration and at middle and lower levels encouraged the use of local language such as Bengali in Bengal, Marathi in Maharashtra, Sindhi in Sindh, Hindi and Urdu in Uttar Pradesh and languages of the southern India in the South.

Unfortunately, the colonial bureaucracy adopted altogether a different policy in Punjab; it imposed two foreign languages, English and Urdu, on the people which had far reaching socio-cultural consequences. Punjab was the last sovereign kingdom to fall in 1849, 10 years after the death of politically conscious ruler and military strategist known as Maharaja Ranjit Singh. There were two groups with opposing opinions on the question of language to be employed in Punjab. One group, which proved to be in minority, advocated the use of Punjabi if the administration really wanted children of rural gentry, middle and lower orders to get educated. The other group, which was in majority, was in favour of employing Urdu. Though their arguments were flimsy, born of their poor knowledge of Punjab’s literary and cultural history, they won the day due to a host of factors, political, administrative, and strategic. J. Wilson, deputy of Shahpur (Shahupr was the district headquarters of Sargodha area at that time) writes in his note: “I wish to draw attention to what I consider to be serious faults in our system of primary education in the Punjab—it fails to attract more than a small proportion of the boys we wish to educate, and especially of those belonging to the agricultural classes, in which I include not only land-owners and tenants, but also artisans and village menials---it (instruction) is conducted for the most part in a language foreign to the people. To the ordinary Punjabi village boy Urdu is almost as foreign as French would be to an English rustic. The Punjabi boy is not taught to read the language he speaks, but a language many of the words in which he does not understand until they are translated for him into his own Punjabi—”.

Back to Mushtaq Soofi's  Page

Back to Column's Page