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The language controversy

If history is any guide, the recent moves towards immediately enforcing Urdu as an official language seem problematic

The language controversy
First, there was the dispute between Urdu and Bengali, which led to the vivisection of the country, and now it is Urdu versus English.

Language is not only a medium of communication and instruction, it is a part of one’s identity. Scholars like Professor Tariq Rahman and Professor Shahid Siddique have written extensively about how language is used as a political, social and ideological tool in Pakistan (and of course elsewhere).

In Pakistan, language has been contested since the inception of the country. First, there was the dispute between Urdu and Bengali, which led to the vivisection of the country, and now it is Urdu versus English, which is poised to create further long lasting problems for the country.

Before I posit my arguments on the language issue, let me first recap the history of the Urdu-English controversy in Pakistan. The second part will then follow with what I propose for adoption in Pakistan.

After Bengali had been declared the co-national language with Urdu in 1954, the position of English as the official language and especially medium of education was also challenged. The Ayub era saw an intensification of the move to make the two national languages more prominent, usually not at the expense of English but the regional languages.

The first education commission report under Ayub, the Sharif Commission in 1959, suggested that even though English should remain in the educational system, the national languages should now occupy a more prominent position. It stated, “While we felt that English must yield to the national languages the paramount position it has occupied in our educational system so far, we are at the same time convinced that English should have a permanent position in that system.” As a result the Urdu proto-elite got a huge boost and soon educational institutions started offering degrees in the Urdu medium. It began with Karachi University in 1964, Punjab in 1966 and Sindh in 1966 where the Sindhi medium was also made available. Only it seems that Peshawar University offered resistance and did not allow Urdu till much later.

However, this enthusiasm to bring in Urdu medium education was quickly criticised by the new education commission of the government. It said, “We cannot help regretting that some of our universities should have preferred to be swayed more by sentiment than by a dispassionate judgement in accelerating the pace of changeover [to Urdu] beyond all reasonable proportions.”

The pro-Urdu lobby was very active during the Ayub era, probably because they saw in the Sandhurst educated Ayub a pro-English bias that could perpetually jeopardise the status of Urdu in the country — after all, Ayub had even mentioned the Romanisation of Bengali and Urdu during the 1950s.

After Bengali had been declared the co-national language with Urdu in 1954, the position of English as the official language and especially medium of education was also challenged.

Again spearheaded by religious figures, who closely equated Urdu with Islam and Muslim nationalism, a bill was presented in the West Pakistan legislature in 1963 by Allama Rahmatullah Arshad, asking for Urdu to be declared as the official language of the Unit. But again this bill reached a dead end for the government, while promising to modernise Urdu for official usage, postponed the issue for at least a decade. By the end of Ayub’s rregime not much progress had been made. Yes, Urdu was being taught in all schools, and the president was making his major speeches in Urdu, and that there were numerous Urdu conferences and related events, yet the language still widely used in education, courts and government remained English.

One would expect that Bhutto’s coming in after the secession of East Pakistan on a socialist, anti-imperialist and populist stance would boost the cause of Urdu. However, this was hardly the case. In parliament again an Official Language Bill was presented in 1972 asking for English to be replaced by Urdu, but yet again it was stalled in the Standing Committee hearings. Only one consolation move was undertaken during Bhutto’s rule when the NWFP and Balochistan, where ironically only a small fraction of people spoke the language as compared to other provinces, declared Urdu as the official language in 1972.

But as it is apparent, if Urdu had actually been used in these provinces after that bill was passed, the NWFP government would not have to pass another bill in 2004 making Urdu the official language. With regards to the status of English under Bhutto, English was given another extension of fifteen years in the constitution of 1973 as an official language. Hence, by the time the Bhutto regime was ousted by Zia in 1976, a lot of lip service and little concrete steps had been taken to establish Urdu as the official language of Pakistan.

The rule of the military dictator Zia ul-Haq was perhaps the most detrimental for the status of English, as well as Urdu, and the regional languages. Not only did Zia hurriedly try to end the monopoly of English, he created and flourished a class barrier now entangled with the language issue. Zia hailed from the urban lower middle class of Pakistan and as such had more of an affinity for the Urdu language and the staunch, non-mystic, version of Islam. For him, as it had been propagated since the emergence of Pakistan, the establishment of Urdu as the primary language of Pakistan was not only a nationalistic but a religious action. Also, he needed a battle cry to legitimise his usurpation of power in the eyes of people, and what better slogans than Urdu and Islam?

So for Zia’s Islam, and by extension the Urdu cause, were political as well as ideological and religious tools. One of the first actions of Zia was to order that all government speeches should now be in Urdu (17 April 1978). He also established a National Language Authority (Muqtadira Qaumi Zaban) in 1979 to promote Urdu. Its stated purpose was to “consider ways and means for the promotion of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan and to make all necessary arrangements in this regard…” Ironically, this pronouncement was made in English!

Zia did much damage to English, and actually to the whole system, in the educational field. His commission suggested that not only should Urdu be the medium of education in the country for all classes, Arabic should also be taught as a compulsory subject. The commission also discouraged the teaching of regional languages and suggested that they should be left for informal conversation only.

Although Arabic was never made compulsory, and regional languages, especially Sindhi, were never kicked out of the system, Pakistani students, though only in the state-run schools, did start the 1979 academic year with Urdu as the medium of instruction. This created a new social class in Pakistan, which was not exposed to English till after elementary school. Thus, in 1987 the newly matriculated class was overwhelmingly Urdu medium, and the gap between the English and Urdu medium schools had increased even more.

This measure of only imposing Urdu on state schools created much resentment in the students who graduated from these schools against the people who had been educated at private ones leading to increased social friction. Also, as Zia had heavily Islamised the school curricula, so that even science was supposed to impart Islamic values, these students were radically religious and uncompromising. This was clearly exhibited by a Ministry of Education survey in Pakistani Urdu medium schools in 1988 which showed a huge majority of students advocated, among other things, a ban on music teaching; a ban on non-Muslim teachers in schools, especially elementary schools; expulsion of secular minded teachers from colleges; ban on cutting hair for women teachers; the making of Islamiat and Pakistan Studies compulsory in schools; and a complete ban on anything that could compromise the ideology of Pakistan. (Sheikh et al, 1989).

Also, according to a separate survey it was established that nearly 44 per cent of books in Urdu were ideological and imparted strict versions of Pakistan and Islam. This trend gave fuel to a grass roots radical Islamist movement in Pakistan that not only cherished the idea of Jihad against anything non-Islamic, but also led to increased inter-Muslim denominational tensions, something we are still living with in the form of the Jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and the Sunni-Shia tensions.

Still the Zia reign did not usher in an ascendancy of Urdu and the demise of English. As the government had still been unprepared for the usage of Urdu, the Ministry of Education in 1987 had to allow for English to be used as a medium of education in science subjects due to a lack of Urdu terminology. Also, the issue of adopting Urdu as the sole official language had to yet again be postponed for not enough technical terms and literature had been produced in Urdu to make the switch feasible.

More importantly, as Zia’s measures only affected the state schools, which by and large catered to the poor of the country, private and elite state institutions continued to use English as a medium and even flourished. Actually, most of the current English medium schools were established under Zia’s regime.

Thus, by the end of the Zia era although some headway had been made in establishing Urdu as the medium of education and as the official language, these actions in reality proved detrimental for the civil society for not only did they give rise to class and ethnic tensions, but also a class of uncompromising religious radicals.

The two terms of both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were too unstable to make much of a difference either way in the debate. The Bhutto governments, having pro-Western stances and education in most cases, were more sympathetic towards re-introducing English as a medium of instruction in state schools. In doing so the first PPP government declared: “It has been decided that option shall be given to adopt English as medium of instruction in all subjects from class 1. It has also been decided that in the schools where the medium of instruction is Urdu or an approved provincial language, English be taught as an additional language from class 1.” (2 May 1989).

This policy was maintained by the first Sharif government and as well as the second Bhutto government. However, not much changed. This was because in most government schools this change was resisted, and even in schools where this was implemented English was taught as a foreign language with mediocre teachers. Further, even the schools which wanted to adopt English as the medium of instruction, could not do so fully due to a chronic lack of qualified teachers.

The Musharraf government reiterated this stance of the usage of English in all government schools but the damage of the 1980s was just too deep to be covered that soon and without adequate financial support from the government.

The Zadari-led government between 2008-13 also did not change anything substainally, and even promoted English as the medium of instruction in government schools. In the Punjab, all government schools switched over to the English medium under Shahbaz Sharif and the usuage of English further spread due to an increasingly international economy and connections.

With this background, the recent moves towards immediately enforcing Urdu as an official language are problematic. While the government has made promises to translate all policies and laws into Urdu and carry out all functions and speeches in the same language, it is unclear if this move will be at the expense of English. Just imagine, as has been reportedly contemplated, that the prime minister — who knows English well — will only converse with American President Obama in Urdu. Not only is there a question of lost in translation, but also the loss of a personal and direct connection between the speakers conversing in the same language. The Supreme Court judgment of September 8, 2015 goes even further and contemplates a more radical changeover.

Is this immediate change feasible or even advisable shall be discussed in the next part.

(To be concluded).

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.


  • Language is not an issue to be decided by a supreme court ruling. As all knowledgeable people know Urdu had been born at Calcutta by Gilchrist,later on brought to its adulthood at Lahore.
    Language has nothing to do with religion as Abu Sufiyan, Abu Jail, all the Jews tribe and Christians tribes in and around Mekka and Medina were speaking Arabic. Urdu is not the language of the Muslims of the Subcontinent,does a Bengali Muslim speak Urdu? Does an Asami Muslim speak Urdu?

    Urdu is spoken in Western U P by every one irrespective of religion. It is agreed by the Educationist of globe that the best language for teaching in the primary education is the mother tongue of the kid.The language of first indigenous Empire of Ranjit Sing was Persian, not Punjabi ,the first Noble Laureate of Literature Rabinder Nath studied Arabic and Persian not Bengali.

    Dont super impose the culture of a few million people who migrated from across the border in 1947. I am throwing challenge to Urdu speakers can they speak Persian with anybody of the region comprising Pakistan? It was they who rose the slogan that likho paro farsi becho tail. Let us have a referendum on this issue in the country.

    • “Let us have a referendum on this issue in the country.” — No, there will be no referendum, that’s ludicrous. The need for a referendum was put to rest when all the constituencies of this country had gotten together and formulated the 1973 constitution which mandated Urdu as the official language of the entire country. All your empty rhetoric about Urdu not being a native language of Pakistan or the majority of Indian Muslims is completely irrelevant because it is the lingua franca of Pakistan understood by everyone here since even before this country was created. And before posting here about your “education in the mother language” issue, you should have known that Pakistan’s constitution already gives the provinces the right to make their own languages official but none of them have ever bothered to exercise this constitutionally guaranteed right of theirs, this was not and should not be Urdu’s fault. There is no need for Persian because Iran stopped being the bastion of the world’s oil trade 4 decades ago. Please make arguments that make sense and next time do not show such ignorance.

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