In his article, “The bill to kill Urdu” (March 5), Mushfiq Ahmad made some interesting arguments in favour of Urdu. The writer first argued that the bill pending in parliament seeking a national status for the eight languages is in fact a move to “kill” Urdu. Later on, the writer presents his argument regarding the official status of English. The article later on went in the direction of the old debate pursued by Urdu lovers and became Urdu vs English. What the writer intended in the very first paragraph was altogether missed; and the argument went somewhere else. He should have focused on his main thesis and explained to us how making the eight languages national undermines the importance of Urdu.
It is true that many learners are disadvantaged because of English as the medium of instruction in our education system, but the same is true for those whose first language or mother language is not Urdu. In Pakistan Urdu is the mother tongue of only 7.6 percent of the population. In spite of this fact, Urdu was exclusively made a national language in the very beginning, denying the same status to the majority languages such as Bengali, Punjabi, Pashto, and Sindhi. The founders of this country stuck to the Urdu-only policy, which caused the country to break up. If Urdu were not declared the only national language, we would still have Bangladesh as East Pakistan.
But Urdu was imposed as the sole language of Muslims and this attitude excluded the other languages, including Bengali, from the domain of Islam. Urdu is not very different from Hindi. It is a form of Hindi, and is still known as Hindi abroad. To distort this linguistic balance more words from Arabic were introduced into Urdu to make it appear different from Hindi, the language of the “core enemy” of Pakistan. Remove the Arabic words from Urdu and it would become Hindi. Although before Partition the flag-bearers of the separation movement used Urdu in their writings and their speeches, it was not the language representing all Muslims. If this is the thesis in favour of Urdu, then we cannot condemn English as most of the Muslim leaders, notably M A Jinnah, spoke and wrote in English. And the most influential of the proponents of Pakistan, Iqbal, wrote his books in English. So why this wrath against English?
Another naive argument in favour of one-nation-one-language is that giving space to more languages would ultimately give rise to separatism. Didn’t the denial of national status to Bengali lead to the disintegration of Pakistan? East Pakistan became Bangladesh because the state did not recognise Bengali as the national language along with Urdu. Our founders turned a deaf ear to the demands of the majority and imposed their own will instead in favour of Urdu. This attitude led to language riots in East Pakistan, which ultimately ended up becoming Bangladesh.
In Pakistan more than 65 languages are spoken. Among them 27 are on the verge of extinction according to a UNESCO’s report. These 65 languages are the real native languages of Pakistan. We have Urdu as our national language, but ironically it is not among them.
Urdu is one of my favourite languages but this does not mean that I must avoid my own language, which is the basis of my identity and culture. I like Urdu because Ghalib and Faiz wrote in it; I like Pashto because Rahman Baba and Ghani Khan wrote in it. But I love Torwali because I think in it; and because the first word I uttered was in Torwali.
Throughout the article, Mushfiq Sahib is driven by a utopian vision. He declares: “If we adopt Urdu as our official language, we may hope to lead the world some day, because then we will be thinking in our own language, and that will make us creative. Creativity is what takes a nation forward, not any particular language. The English-speaking world is dominant because of its creativity, not because it speaks English.” This simply does not make sense.
How many people think in Urdu in this country? Thinking in, and understanding a language are different things. People think in their mother language. They perceive the world in it. For instance when I see a dog its image does not bring the Urdu word kutta to my mind, but the word in my mother tongue for the animal. I do not understand Mushfiq Ahmad’s argument that Urdu will foster creativity in us. Creativity starts at the very beginning. A child creates and gives a meaning to the world in his/her own language. Creativity is best fostered in the mother tongue.
Urdu is, of course, the language of wider communication, and we very much want it to be so. But making it the single national language is not in the interest of the “regional” and “irrelevant” languages. In Pakistan there is a linguistic hierarchy. English is at the top, followed by Urdu, then the few regional languages, and the rest are virtually regarded as “irrelevant”.
Urdu has also been used for indoctrination since the birth of Pakistan, and particularly since the Zia regime. The educational materials in Urdu are based upon hatred, confusion, propaganda and exclusiveness. In such a scenario one cannot opt for Urdu as the sole medium of instruction.
The elite prefer English for their children and for that they have established exclusive educational structures where the children are taught an alien culture in an alien language. This disconnects the learners from their indigenous culture. It also fosters in them a sense of superiority which creates many problems in the social fabric. This is totally based on the capitalist and imperialist West. There is another extreme which is very much shaped and groomed by the imperialist Arabs in the garb of religion. This also disconnects the learners from the roots of indigenous culture. In between these two there is the vast majority which is always fooled either in the name of a nation or religion. This is the class which is suffering. And this class is made the scapegoat at the altar of the ambiguous national interest. The two alien classes apparently fight each other at the cost of the one caught in between.
Language cannot be treated only as something which marks the user’s identity. It has many factors: politics, power and education, including education used for oppression.
In education, the mother tongue can be of the greatest value. If we want to foster creativity in children we must start educating them in their mother tongues.
Keeping in mind the many political, economic, educational and cultural values in mind, Pakistan should not only recognise the eight languages as national but also recognise the over 65 languages. The pending bill in this regard is the first step; and all the diverse nationalities must endorse it.
The writer is an activist who heads an independent organisation, IBT, in Swat. Email: email@example.com