For Pakistan’s founders, Urdu was to be the glue cementing together the new country. The pre-partition Muslim League rejected suggestions that English, Hindi, or Hindustani be the official language of undivided India. Instead, it wanted Urdu (Pirpur Report, 1938) because it was thought to be the carrier of Islamic culture. In 1948, Mr Jinnah addressed the students of Dacca University in immaculate English. He was emphatic: “The state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. And anyone who tries to mislead you is an enemy of Pakistan.”
Mr Jinnah spoke little Urdu and did not read its script. East Pakistan rioted but he was unmoved; nation-building needs a language. With time Pakistan rid itself of the burden of Bengal. Its new leaders drafted a new Constitution of Pakistan (1973) which decreed that Urdu become the official language within 15 years. This did not happen.
Gen Ziaul Haq also thought that Pakistan needed the ‘correct’ official language. He wanted Arabic, but some of his colleagues and administrators dissuaded him. He consoled himself by imposing compulsory Arabic teaching upon schools.
Since that time our language obsession has continued. In September 2015, an irritated Supreme Court judge, Justice Jawwad Khwaja, gave Nawaz Sharif’s government three months to implement “Article 251 in line with Article 5 of the Constitution”. This would make Urdu mandatory for “official and other purposes”. The ultimatum expired, English stayed.
Though not yet the official language, Urdu is Pakistan’s lingua franca.
Eventually Urdu did come to Pakistan — naturally and painlessly. Today fewer and fewer people speak and understand English — far fewer in percentage terms than in India or Sri Lanka. For lack of viewership, local English-language television channels have closed down but there are dozens of Urdu channels and some Sindhi and Punjabi ones too. Though not yet the official language, Urdu is Pakistan’s lingua franca.
But the rise of Urdu, and the decline of English, have not weakened regional, tribal, or class identities. Baloch separatism is fuelled by inequitable distribution of resources and high-handed treatment by the centre. Sindh’s grievances are over issues of water and land. Nation-building needs more than just a common language.
Ditto for building education. If we are to believe some of today’s education activists, most problems will miraculously disappear if only we make the right choice of language — whatever that “right” choice means. But flogging the language horse will get us nowhere. The problem lies elsewhere.
About 30 years ago, my colleagues at Quaid-i-Azam University and I had explored the conundrum of language and education through a documentary film broadcast by Pakistan Television. It was part of a 13-part series Rastay Ilm Kay that took a critical look at the crisis of Pakistani education. Serious then, it is far more serious now.
Upon viewing a rare surviving copy of this documentary, I felt that time had come to a stop. Not a single argument or counter-argument has changed. On the one hand, our cameras recorded those who wanted education in Urdu and condemned English as a colonial remnant. They blamed it for creating social inequality, and argued that teachers with bad English skills force students to memorise blindly. The cameras also captured those who said that English provides a vehicle to carry us forward. A true debate!
Unless we wish to spend the next 30 years arguing the very same points, we must squarely face two basic truths — those that mere wishes cannot change. If these truths take us in opposite directions, then we must learn to navigate as best as possible.
First, English opens a window into the external world so wide that all vernacular languages, Urdu included, are tiny peepholes in comparison. In principle, all languages can carry the same content. But in practice they reflect very different stages of intellectual development. Nobody is more unreasonably proud than the French. But even they have grudgingly accepted their language’s reduced status. English is now the choice of a shrinking globe, not the spearhead of aggressive colonialism.
Second, English cannot be a solution for Pakistan. Early learning happens fastest in the mother tongue, and only the tiniest fraction of Pakistanis speaks English at home. But even if English is decreed compulsory from the cradle onwards, there is insufficient language teaching capacity to make this work. Moreover Pakistan’s different languages encode distinct cultures with beautiful prose, poetry, and fiction in each. To lose this history would be tragic.
How terribly contradictory! Yet this bipolar conflict is generic to all former colonies. Using different mixes of bilingualism, and even trilingualism, managing conflict intelligently has enabled some to develop a better education for their young. Pakistan has not. Our students have ever decreasing ability to reason, low curiosity levels, and abysmal general knowledge. Why?
The real enemy of education in Pakistan is a regressive mindset, not language or financial resources. Critical thinking is actively discouraged, memorisation is encouraged. There is heavy presence of religious materials in all school subjects from history and social studies to biology and math.
So go ahead and change the language to the ‘right’ one. You might get a 10pc improvement at most. A parrot singing in Urdu or Sindhi understands no more than one who sings in English. The terrible authority of the teacher, sanctioned by tradition, weighs heavy upon young minds.
Here’s an example — a real one. Some pre-engineering college F.Sc students came to see me the other day. For fear of retribution they asked me to keep their visit secret. Their teacher had told them in class that seven divided by zero was zero! Dissatisfied, they sought an explanation. Instead they were reprimanded for being cheeky. I am older and more qualified than you, said the teacher, and so I am right.
To conclude: no nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Instead it gains strength when it addresses the real needs of its people. Likewise, education cannot be improved by flipping from English to Urdu or vice versa. Change can happen only when education is seen as a means for opening minds rather than an instrument of ideological control.