Language and Class
By Sartaj Khan
March 06, 2013
Around 3,000 languages are endangered, seriously endangered or dying in many parts of the world. Despite the fact that the state lays emphasis on a unified ‘Pakistani culture’ and Urdu as the national language, Pakistan is a multicultural and multilingual country. The refusal to see this reality saw the rise of the first language-based movement in former East Pakistan, which challenged the very foundation of the ideology of a ‘single Muslim identity’. And today, a strong language-based sentiment prevails in certain sections of society and among oppressed nationalities.
Under the designed framework of the Raj, it was in the Muslim minority of North India where the Urdu-Hindi conflict took shape. Muslim elites – in the All India Muslim League – used the two nation theory based on an amalgam of Islam and Urdu as an ethnic identity. It was not an accident that Mohsin al Mulk, one of the men behind the formation of the All India Muslim League in 1906, was also actively involved in the establishment of the Urdu Defence Association in 1900.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had already pointed towards Hindu domination in various fields, including modern education based on the English language. Sir Syed’s efforts to carve out a role for Muslim elites in the colonised Subcontinent culminated in the establishment of an educational institute for the elite classes that laid strong emphasis on the English language. It is from this point that English became the leverage of social mobilisation for Indian Muslims.
The issue of a single language stemmed from the point of view of hegemony for the ruling elite and the armed forces in Pakistan. The official language in Pakistan is English with Urdu as the national language. Not more than five percent of the population speaks English and Urdu is the mother tongue of only seven percent. It is claimed that Urdu played an important role in the dissemination of Islam in colonial times. In fact it was the lingua franca of the urbanised middle and commercial classes such as traders, shopkeepers and lower category Babus – classes closely associated with the revival of Islamism.
Historically, rulers in this region imposed foreign languages – Persian, English and Urdu – for state business. However, fighting for the rights of Muslims under the Raj on the basis of Islam and Urdu, the founding fathers were neither very religious nor spoke Urdu. These notions were later on to be used by the Jamaat-e-Islami and the MQM for class and ethnic gains.
Punjabi as an ethnic identity was used by Sikhs in pre-Partition Punjab. The Muslim Punjabi middle classes were left with no option but to favour Urdu. This trend was continued and even given impetus after Partition. Today, only a small minority of Punjabi intellectuals are eager to promote Punjabi for ethnic identity.
Although the revival of Pashto was closely linked to the early stages of the Red Shirt Movement, it suffered at the hands of the Pakhtun elite including the nationalists. Under their rule and influence, Pashto never went beyond being a language taught at the primary level at school. Pakhtun nationalists never used language in identity politics. It revolved around a name for the province, resources and land.
Tariq Rahman notes that in Pakistan “only (the) Pashto language movement decreased in intensity” because the Pakhtun elite and middle class became gradually more integrated in the Pakistani society. This fact is also revealed in Dr Feroz Ahmed’s research. Pakhtuns became second partners in the armed forces, bureaucracy and in other state enterprises and institutions.
Sindhi has made progress since 1947 and even saw riots over the Urdu-Sindhi controversy. More than any other province, Sindh is the centre of language-based tension. Seraiki and Hindko are also two important languages used to further class interest against the dominant Punjabi elite of central Punjab and the Pakhtun elite in Peshawar. Balochi has flourished under the influence of resistance movements and is rich in progressive content in literature.
The politics of language is more than an ethnic issue. French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot points out that in Pakistan language is a class issue. According to Tariq Rahman, language reflects the socio-economic division in society. English is associated with the elite and upper middle classes; Urdu with the middle and lower middle classes and local languages are associated with peasantry and unskilled labourers.
Pakistan is currently facing ethnic and religious movements in various parts of the country. Language and religion both play a ‘unite and divide’ role in a country like Pakistan. ‘Language and religion’ says Prof Paul R Brass “have both provided the motive power for nationalism in the South Asian states and also constitute the chief threat to national unity in those states.”
Sartaj Khan is an independent researcher and activist.