"English will stay as the language of power"

Academic and intellectual Tariq Rahman talks about the underlying factors keeping the lingual conflict alive in Pakistan

The choice between English and Urdu has left our society divided and governments confused on the linguistic front, often triggering public debates and some cosmetic measures too by successive governments.

Though the 1973 Constitution declares that the national language of Pakistan is Urdu, and arrangements shall be made for its being used for official and other purposes within fifteen years, our rulers and policy makers find it hard to implement. Why? Is it the state which is doing nothing to introduce Urdu as the official language in power corridors, or is it our ruling elite that is guarding English against all odds?

Class inequality and social conflicts are the ultimate outcomes of different education systems -- English medium for the elite, Urdu medium for the middle and lower middle classes and Madaris with Arabic for the left-out segments of society. Why has the state failed to stem this class inequality?

And then there is a struggle by smaller groups to keep their ethnic and regional identities and languages alive.

The News on Sunday sat with renowned linguist and intellectual Dr Tariq Rahman last week to seek his help in understanding the underlying factors keeping this lingual conflict alive for decades.

Tariq Rahman is an academic, columnist and intellectual. Currently based in Lahore, he is the author of many books and publications, mainly in the field of linguistics. He has been awarded several national and international awards in recognition of his research and scholarly work. Some of his well-known books include Names; Pakistani English; A History of Pakistani Literature in English; Language and Politics in Pakistan; An Introduction to Linguistics; Language, Education and Culture; Language, Ideology and Power and From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History.

Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday: We have three major streams of education in our country -- madrassa, English medium and Urdu medium -- with different opinions or worldview of their students. How do these different streams of education create conflicts in society?

Dr Tariq Rahman: Yes they do create conflicts in the society. Basically, it is a class conflict in most places. But it is more of a class conflict in Pakistan. In other countries, they also impart religious education and people are trained to become priests of the community there. In our country, most of the people join madaris because they do not have resources to join other mainstream educational institutions. In our case, it is a class issue that polarises our society as well as students graduating from these streams, which are further divided into sub-streams and categories. They are not in harmony with each other.

With us, it is not really the medium of instruction; it is actually a matter of how much one can afford and spend. Of course, it can polarise people because the worldview emanating from the three different streams is conflicting.

TNS: It is believed the use of Islam and Pakistani nationalism is meant to prevent ethnic groups from breaking away from the centre and to build a modern, cohesive nation out of different linguistic and ethnic groups. Will this strategy work in the presence of a class-based system of education functioning in different languages?

TR: No. It has not worked even if the system is not class-based. It has not worked even in India. India tried to resolve this conflict by creating states based on languages called linguist states. Then in Spain, for instance, the Catalan-speaking people were about to break away from Spain but they were prevented by recognising their language and giving it official status. Similarly in Canada, the French-speaking areas threatened to break away but they were given due status and recognition to keep the Canadian Union intact. Belgium also succeeded in preventing a breakup by recognising and supporting different languages and by giving people more rights.

So the idea to create a cohesive state even when there are different groups with different languages will not work unless you treat these groups equally. This problem should be resolved by giving these groups equal status and by empowering them. In fact, this is already happening after the 18th Amendment, provinces are given more powers and people are being empowered with more money and resources.

TNS: Our history testifies to the fact that language has got the potential to make or break a nation. Do you justify the government’s move to promote Urdu in search of a plural society?

TR: Yes. If it is a matter of English versus Urdu, then it is a commendable move to some extent. But the private and corporate sectors are very powerful and they will not allow a switchover from English to Urdu in the foreseeable future. The government will keep trying to promote Urdu but English will stay as powerful as it is today.

If it is matter of national cohesion, then there are five languages and not just Urdu that need to be promoted. The idea that there is only one national language has not gone down well with the Baloch, Pashtuns, Sindhis and Seraikis who want their languages to be recognised and valued. Their demand has been there and it will come up again with more force in future.

TNS: Do you think the political elite wants the status quo to prevail to prolong their hold on power? And what stops the government from introducing a uniform education system for all?

TR: It is not just the political elite, rather the military elite is part of it, the bureaucratic elite is part of it and the commercial elite is part of it. It is a conglomeration of different elites. The continuation of English is in their interest. They have invested in English; they have educated their children in English. The way English language has expanded its reach in the private sector shows these elites are quite confident that English language will stay dominant. They know English is an international language and it will give their children access to international bureaucracy and international commercial markets in a globalised village. So, of course, they will not give it up.

The elite will not allow their schools to be abolished for a uniform education. Armed forces have invested heavily into their kind of schools, they will not allow their schools to be abolished. Public schools and chief elite colleges will not allow it. No state, how powerful it may be, can do it.

The investment of the elite of power -- the federal bureaucracy, the higher judiciary, the officer corps of the armed forces, the higher educational and research establishment, the private elite educational establishment, sections of the press -- in English is so big that such a change is unlikely.

And it would not be a very good thing to have a uniform system. It will negate other languages. It is not necessary to have exactly the same system everywhere. However, it is necessary to have similar standards, similar amount of money spent everywhere and similar kind of values given to all students passing out of educational institutions.

TNS: It is believed that a powerful language has got the quality which enables its users to obtain more means of gratification than the speakers of other languages. How can the language of minority dominate the language of majority in a democratic setup such as in Pakistan?

TR: Yes, it is possible in the case of a powerful minority and it has happened in many countries. In case of Pakistan, this is not a true democracy. The country is ruled by a political elite called people’s representatives. Military and civil bureaucracy rules the country through a viceregal system. Ex-colonial states are actually the continuation of a colonial state and the same is true for India as well.

Even in democracies like England, France and Germany the language of elite is considered the language of power. In England, for instance, there is Oxford English, there is BBC English and there is Queen’s English. In France, many dialects of French language have to be suppressed in order to let the language of Paris elites called Parisian language become dominant. So this is something that has happened everywhere where elite guard the language of power.

TNS: English was supposed to continue as the official language of Pakistan till such time that the national language(s) replaced it. However, English is as firmly entrenched in the domains of power in Pakistan as it was in 1947. Why?

TR: It is in the interest of upper class comprising political elites and job elites to continue with English. Sociologist Hamza Alavi has rightly called these job elites as "Salariates" who are military officers, civil services officers and commerce people. They find English lucrative because it gets them best jobs in the private sector including corporate sector, banking, NGOs, international think tanks and media and most of them are dependent on the knowledge of English.

If the governments of Pakistan were sincere in abiding by the constitution, they would have switched to Urdu from 1988 in all official domains. But they did not.

TNS: Punjab Teachers Union has launched a Taleem Bachao Tehreek demanding that Urdu should be the medium of instruction in schools because, according to them, students are performing poorly in science subjects. What do you think should be the medium of instruction in our schools?

TR: A part of their demand has been already accepted as some of the schools have reverted to Urdu as the medium of instruction. But the problem is not with government schools, it is the private sector that relies on English and the Punjab Teachers Union cannot do anything about it. Only the state can enforce a uniform system of education, but I think the state should not do this.

As far as madrassa education is concerned, the government must not touch it. I don’t mean they should be allowed to teach whatever they like in the name of religion. What I mean to say is that some specialised education in madaris is necessary that is different from other schools. And that happens around the world where they train a catholic priest or a Hindu priest.

TNS: In one of your articles, you said "If Punjabi is to be given life this is the time to teach it in all schools to all children in the Punjab. And why stop at Punjabi? We are rich in languages. Let us treat them as cultural assets and not liabilities." How can threatened languages be revived?

TR: There are two aspects to it. One is wishing something to happen and the other is reality. I do not see it happening in Pakistan, though it has happened in many parts of the world.

I chose to talk about Punjabi because it is the language of majority people ignored at all levels. It is the language of songs and jokes and solidarity and that is certainly there. It is its soft power. Languages can be revived only if state policies are changed to introduce these languages in the domain of power.

TNS: Do you see a new language in the making as people tend to speak Urdu with a blend of English these days?

TR: Well, not really a new language. All the present languages have absorbed words from other larger languages. Urdu and Hindi have borrowed Persian and Arabic words and even English has got more than 50 per cent Greek, French and Latin words. Even poet Amir Khusro’s work contains a mix of Persian, Urdu and Hindi. This happens with all the languages in the world. This phenomenon does not create a new language rather it gives a new face to a language and all living languages keep changing.

TNS: Your recent book "Names: A Study of Personal Names, Identity and Power in Pakistan" indicates a gradual social change in our society. According to the book, names establish a relationship between identity, ideology and power. It also identifies foreign cultures and trends that dominate the majority mindset in our society at the cost of minority groups. How will our society retain its identity and culture in such circumstances?

TR: Well, actually, identity is a very sensitive and contentious subject to talk about. There are different kinds of identities in Pakistan including ethnic identity, religious identity and class identity. People in the working classes have similar incomes, similar problems, similar things to eat, similar houses, similar lifestyles and so on. Then there is upper class with more money, more power and better education. No country in the world has just one kind of national identity. Of course, there are some countries that are mono-lingual and industrial where similarities are much more than differences, and those are generally European countries.

Ours is not that kind of a country. Ours is an ex-colonial country with a part of it living in medieval age, another part living in colonial age and some part of it living in industrial age. The book was an attempt at finding whether names are related to different forms of identities in Pakistan -- rural identity, urban identity, ethnic identity, national identity, sub-national identity, gender identity and modern and post-modern identity.

Read also: All in a name -- review of Tariq Rahman’s book

TNS: What is your next book about?

TR: I want to write a book on the theory and practice of jihad in South Asia. It will have two major portions. The first part is about the concept of iihad and how it is interpreted by ulema of different schools of thought, and I will try to find out that in different Tafaseers (interpretations of Quran) and the edicts issued by ulema in different periods of time. The second part is about how jihad has been practiced in South Asia -- movements that called themselves jihadi movements, Syed Ahmad movement for instance that continued from 1826 to 1831, civil movement of Ipi in the tribal areas and other such movements. So the aim of the book is to explain the concept and impacts of all these movements in South Asia.

I have been given a fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in the University of Oxford and I will work over there only for a short time. I will also go to some other universities and libraries for research. I don’t know whether I will be able to complete this book or not keeping in view the extensive and hard research, but it will be an interesting study anyway.

"English will stay as the language of power"