Thursday October 28, 2021

SNC and languages

October 20, 2020

Since the Single National Curriculum was made public by the incumbent government a rigorous debate has emerged, involving prominent experts in education and language policies.

The critics deem the SNC not only a futile exercise in the aftermath of the 18th Amendment, which made education as a provincial subject, they also hold it as a tipping point to start unnecessary conflicts between the centre and the provinces. One of the major concerns is the question of the status of the so-called regional and lesser-known languages in the provinces.

In a TV interview on September 6, Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood said that in Sindh some subjects would be taught in Sindhi whereas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; and in Punjab, the medium of instruction be Urdu. This statement has generated many questions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where some progress regarding the status of the languages spoken here has been made since 2010.

The people, especially the Pakhtuns, of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have always been very conscious of their language and identity. Pashto or Pukhto is said to be the mother language of about 70 percent of the inhabitants of the province and almost all the people of the erstwhile federally administered tribal areas, Fata, speak it. Pashto is an ancient language with the first written text, ‘Khairul Bayan’, by Bayazid Ansari, the Pir Roshan of the Roshania Movement, in the sixteenth century. Some claim that the Pashto poet Amir Karor wrote it in the eight century.

The British used Urdu as the language in the then NWFP after its annexation in 1849 – in a political move to distance the people of NWFP from Afghanistan, which was then emerging as a modern nation-state. In Afghanistan, Pashto was chosen as a dominant language by the 1920s whereas in NWFP Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka Bacha Khan chose Pashto as an identity marker of the Pakhtuns by 1929. He also set up non-governmental schools, the Azad Schools, where Pashto was taught at the primary level; and prior to that, in 1928, he had started publishing a Pashto language magazine Pakhtun, too.

In 1935, the NWFP government agreed to use Pashto for class one and two. This move was resisted by the Hindu and Sikh minorities of NWFP, given the Arabic script of Pashto. Dr Khan Sahib's government, however, made Pashto a subject of instruction at the primary level in 1938.

Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar was associated with the irredentist claim of Afghanistan to parts of NWFP; and the cause of greater Pakhtunistan. Pashto was, therefore, deemed as an identity marker of Pakhtun nationalism by the ruling class in Pakistan after Partition. This, however, could not dispel the issue of language and identity in (the then) NWFP and the issue of language, especially of Pashto language, has remained central to the major identity of the province.

After the creation of Pakistan, the Pashto Academy was formed in 1955 by the government in order to promote Pashto. In 1972, the government of the National Awami Party (NAP) and JUI did not adopt Pashto; and made Urdu the official language of NWFP instead. The centrist government of General Ziaul Haq manipulated the symbols of Urdu and Islam to get legitimacy. He, however, introduced Pashto as the medium of instruction in certain areas of NWFP in 1984, and a Pashto Textbooks Translation Project was initiated, too, but in 1989 it was observed in a report that, despite successful pedagogically, Pashto has never been taught well. It was not encouraged by teachers either.

While Pashto was thus a major issue in the politics and governance of NWFP the status of the other major language, Hindko, was also raised in the province along with Pakhtun identity. Consciousness and awareness among speakers of other languages in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, mostly endangered, is a recent phenomenon. Awareness for the preservation, promotion and revitalization of the other endangered languages has gradually increased since the 1990s when some sociolinguistic surveys on these languages expressed grave concerns about the future of these languages. Local advocates for cultural rights and language activists started voicing their concerns with some vigour after 2004.

Because of this awareness, the government led by the Awami National Party had included five languages – Pashto, Hindko, Saraiki, Khowar and Kohistani – in 2011, to be gradually taught at the public primary schools in areas where the majority of children speaks these languages as their mother tongues. Under this policy, the five languages would be taught as subjects; and for that purpose course-books in these languages have been developed up to grade four until now. The government of the ANP had also passed a law from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly for the promotion of ‘regional’ languages in 2012 which is known as the KP Regional Languages Promotion Act 2012.

In the general election of 2013, a new government by the PTI came into power in the province which has not implemented the regional languages act of 2012 but continued work on developing books in four of the five languages.

So far, one book for each grade up to grade four has been developed in four languages as the fifth language, Kohistani – which is spoken in the western Kohistan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – could not be included in the scheme because of another major contesting language Shina Kohistani spoken in the eastern part of Kohistan; and the speakers have equal claim of it being ‘Kohistani’ as well.

Despite printing and distribution of the books in the four languages, teachers have not been hired to teach these languages in the public schools where the books have been distributed. For instance, in Chitral books in Khowar up to grade four have been distributed to the schools but extra teachers were not recruited to teach these books.

In February and March this year, the Social Cluster of the UNDP’s Task Force of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly on SDGs started consultation with language activists and experts at the request of the some of the members of the cluster to chalk out a strategy to preserve, promote; and to include the other lesser known and endangered languages in the public education in the province. During the consultation the members of the cluster, who include MPAs from both the opposition and government as well as provincial ministers, expressed their full support for including other languages in education; and agreed on setting up a mechanism as proposed in the Regional Languages Promotion Authority Act of 2012.

But since now the Single National Curriculum is going to be implemented in the province from next year; and what the federal education minister said in the TV interview; the communities, experts and activists of other languages fear a reversal of what has so far been achieved in the province regarding their languages.

The writer heads an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.