Home Lightbox ‘Divider’ English vs. ‘Equalizer’ Urdu

‘Divider’ English vs. ‘Equalizer’ Urdu

by Khaled Ahmed

Students at a madrassah in Karachi. Rizwan Tabassum—AFP

Months since its announcement, numerous questions remain about the effectiveness of a proposed single national curriculum

Pakistan is in the process of adopting a Single National Curriculum (SNC), which means all schools—state-run “Urdu-medium” and the commercially run “English medium”—will now teach the same courses. The most important feature of the SNC is that Urdu, the national language, will be the medium for learning subjects like math and the sciences at the school level.

Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, who went to an English-medium school and had to learn his math and science in English, came on TV and said he had found it very difficult to make out what was being taught because it was in English rather than the language he spoke as a child. The writer of this column, on the other hand, went to an Urdu-medium school and couldn’t comprehend the two subjects because Urdu was not suited to their transmission. The prejudice against math and science thus got embedded, which curtailed him as a human being.

The nightmare of unwritten vowels

I have previously written about the SNC, fearing that it would close down the marketplace of English-medium education without improving the quality of state-run schools. The state, of course, will find itself incapable of suiting Urdu to the two disciplines doing poorly today, while producing more ideologically inclined citizens. Will Urdu vowels be introduced into the alphabet or will they remain “optional”; will the three sibilants and four “zee” sounds that we pronounce identically remain intact; and will the catch-up process be maintained in Urdu textbooks as new knowledge explodes on a deeply religious society? In Matric, I learned the sciences without learning the elementary way of writing water as H2O and all acids were written in equations as “tezab.”

My classmates in Dharampura Lahore were all poor but brilliant and scored high enough in Matric to secure entry to the Government College Lahore on merit. (I got in on “cricket basis.”) But switching over to English in Physics and Chemistry in college was tough for them because now the equations were in English; and Urdu with its vowel problem was irrelevant. Most of them couldn’t make it to the post-graduate level although I still vouch for their extraordinary intelligence.

I accept the “findings” by UNESCO and UNICEF that education is best imparted in the mother tongue. In your mother tongue you learn quickly and don’t get entangled with idiom not familiar to you. Yet compared to Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Punjabi and Brahui, etc, Urdu is more developed and carries more modern knowledge than the regional languages, some of which don’t even have any newspapers. (Pashto as the national language of Afghanistan has its newspapers; Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province doesn’t have its newspapers and the children have to learn Urdu.) The national language in the provinces is somewhat like English but is more acceptable to the state.

In the past, people didn’t mind “foreign” languages if they were carriers of knowledge. Granted that education was not universal and the Muslims of Iran and Central Asia had madrassas where they learned Arabic whose correct pronunciation however they were not required to master. Out of the three sibilants, the students of Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan could not choose one and exclude the outlandish ones because that would be sacrilege. (Urdu has inherited all three that continue to play havoc with its orthography.)

Language as carrier of knowledge

One additional reason was that Arabic was the language of the conquerors while also being the language of knowledge. Central Asian thinkers like al-Khwarzemi and al-Beruni—both Persian but born in Khiva in today’s Uzbekistan—wrote in Arabic. They were open to other knowledge-carrying languages too: al-Khwarzemi got his decimal math from India and soon enough Persian became the knowledge-carrier of India under the Persian and Mughal conquerors. When, much later, Ranjeet Singh ruled in Punjab, the court language was Persian while in the streets of Lahore people spoke Punjabi.

Today the language of knowledge is English. India and Pakistan both have it but might want to get rid of it as a tool of education for schoolchildren. It would be tragic if they didn’t realize the harm they would do to themselves. The population of both is competing nationally and internationally for higher education and employment, ostensibly at the cost of their mother tongue. In an upsurge of low-intellect nationalism the state may tinker with school education and trespass into the free-market education “because it costs too much and creates two nations.” (The high-fee factor is not for the state to sort out because it is integral to market competition.) Pakistan is more “monolithic” in its nationalism and therefore can harm itself more; India’s is a different case.

The Indian soup of languages

Indians speak about 179 languages and 544 dialects (according to Grierson’s The Linguistic Survey of India). The problem is which one of the major 12 out of these should be accepted as the lingua franca of India. Of these 12, four are Dravidian languages. According to the census of 1931, over 26 million speak the Telugu language. Next to Telugu comes the Tamil language, spoken by about 21 million; Kannada, by over 11 million; and Malayalam, by over 9 million. Altogether the Dravidian languages account for 71 million people in India. If Pakistan had its way in India, it would try to impose Hindi. But what would it do with the Tamils and with Shashi Tharoor from Kerala speaking English better than any Englishman? And Tamils generally doing well in exams because of their command of this language of knowledge?

Once upon a time Arabic and Persian were languages of knowledge; today it is English. Muslims all over the world, and especially Arabs, are educationally thwarted for one reason or another. The obsession with “one-ness” and “unity” in Pakistan threatens to oust English as medium of instruction in the private sector; and SNC will be a big negative for Pakistan. Proverbially anti-intellectual, Pakistani leaders fall for “unity” not minding that its imposition would result in a barren brainwash. Advice to Muslim politicians: don’t mess with education.

The Economic and Political Weekly of India once published findings by Rahul Verma, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Shreyas Sardesai of the Lokniti-Center for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, about how people voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The main insight that emerged from the research was:

“Citizens with higher exposure to the media [Hindi] were much more likely to have voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. 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. Therefore more uniformity or “unity.”]

Urdu as carrier of ideology

One may agree that Urdu as language of learning should be the medium but Urdu may not be the mother-tongue just like Hindi in India. But if you have a “national tongue” the state may find it easy to indoctrinate though it, unless the state eschews it as a matter of policy, which is unthinkable in Pakistan. The state is self-declared as “ideological” and fill “fix” all textbooks, Urdu and English, except that English keeps puncturing the dystopia of intolerance and false effervescence of jihad because it connects us with the world outside our thought-bubble.

I grew up with Urdu, learned English as compulsory subject from sixth grade onwards, but couldn’t study the sciences because Urdu couldn’t handle them. In any case, at college, all science students have to switch to English as 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.

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 memorizing helps develop the mind, but knowing what you memorize helps, too.) This learning didn’t teach me “uncertainty of knowledge”; it insisted on “certainty” that made me intolerant.

Ideology and brainwash

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 (The State of Madina) where everything ought to be subsidized to create the illusion of “equality.”

From observation, I can say that learning-through-Urdu in childhood prepares the mind for the “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 that punishes ideological deviations. 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 “uncolonized” Arabs and Iranians, not because my mind has been fashioned by Urdu but because it has been tainted by English. The madrassa specializes in Urdu, which results in one 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 (was?) not, but it definitely helps in the revival of religious prejudice.

Allama Iqbal is the quintessence of the “knowledge” we want Urdu to carry but when he wrote in English he had a different message to give. His lectures were read by Indian audiences but his final lectures created problems for him because he succumbed to the “logic” of English and disapproved of enforcement of Hudood in this day and age, which included stoning to death for fornication. His English through stylistically very Germanic—perhaps inspired by Max Weber?—in a way warned us not to be Urdu “literalists” as Iran was under Imam Khomeini, stoning women to death for fornication till the absurdity of the act became too obvious and had to be given up, proving Allama Iqbal right “in English.”

General Kayani and Urdu

Pakistan’s erstwhile Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani always took care to express his bias in favor of the columnist he most liked in the Urdu press. He touched base with all the policy directions recommended in the 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 that showed flexibility of 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, which his successor General Raheel Sharif easily defied for “the reason of the state.” When the Pakistan Army attacked the “safe havens” of North Waziristan and scattered the “friendly terrorists” of General Kayani, the nation quickly moved behind him. Needless to say, the world was relieved too.

Puncturing the dystopia

The ideological discourse of the mother tongue finally 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, 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-Talibanization hell presided over by the Islamic State—it is still alive and well—with the help of our madrassas after they have gotten rid of the Shia. Of course then all the English-medium institutions will be outlawed.

The outlawing of English as medium of learning from class one was pledged by Imran Khan after coming to power and when he saw a women’s protest recently he called it an “English-medium” women protect and therefore the expression of a “divided nation.” But the question is: is the right to protest not accepted by Urdu? If protest is any index of human rights and you think human rights are a “borrowing” from the West, then get English out of the early stages of education. In daily Jang (Dec. 5, 2014) it was reported that parents in Sindh were asked which language should be the medium of instruction for their children; a majority of them chose English.

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