by: Tariq Rehman
Dawn Lahore Edition, Karachi Edition, Islamabad Edition
Pakistan emerged on the map of the world on 14 August 1947 as a consequence of a political movement. This movement mobilized the Muslims of India through two symbols: Islam and Urdu. Whereas the Islam of the symbol was a monolithic faith; the Islam of reality has many sects, sub-sects and schools which had to be glossed over to present a unified front to the 'British and the rival Hindu majority. As for Urdu, it was not the mother tongue of most of the Muslims of India but this fact too had to be suppressed in the interests of solidarity. This kind of solidarity-created as it is by focusing on one or more evocative symbols-is nothing new in the contemporary world. Indeed, in the modem world larger communities, such as nations, are also created (or 'imagined') by evoking common names linked together by a flag, a language and other such symbols.
The new state's language policy was, therefore, a continuation of the pre-partition policy when Pakistan had to be carved out of Hindu-majority India. Urdu was chosen to be the national language whereas English, the erstwhile elitist language, was allowed to continue as the 'official' language-the language of the domains of power (governance, administration, judiciary, military, commerce, media, education) at the highest levels. Both policies favoured the ruling elite: Urdu, by favouring the West-Pakistani elite which used Urdu; English, by favouring the Westernized upper classes which got easier access to jobs within the country and abroad because of English.
This policy led to polarization in an already divided society. The main cleavages were expressed along (1) Ethnic (2) Class lines.
Let us consider them one by one.
(1) The Ethnic Cleavage.
Ethnicity involves the mobilization of a group around identity symbols (such as language, religion, shared experience, common descent etc) in order to obtain its share of goods and services and other gratifications .(such as prestige, pleasure, authenticity, maintenance of a way of life etc). In Pakistan, religion being the same, language has been the major symbol of ethnic identity My book Language and Polities in Pakistan (Oxford University Press 1996 and reprinted for the third time in 2003) looks at language-based ethnic movements in great detail. To summarize, the first powerful ethnic movement was the Bengali language movement of 1948 and 1952. The movement seems to be a direct consequence of the language policy of privileging Urdu as the sole national language of Pakistan. After all, Bengalis were in a majority (over 55 per cent of the population), and their language had been used in subordinate domains of power since the eighteenth century. However, a deeper analysis makes it clear that the question was not merely of language; it was of power.
Essentially the question was whether the Bengalis would be able to use the wealth they created for their benefit or not? And along with this, would they control a majority of powerful positions in the state and the civil society? The dominance of the West Pakistani civil and military officials, as well as politicians, denied the Bengalis their just share in their own resources and power and language was the most evocative symbol which could express their resentment of West Pakistani hegemony.
Anyway, the 21st of February 1952 was the day when the clash of wills between Bengali aspirations and West Pakistani official interests occurred. A number of agitating students were killed outside Dhaka University and the day (EKUSHE) passed into history. It is now celebrated as the International Mother Tongue Day.
In the Western province the strongest language-based ethnic movement was the Sindhi language movement. Once again it was created when educated Sindhis found that their cities were dominated by emigrants (Mohajirs) from India. Off and on G.M Syed, a father figure for nationalist Sindhis, raised the slogan of 'Sindhu Desh' but most Sindhis never actually wanted to break up from the federation of Pakistan. Indeed, the PPP absorbed most of the Sindhi nationalists and the crucial issue remained, and remains to this day, dominance over Sindh, and not the separation of Sindh from Pakistan.
In the Pasbto-speaking areas of the NWFP Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan's anti-colonial movement used Pashto as an identity symbol. This movement was separatist but only for a brief period.
Gradually the Pashtuns got integrated into the Pakistani economy and the movement became merely a demand for autonomy, self-respect and share in resources while remaining in the federation. In Balochistan ethnic resentment against the centre was expressed through militancy rather than linguistic or cultural symbolism. Indeed, the Iranian government suppressed the Balochi language whereas the Pakistani authorities actually created academies for Balochi and Brahvi in order to keep the activists of the language movement in control and dependent on the state.
In southern Punjab a variety of what used to be called Punjabi has been renamed as Siraiki. Ms has been an ethnic identity symbol for the middle class intelligentsia of this part of the Punjab. As this area is underdeveloped the intelligentsia resents the dominance of central Punjab and aspires for the creation of a new province sometimes called 'Siraikistan'. However, the movement is weak and, so far, non-violent and it has never expressed any desire to move away from the federation.
In short, language is a potent symbol of ethnic identity in Pakistan. However, the policy of privileging Urdu has sometimes led to great resentment and frustration among the ethnic activists. A more effective policy would be giving all ethnic groups a just share in power in such a manner that it is in their interest not only to remain in the federation but to make it more economically viable so as to benefit from its stability and affluence.
(2) The Class Cleavage.
In British India, apart from landed property, the source of wealth and power was the ability to manipulate the English language. This was the language of the highest services of the state and the civil society. But English was not imposed; it was rationed out. Market conditions were created which made it a prized cultural capital. It was, however, a capital which had to be bought by the elite of wealth and power. This policy continued in Pakistan.
Elitist English-medium schools catered for the urban middle (and upper) classes. The armed forces too patronized such schools and a number of new cadet colleges were created. At times even some functionaries of the state pointed out that it was unfair towards ordinary people if their schools were not subsidized as much as the elitist schools were. However, this policy continues though it has never been announced in public.
What has been announced in every report on education is that the medium of instruction is Urdu except in the Sindhi-speaking areas where it is Sindhi. The English-medium schools are mentioned in passing as private concerns. The subsidies to the cadet colleges are not given prominence though they are to the tune of nearly Rs. 14,000 per student per year while the Urdu-medium schools cost Rs 2,700 per student per year.
In short, Pakistan is divided according to socio-economic class by language. English is at the top, Urdu comes second in the hierarchy and the indigenous mother-tongues of the people rank lowest. Incidentally, madrassa students are taught in Pashto in the Pashto-speaking parts of the NWFP though they are also taught Urdu and their examinations are in Urdu and Arabic. In the class division, then, the religious teachers and students stand closest to the common people, especially in the NWFP and Balochistan.
Once again, Islam and Urdu (or an indigenous language), are symbolic of the poor and the oppressed. In a sense, then, the resurgence of the religious lobby is an assertion of the have-nots in a society where the elite dresses in foreign clothes speaks a foreign language and flaunts alien values.
A survey the present author carried out for the book entitled Language, Ideology and Power. Language-Learning Among the Muslims of Pakistan and North India (OUP, 2002) shows how alienated the madrassa students are from their English school counterparts. They are far more militant about Kashmir and far less supportive of the rights of religious minorities and women than the latter.
Indeed, the madrassa students see the Westernized English school products as Western stooges and Muslims only in name. The English school students, on the other hand, have nothing but contempt for the madrassa students. In short, the country is polarized in a way which may be expressed through violence. This will be a kind of class conflict but it will be expressed through the idiom of religion. To sum up, Pakistan is a multilingual country with a dominant quasicolonial English-using elite. The country's language policies, whether declared or undeclared, have so far favoured the ruling elite. While it is true that the denial of ethnicity was in order to create a unified nation, the result of the policy of privileging Urdu has been to increase the resentment of the ethnic language activists. However, Urdu has been widely accepted in Pakistan as a link language and if a just order is created in which all the ethnic groups feel powerful and justly rewarded, the language issue will remain in control. Personally, in order to preserve peoples' authentic culture and give respect to their identities, the indigenous languages should be used in basic schooling and in some domains of power at the local government level like Switzerland.
As for the class division expressed through English, it too can lead to great resentment by the have-nots as well as ideological polarization. However, as English is an international language it should be taught but taught so that it is spread out widely and evenly among the masses. It need not remain an elitist preserve and a class-marker and need not also remain the language of public offices. However, as far as possible it should be taught widely so as to make as many people cognizant of other, and alternative, world views as possible. This will hopefully introduce people to concepts of human rights and women rights and other values for peace and tolerance. Moreover, people will be treated more justly if they are given the same kind of skill in languages so that they can aspire for jobs and become more mobile than they are now. Above all, teaching English to all as a subject while making indigenous languages and Urdu the medium of instruction will strengthen the local languages and cultures which is threatened by globalization and the imperialism of English. English must be learnt but it must not replace the local languages and must not also become a symbol of privileged schooling and social class.