The Punjab government has made a decision to require all schools in the province to introduce English as the medium of instruction from the beginning of the next school year. I cannot find words strong enough to condemn this absurd educational policy, which will have a monumental effect on our development as a nation. If we are to extend Pakistan’s current low literacy rate of around 45% to full literacy in the shortest possible time then the only realistic option is to educate the population in the language it can understand, that is, Urdu. Spread of education will open up people’s dormant abilities and enable them to express their suppressed genius in all sorts of ways – to enrich their own lives and the life of the nation.
Politically, Pakistan has been independent since 14 August 1947 but, in a deeper sense, it seems never to have enjoyed true freedom. The country's Establishment and the middle class servicing it, comprising at most less than 5% of the population, receive their education in English, much as they would have done under the British in the pre-1947 era. Consequently, much of the business of the state continues to be transacted in a similar manner to that the British had imposed on their subjects. The Pakistanis who have managed to arm themselves with an English education may be said to comprise the new Raj, lording over the remaining 95% of Pakistan's population educated in Urdu.
Quaid-e-Azam understood the danger of the newly independent Pakistan’s descent into intellectual slavery if nothing was done to wean it away from its attachment to the language of its colonial masters. He felt that the colonial language of government and administration, English, had to be replaced by an indigenous solution. The only language that could meet this requirement was Urdu, which the Muslims living in India habitually used for communicating with each other. This remains true today. The Punjabis, the Sindhis, the Pakhtuns, the Balochis and the Kashmiris, all have their own regional languages but they are never at a loss to communicate with each other because of the existence of Urdu. Moreover, none of the regional languages is as well developed as Urdu and some are merely spoken languages. As a Punjabi, I have come across Punjabi poetry in the Urdu script but there is scant evidence of the existence of Punjabi fictional or non-fictional works.
English, on the other hand, is a foreign language which only a small minority of Pakistanis understands but it has been foisted on the nation by a privileged class which has clung to it throughout Pakistan’s existence.
Our national inferiority complex
The continuation of an essentially colonial system has had a devastating effect on the Pakistani psyche and on the country's economic development. The exaggerated importance given to an alien language and, inevitably, the culture associated with it, has produced a Pakistani elite suffering from a deep-seated sense of inferiority. They assume a fawning attitude before the Americans and the British but act with extreme haughtiness towards fellow Pakistanis who lack the vulgar trappings of ill gotten wealth and power. This is clearly seen when a relatively junior American official such as Richard Holbrooke visits Pakistan and receives red carpet treatment. This uncouth American delivers humiliating lectures to members of Pakistan’s governing class – the president, the prime minister and other grandees among them – who breathlessly hold on to his every word. No one dares to tell the bully that:
the Americans’ Asian wars have cost Pakistan some 50 billion dollars;
that we have lost well over 20,000 officers and men of the Pakistan army while the American losses amount to a tiny fraction of our loss;
that we have a right to demand that the USA compensates for our losses;
that the twisted policies of the USA administration have directly threatened the life and property of our citizens;
that our military is horribly stretched and we wish to call a halt to the military advance and consolidate our position;
that it is now time for the USA and NATO to “do more” – while Pakistan has achieved military success the Americans and the Europeans have failed miserably;
that the USA should withdraw its army of spies and private contractors (Blackwater/Dyncorp) from Pakistan (whose presence in Pakistan the American Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, has admitted);
that our room for manoeuvre is limited because of the intransigence of our neighbour on our eastern border, who refuses to resolve long festering issues;
that the American legislation following upon the heels of the Kerry-Lugar bill is an abomination that we could do without – we need trade not aid but when our Prime Minister raises this issue with the American bully he gets a firm rap on his knuckles;
above all, that we are sick of being an American client state and we wish to snap out of that state of almost total dependence.
A national deception
The privileged Pakistani class which has rammed English down the throats of Pakistanis is fond of justifying this abomination by dishonestly claiming that Urdu is a “foreign” language spoken by a minority of Pakistanis! They reinforce this deception by presenting the regional languages of Pakistan as rivals to Urdu for imparting education to our children. I know of no Punjabi who has ever claimed that Punjabi should be introduced as the medium of instruction in schools. Only members of Pakistan’s westernised sub-class, cut off from our historical and cultural links, would make this ridiculous claim. The fact is that our forefathers, irrespective of their regional backgrounds, contributed to the development, enrichment and popularity of Urdu. Iqbal, Faiz, Qudratullah Shahab, Manto, Dr Syed Abdullah, Mumtaz Mufti, Inayatullah Khan Al-Mashriqi, and hundreds of others, were all non-Urdu speakers and yet their love of Urdu was boundless. They accepted that, realistically, this was the only language which could claim to be the language of communication among the Muslims of India and the people of Pakistan.
The link between economic development and language
As for the effect of Pakistan's colonial system on its economic development, this was the subject of an e-mail exchange between me and a well-known Pakistani columnist. He was of the opinion that the slow pace of Pakistan’s economic development, and widespread poverty in the country, stemmed exclusively from the kind of rotten leadership that we have had over the years. My position was that the leadership issue was important but it was overshadowed by the more fundamental factor of not being able to harness the full potential of the intellectual resources of the Pakistani nation because of the stranglehold of English on our national life. The points I made are summarized below.
1. We have a culture in Pakistan where, by and large, people refuse to recognize intelligence unless it is expressed through the medium of a language which is alien to the vast majority of Pakistanis. Our national psyche has been conditioned to such an extent that we consider a mediocre person speaking bad English to be more intelligent than a near genius from a poor background whose intelligence manifests itself only in Urdu. A lot of these mediocre people then go on to occupy positions of influence and power while the real brainpower of the nation rots unrecognised!
2. In my opinion, it is this mental subjugation to our erstwhile colonial masters – and, indeed, to our current de facto colonial masters, the Americans – which is the greatest obstacle to our economic progress as a nation and to our shameless capitulation before the Americans. Our national inferiority complex in relation to the English language has resulted in criminal waste and destruction of our intellectual capital on a massive scale, affecting perhaps more than 95% of our population. The remaining 5% of the population, which is able to educate its children in the foreign language that dominates our national life, simply cannot produce able people in sufficiently large numbers to meet the needs of the country.
3. At one time China and South Korea were both categorised with Pakistan as ‘developing nations’ but they have since broken out of that straitjackjet while Pakistan has stood still. The reason is that those countries were able to harness the talent and genius of their populations by the simple means of spreading education in the language that people spoke. Thus, they were able to utilise their full intellectual resources for national development while we unfortunate Pakistanis depended, to a very large extent, on the 5% or so of “English educated” exploiting class. The Chinese, the Koreans, the Malaysians and the Japanese managed to develop their languages to a point where the whole population could participate in the development of the country but we Pakistanis continued with our love affair with English at the expense of Urdu. It is still not too late – the amazing developments in computer software have made it possible for us to follow the example of so-called “Asian tigers”.
4. In view of the significant position that English occupies in the world today it would be in our interests to continue to teach it as a foreign language in our schools while introducing Urdu as the medium of instruction in ALL schools in Pakistan (the Punjab government’s crass decision is quite the reverse of this policy).
5. We need to take concrete steps to raise the status of Urdu in Pakistan and to enable it to progressively replace English in an ever-widening sphere of our national life. For example, the country’s leadership should adopt a simple rule to always address the nation in Urdu, all official correspondence between members of the public and government departments/ institutions should be conducted in Urdu, proceedings in a court of law, so far as possible, should take place in Urdu, and so on.
6. There are supplementary factors which play an important part as well - political stability is important but the type of governance less so. Among the success stories are: communist China, the constitutional monarchy of Japan and democratic nations with varying degrees of civic freedoms: South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan.
We Pakistanis have wasted our years of independence serving foreign masters and getting the wealth of the country plundered by greedy and power hungry civilian and military dictators. Our unstable political system can, at best, be described as a fake democracy where the large political parties are merely vehicles to serve the interests of a particular family or a privileged class. Elections are held only nationally, not within the so-called political parties. This system gives rise to weak institutions, social and economic injustice, and exploitation on a massive scale.
Saleem Safi, who seems to me to be a rising star of Pakistan’s journalistic firmament, has written an excellent article in Urdu concerning the nature of Pakistan’s politicians, and the political parties they belong to: “Jamhooriyat ya khaandaani baadshaahat” can be read here.
This article has also been posted at the website of the critical supporters of the PPP: here.
In response to two comments at that website, I responded with the following comments on 25 January, 2010:
The article is primarily concerned with the Punjab government’s decision to replace Urdu by English as the medium of instruction in all schools throughout Punjab. The emphasis, therefore, is on Urdu because it is the only indigenous solution which is acceptable to all Pakistanis as the lingua franca.
As for Pakistan’s regional languages, certainly they must be allowed to flourish within each region where they are spoken. As a Punjabi myself, I wouldn’t wish it otherwise. The relationship of our regional languages to Urdu can be likened to that of Welsh in relation to English in the United Kingdom. The Welsh tend to be bi-lingual in Welsh and English, which enables them to revel in the richness of the local language and culture and still be able to play a full part at the national level.
Jinnah’s own language was Gujarati and he spoke little Urdu. His command of English, however, was impeccable as he lived almost his entire life under the British Raj. It was because of his close contact with western civilisation, and his insight into the human condition, that he insisted on replacing English with an indigenous language for the newly created Pakistan: to give a sense of pride to the new nation and to treat all citizens fairly. In 1948 Pakistan's Legislative Assembly, comprising members from East and West Pakistan, voted for Urdu as the State language while each province was given the freedom to choose another language for use within the province. In 1954 Bangla, which is a developed language in the sense that Urdu is, assumed the same status as Urdu and became the second State language of Pakistan. When East Pakistan later became independent Bangladesh the status of Urdu reverted to its pre-1954 position.
The story of how our feudal society resisted the spread of education in Pakistan, and the way our civil servants outsmarted government ministers to perpetuate the hold of English in our national life, is described in considerable detail in the incomparable ‘Shahab Nama’ by Qudratullah Shahab.