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DAWN Tuesday Review, May 7-13, 1996

"Is There a Conflict Between Urdu And the Regional Languages in Pakistan?

Urdu is our national language, which means that the mention of any issue related to it is likely to trigger off such conflicting passions as patriotism, nationalism, imperialism, oppression, glory, past, present and future.

On one hand we have scholars and common people defending the case of Urdu as the language of communication and as a symbol of national integrity. On the other hand, you have other scholars and common people who would say that the role of the national language has merged into “an imperialism of Urdu”, and that the regional languages have been pushed aside.

We have interviewed some experts from across the country and what we understand from their opinions is that the conflict between Urdu and the regional languages can be discussed at three levels: (a) political, (b) pedagogical (educational system) and (c) linguistic.

It has also been pointed out that it is possible to acknowledge the role of Urdu in our national life without accepting imperialism. Such an approach would also imply accepting Urdu as it has evolved since 1947, and not insist on classical Puritanism.

Prof. Karrar Hussain is an outstanding intellectual and scholar. At eighty-plus the Professor continues to discourse on social, religious and other poignant issues.

Prof. Karrar Hussain’s simple answer is a definite ‘No.’ He maintains that Urdu is a heterogeneous language which evolved out of a harmony between various cultures of South Asia. However, he also points out that misguided political enthusiasm can create an artificial and unwanted situation of discord between the speakers of different languages. 

“First, you have to understand what is Urdu. The Muslims living in South Asia had developed a sense that they too constitute (an indigenous) society. This sense had emerged owing to two reasons. At one level the court was a center of culture, and this culture was trickling down (to the lower parts of the society.) At another level, the sufi saints were traveling from place to place. From north to south, to Bengal, and so on. All this was going on, and the Persian of the court was getting mixed with the regional languages. If you ask the question, where did Urdu originate from, you have the people of Punjab saying, it originated here. The people of Deccan say, it here. The reality is that this was an indication of (the fact) that the Muslims of South Asia had developed a sense of unity and integrity; of being an entity. And that the entity, which was about to be born, was in search of a language so that it could take birth through that language.”

To answer the question whether Urdu isn’t also a common language for the Hindus and the Muslims of South Asia, Prof. Karrar Hussain said:

“Of course, the Hindus were under the influence of Muslim civilization. The Hindus who were under the influence of the court, etc., also came about to use Urdu. But we cannot say that Urdu was the language of the Hindus in the same sense as it was the language of the Muslims. Look at the number of great Urdu poets among the Muslims, and compare it with the (number of Urdu poets among) Hindus. Keep in view the huge majority of the Hindus population! You have to accept that primarily Urdu belongs to the Muslims because it is the indication of the rise of a certain culture”.

Coming back to the point of comparison between Urdu and the regional languages, he says. “There wasn’t a region where (you could not find) people who did not have a good grasp of Urdu, after Persian. Coming closer to our times there were men like Hisamuddin Rashidi from Sindh, Hakeem Ahsan, students who went to Aligarh from different regions, and they took pride in speaking Urdu.”

Things changed as language became a political issue. As the center of Muslim culture shifted from Delhi to Lahore after the War of Independence (1857), the people of these regions also came to identify Urdu as a symbol of Muslim pride. Prof. Karrar Hussain mentions journalists like Zafar Ali Khan and Ghulam Rasul Mehr.

“After the fall of Delhi and Lucknow, Lahore became the center of literature and Hyderabad (Deccan) the center of science and other subjects. There was (official) patronage in Hyderabad but no such thing in Lahore.”

And still the language and literature of Urdu flourished here.

“And then came Independence. Now, we must keep in mind that all people love their own languages. So, when you raised the cry: ‘Urdu hai aur Pakistan hai / Yeh sharif admi ki pehchan hai.’ Naturally, this cry caused resentment among the people of these regions. And this we would call the imperialism of Urdu. This was a very wrong thing.”

Does it mean that Urdu has lost its cause?

“Take this example. Just suppose for a while as if Urdu was not there. As if you only had the regional languages. And you will not speak a foreign language either, mind you. Now, you will sometimes have debates in your national assembly. There people from Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, NWFP will sit together some time. They will have to make each other understand their points of view. If this country has any will and necessity to have a language of its own then Urdu will naturally emerge – somehow, in some form – out of this meeting of the people, on its own! To make this thing a problem, an issue, is not right.

“Now Urdu here cannot be the same as it used to be in Delhi and Lucknow. It will be the Urdu of Pakistan. To insist upon the Urdu of Delhi and Lucknow, to insist upon the same usage, and upon the same life, and to insist that this is the mark of patriotism, is wrong. The conclusion I derive from this is: Urdu ko Urdu kay doston say bachao! (save Urdu from its friends) Urdu flourished when it was free from the politics. Making Urdu a political issue – be it against Hindi or be it against a regional language – has only done it harm.”

Dr Waheed Qureshi has been a director of National Languages Authority and now heads the Iqbal Academy, Lahore. He is in the unique position of being an academic authority on both Urdu and Punjabi.

“In my opinion there is no competition between Urdu and the regional languages. The competition is against English, which replaced Persian as the official language during the British Raj. I think in the changed situation (of independence) the national language should be given the right it well deserves. As you would remember, we adopted Urdu as a common social value in the days of the Pakistan movement. It became a part of the movement itself. The people who claimed this were quite aware of the fact that Urdu is not a language of daily conversation in most regions of Pakistan. This raises several questions. Is it necessary for the national language to be also the language of everyday conversation? What about the regional languages? What about the medium of education? And last, but not the least, what about the linguistic relation of Urdu with other languages?”

Taking up the questions one by one, Dr Qureshi admits that the national language, being the means of communication at the country level, must have some relationship with the languages commonly spoken by the people. But he also suggests that Urdu shall win the case on this ground, even if it didn’t have the official support. “Let me give you an example. I never studied Urdu in any class, since I got educated in the English medium. In fact Urdu as a subject had not been introduced in those days, it was just an optional language. I think I learnt Urdu through Punjabi which was spoken at my home. If you look at it in the scientific way, the difference between languages is just a difference between grammar and syntax. If you survey all the languages of Pakistan you will only find minor differences of grammar and syntax but actually they are one. When I decide about gender usage in Urdu, even today, it is not based on how gender was used in Delhi or Lucknow. It is based on the gender usage of my local language…. Look at the way Urdu has changed in Pakistan over the last fifty years, and the way it has maintained a relationship with the regional languages.”

The problem is therefore not academic but political. “Languages have been used as political weapons in our case. Different regions have used their languages for their own vested interests. If you travel from Karachi to Peshawar, you will see the language changing every ten or twelve miles. The pronunciation changes, the idiom changes, and so on. And this is the case in almost all countries of the world. Does a Londoner understand the language of the country? And if he doesn’t then should you claim that these are two different languages and both of these should be given equal rights? In China they have proclaimed the language of Beijing and its environs as their national language while the other dialects have been declared regional languages.”

All issues become easy if they are liberated from their political urgency!

Moving from the political aspect of the problem, Dr Qureshi comes to the educational aspect. “When the British came to this region, in the beginning they combined Delhi and Punjab into one administrative division, called the United Provinces. The lieutenant general did not live in Delhi – he used to live in Lahore. NWFP, Kashmir and Balochistan were also together with this unit. When the issue of the medium of instruction came under discussion, whether Punjabi, Hindi or Urdu should be used as the medium of instruction, the last decision was made in favour of Urdu. It became the medium of instruction for upto class ninth and tenth. Higher education was in English.

“In the case of Sindh, the British made Sindhi the medium of instruction for schools in the villages. Now, if you want to decide upon any formula you will have to keep in mind that Urdu has been used as a medium of instruction for almost a century now, in all regions of Pakistan (except Sindh)… It was a common practice of the people of Punjab to read and write in Urdu. Even today, not many people can fluently read Punjabi texts, they haven’t had enough practice.”

The third level of discourse is linguistic.

“Grierson’s Survey of India, a part of which has also been published as the Linguistic Survey of Pakistan, mentions the total number of languages spoken in this area as 192. And the number has increased to something over 200 during the last hundred years. Now look at the geography of Pakistan. The five divisions of Balochistan  have got five different languages.

In NWFP you find two versions of Pushto, which become incomprehensible to each other at some places. The native of the province calls himself ‘Pushtoon’ in one region, and ‘Pakhtoon’ in another.

And yet none of these versions are spoken at all in the lower half of NWFP, where the language is Hindko. In Punjab you do not just have Punjabi but also Seraiki. Next there is the region of Kashmir and Northern areas. At the moment there are at least sixty-three languages being spoken there. Likewise, in Sindh there is not just Sindhi. There is a region of Balochi and at least two district where the language is Seraiki. In this situation, if you want to make any linguistic decision, you find that these languages exist at several different stages of development. In some, there has been literary work carried out, while some others only exist for the purpose of conversation. In this situation you have got only two possible courses. Either you pick up the regional language of any one province and make it your national language – which will not be acceptable for the majority area (i.e., the rest of the country) or you can select the language which is commonly understood by the largest number of people in the country. And that language is Urdu.”

But is it?

“Of course, it is. Wherever I went in Pakistan, I’ve never had any problem getting myself understood in Urdu.”

This linguistic background has been grievously ignored by certain political and official bodies. Dr Qureshi mentions three instances. “First they said all languages spoken in Pakistan should be called Pakistani languages. The Ministry of Education has began calling ‘Urdu and Pakistani languages’, as if Urdu is not a Pakistani language. Then we came to a stage when the other languages began getting importance through a resolution of the Academy of Letters.”

Aslam Azhar has been the MD of PTV, and is a prominent theatre person and intellectual.

“At an educational level there is a conflict between Urdu and the regional languages – Yes, the same as between English and the regional languages. I am afraid that I put Urdu in the category of a foreign language for Pakistanis – where it is not the mother tongue, I mean. I don’t speak of the Mohajir Urdu speaking community, because there it is their mother tongue. But in Punjab, in Sindh, in NWFP – I have wandered, I have sat down with people and spoken to them. When I ask them, have you understood my question in Urdu, they say: yes, we have. Then I ask them to answer me in Pushto (or whatever the mother tongue of that person is). And when the person speaks in Pushto or Sindhi, he says things he could have never expressed in Urdu. Although he knows Urdu. But there is not the involvement of his heart in Urdu. There isn’t the involvement of his mother…. Not the involvement of his real feeling center. Urdu occupies only a limited portion of his brain. When I state this, people say: you are anti-Pakistani. I say, Pakistan can’t be made like this. Pakistan will become Pakistan if a Punjabi, a Pathan, a Baloch, a Sindhi…. Really comes to aspire becoming or remaining an ingredient of the political entity of Pakistan. You can’t substitute people’s free will with your own whimsical feats. And when I go to the interior of any province, the identity of the people there is first their own. It is a different matter if he says, just in order to please you, that he is a Pakistani first. Deep down he is not. He should not be. He should be a Pathan, or a Baloch, or a Sindhi, or if he has migrated from Lucknow – a Poorbi, he should be a Madrasi. Only then will be realize his ‘self’. And that is the reason why all our sufi saints, who came from the outside and started writing in the regional languages. Baba Fareed, Ameer Khusro. Ameer Khusro began writing in Urdu-Hindi in the language of the common man of that region, because he knew he had to reach people’s hearts. Persian would not have taken his message to the hearts of the masses.”

Dr A. H. Dani is a historian and archaeologist and is associated with the Centre for the Study of Central Asian Civilisations at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

“I don’t see any conflict. You cannot do away with regional languages. They must continue. And they must be cultivated further. But at the same time if you have got a state like Pakistan, there must be a link language. There must be a common language which people understand. It is not a question of the Government of Pakistan enforcing that they must adopt it. It has already become (the link language). I have been to various parts of Pakistan – and I could very easily manage with my Urdu language, without knowing the local language. So it is radio, television, film, cinema – which make the (Urdu) language common. Take, for example, the Pathans who are now in Karachi city. They may be talking Pushto amongst themselves, but how do they communicate when they go out? They all talk in Urdu.” 

Is Urdu a good tool of instruction in rural areas?

"Yes, why should it not be?  You can adopt Pushto, you can adopt Sindhi as a medium of instruction. In fact, a few weeks back I was discussing this very aspect that from making Urdu a national language, then making English as medium of instruction, with some of the students appearing for Cambridge examinations and the rest appearing for the matric examinations, and then some of the schools trying to seek affiliation with America or Britain – where are you going? Today most of the students would like to appear in ‘O’ level or ‘A’ level. What do you mean? You want to finish your own education system? When you are seeking affiliation with third-class universities of America and Britain, what about our own universities? Somehow you have to raise the standard of your education. This is the most crucial question we are facing in Pakistan."

We have interviewed some experts from across the country and what we understand from their opinions is that the conflict between Urdu and the regional languages can be discussed at three levels: (a) political, (b) pedagogical (educational system) and (c) linguistic.
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