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War, peace, language

In Pakistan, there is a large difference between growing up with Urdu or with English

Written by Khaled Ahmed |
Updated: December 13, 2014 12:00:40 am
How people voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. (Source: Reuters photo) How people voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. (Source: Reuters photo)

The Economic and Political Weekly recently published findings by Rahul Verma, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Shreyas Sardesai of Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, about how people voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The main insight that emerged was: “Citizens with higher exposure to the media were much more likely to have voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This was particularly true for those who read Hindi newspapers or watched TV news in Hindi.” (NB: In Pakistan, there are no English-language TV channels.)

One senior journalist I have admired and shared my values with is Zubeida Mustafa, who writes in Dawn, Karachi. In her latest column, “Against English as medium of instruction”, she has accepted the established educationists’ norm that a child learns quickest if taught in the mother tongue. Children not taught in the mother tongue are held back.

She is not opposed to English, but she thinks it should come later in the child’s learning career. All educationists, from Maria Montessori in the 20th century to Abbas Rasheed and Tariq Rehman in our times, agree with her. But the problem with us today is that Urdu is not the mother tongue in all cases. The state indoctrinates in all textbooks, Urdu and English, except that English keeps puncturing the evil dystopia of intolerance and the false effervescence of jihad because it connects us to the world outside our ideological bubble.

I grew up with Urdu and learned English as a compulsory subject from sixth grade onwards, but couldn’t study the sciences because Urdu couldn’t handle them. In any case, in college, all science students have to switch to English as the medium. I threw up the “poison of the mother tongue” by disavowing nationalism as I grew up, but most of us didn’t. My Dharampura schoolfellows despise me for being an “American agent” after reading my articles.

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My first learning was in Arabic because I was made to read the Quran. My second learning was in Urdu. In both cases, I simply can’t understand how it helped in “learning”. In the first case, it was the magic of incantation and memory. (I agree memorising helps develop the mind, but knowing what you memorise helps too.) This learning didn’t teach me of the “uncertainty of knowledge”; it insisted on a “certainty” that made me intolerant.

It is shocking, however, how completely Urdu drowns itself in ideology and nationalism — the two evils that destroy nations if they don’t become conquerors and destroy others. What you can write in an editorial on the annual budget in Urdu, you can’t translate and publish in English. Urdu treats modern economics as an intrusion into the state where everything ought to be subsidised to create the illusion of “equality”.

From observation, I can say that learning through Urdu in childhood prepares the mind for a “certainty” of ideology not possible in English. Most of us Urdu-wallahs continue to be comfortable in Urdu, reading newspapers and writing in Urdu. Those who don’t, and stray into the “rational-sequential” discourse of English, run the risk of attracting the mischief of the penal code, which punishes ideological deviations.

I don’t know about India — I have a couple of articles from there describing Hindi as the language of nationalism — but the mind that grows on the basis of learning in Urdu is unbending and unforgiving of any innovative and “redemptive” expression. I use “redemptive” to explain an expiatory change of policy to avert the project of collective suicide based on jihad-based nationalism. I have always felt different from the “uncolonised” and therefore duly proud Arabs and Iranians, not because my mind has been fashioned by Urdu but because it
has been tainted by English. The madrassa specialises in Urdu, which results in one’s becoming a good speaker, but dooms you forever with its opposition to “variant thinking”.

The Indian mind has been shaped in the same manner. Here I must hasten to add that the “mother tongue” is more likely to get “poisoned” in an ideological state, which India is not, but it definitely helps in the revival of religious prejudice.

Pakistan’s erstwhile army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, always took care to express his bias in favour of the columnist he most liked in the Urdu press. He touched base with all the policy directions recommended in Urdu columns where passion rejected realism as “slavery”. Maybe he was simply pretending, but the foreign policy he ran was patently irrational. He simply couldn’t interpret the phenomenon of the Taliban as a lethal strain of terrorism that would take the country down.

He got the longest tenure through extensions because he touched base with the passions that the dominant Urdu discourse aroused and browbeat the elected government, which showed flexibility in its approach to India and the United States. Troubled by terrorism and its inroads into state sovereignty, the state needed the suppleness Urdu simply couldn’t allow, but clung to the majority point of view that his successor, General Raheel Sharif, easily defied for “reason[s] of the state”. When the Pakistan army attacked the “safe havens” of North Waziristan and scattered the “friendly terrorists” of Kayani, the nation quickly moved behind him. Needless to say, the world is relieved too.

The ideological discourse of the mother tongue doesn’t stand when the state is in danger because of the fixed prescriptions transmitted through it. But the state swung away from disaster only because, by happenstance, a general thought he could risk falling out of national consensus.

Of course, the next issue Mustafa, Rasheed and Rehman must tackle is: What is happening to our children through vernacular learning? They should recommend changing the curricula in the provinces that handle the textbooks no right-minded parent would want his child to be formed by. I know at least in this lifetime, they will not make a dent in the thinking of those who dominate education in Pakistan.

Of course, Pakistani parents hardly feel what is happening. English too is polluted, but at least people still have the choice of reading things of foreign origin. The next phase has perhaps already arrived: send the kid abroad as Urdu leads us down the road to a post-Talibanisation hell presided over by the Islamic State with the help of our madrassas. Of course, then all English-medium institutions will be outlawed. The outlawing of English as medium of learning from Class I is pledged by Imran Khan too, and he could rightly be persuaded by our English-language scholars following Western philosophies of learning. Will it lead to war or peace?

Writing in Urdu daily Jang on December 5, my favourite columnist, Raza Ali Abidi, stated that when parents in Sindh were asked which language should be the medium of instruction for their children, they chose English. Punjab actually enforced English but had to retreat. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa will probably also roll back English from Class I. (NB: Long ago, Punjabi parents also chose in this order of preference: English, Urdu, Punjabi.)

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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