Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis

By Anjum Altaf

Our experience with the politics of language has been so traumatic – first with the Urdu-Hindi divide contributing to the partition of India and then with the Urdu-Bengali divide contributing to the partition of Pakistan – that we need to step with the utmost caution in the new quagmire created by the recent Supreme Court decision to replace English with Urdu as the official language of the country.

That said, the decision has to be examined on its own merits without our judgement being prejudiced by the experiences of the past however traumatic they may have been or any politicking aimed at local and parochial gains. To state my conclusion at the outset, I find most of the objections to the decision misplaced and analytically unwarranted but I would like to begin by outlining the primary functions of a language in order to support my contentions.

In the context of this discussion, language can be considered to have two primary functions. First, as a tool to facilitate learning across generations and, second, as a means of communication between people in any given period of time.

The evidence as regards the first function is so overwhelming that those who disregard it can justly be classified as ignorant, the only ambiguity pertaining to whether the ignorance is real or contrived for some unstated purpose. It has been repeatedly proven that the mother tongue is the most effective vehicle for instruction during the early years of education.

While the evidence has become scientifically more rigorous in recent decades, the insight itself is not only quite old but also directly related to our own region. Almost everyone is aware of the infamous 1835 Minute on Education by which Macaulay is said to have favored the use of English as the medium of instruction in British India. Very few know of the evaluation of that policy by George Curzon who became the Viceroy in 1898: “Ever since the cold breath of Macaulay’s rhetoric passed over the field of Indian languages and textbooks, the elementary education of the people in their own tongue has shriveled and pined.”

Note the observation from the 1904 resolution that followed on the education policy in India:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

Over a century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan offered the following major recommendation:

Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.

Given the above, it should be obvious that as far as the learning function of language is concerned all the objections to the Supreme Court’s decision are not only misplaced but irrelevant. The choice is not between Urdu and English but between either and the mother tongue. The real policy question is at what stage in a child’s education a second language should be introduced and whether it should be Urdu or English.

All those harping on the importance of English as the dominant global language of science and technology and thus necessary for development are being dense to put it mildly. First, the choice of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years and Urdu as the second language does not rule out the acquisition of English at a later stage. Second, the evidence regarding development from countries like Japan, South Korea and China that use their national languages as the medium of instruction is so stark that only the deliberately obtuse could overlook it. If facility with English had been the dominant requirement for development, Pakistan and India should have been global leaders and if lack of facility in English had been a genuine hindrance Japan, South Korea and China ought to have been laggards.

The fact is that facility with English in non-English speaking countries is very poorly correlated with any index of development. Pakistan’s elite, responsible for all its policy decisions, is fluent in English and yet what do Pakistan’s rankings reveal: the sixth largest country in the world ranks 146 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, which measures health, standard of living, and education and 136 out of 144 countries in primary education according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Arguing that this abysmal plight would improve if the entire country learns English is the kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking that has plagued our education policies to date. More seriously, it also ignores the evidence that even the acquisition of English depends on sound early education in the mother tongue.

Communication at any given point in time is the other primary function of language and this has two dimensions. First, horizontal communication amongst citizens and second vertical communication between elected representatives and the citizens. Clearly, the existence of a common language greatly facilitates communication across both dimensions as we can observe again from the examples of Japan, South Korea and China.

Of course, this quest is greatly complicated in multi-national countries like Pakistan and India when the choice of a single language becomes politically fraught. This is particularly the case when there are distinct linguistic groups with equally large populations as is the case in India and was the case in Pakistan before 1971. The decision to force one language as the national or official language in such cases is a mindless application of the model of the nation-state borrowed from Europe. Consider this excerpt from Jinnah’s speech in Dhaka in March 1948:

…let me make very clear to you that the State Language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Any one who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one State Language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries.

Both the tragedies mentioned in the beginning of this discussion stemmed from the lack of sensitivity in how to negotiate such linguistic minefields. The choice of any one language in such circumstances would disadvantage a part of the population. While the provinces of West Pakistan did accede to the choice of Urdu in order to counter-balance the political weight of East Pakistan, there was absolutely no lack of understanding that the decision would disproportionately disadvantage the Bengali speaking population. In such a case the choice of a neutral language like English would have been a sensible second-best compromise without, of course, conflating the issue and imposing it as the medium of early education as well. The Mughals, when they arrived in India, were faced with a similar conundrum and chose a neutral language, Persian, as the language of administration even though, and it is very important to recall this, it was not their native language. It was a pragmatic not a chauvinistic compromise. Precisely because Persian was a foreign language, every non-Persian speaker had an equal opportunity to learn it if he/she aspired to positions that required knowledge of the language.

But the Pakistan of today is in a very different situation. If horizontal communication amongst citizens is important it would not be politically possible to do so in any of the sub-national languages. The only choice is between Urdu and English and here the fact that the provinces of West Pakistan had agreed to Urdu as the national language very early has altered the linguistic demographic beyond recognition. Almost everyone now has a working familiarity with Urdu, much more than the familiarity with any other language including English.

Thus the argument that Urdu is the mother tongue of only eight percent of the national population is only a polemical one without any real relevance. If the choice being debated is between two foreign languages then English is not the mother tongue of even a handful of Pakistanis – Urdu wins handily on that count.

Furthermore, it is really an advantage if Urdu is considered a foreign language in Pakistan by virtue of not being the native language of any of its constituent nations. That makes its acceptance much more possible compared to any one of the sub-national languages just as Persian was the neutral choice in Mughal India.

The fact that Urdu is understood to some extent by the majority of the population, that it is akin to a foreign language and not one of the sub-national languages makes the case for its acceptance as the language of horizontal communication very strong, certainly stronger than the case for English. The unstated fear that the choice of Urdu would somehow enable the eight percent native Urdu speakers from conquering all the commanding heights is misplaced, to say the least. One can rest assured that regional elites which did not allow that in the past will certainly not do so in the future, more so since many have already adopted Urdu as their language of communication. Amongst the educated cohorts, the native Urdu speaker today has virtually no advantage over the native speaker of the other sub-national language – all of them communicate equally well or equally poorly in a mangled hybrid of various languages because of the breakdown of primary and secondary education.

The function of language for vertical communication is much more important in some senses and here the situation has deteriorated to a critical pass. Inclusive development calls for a common medium of communication and its absence is stark in countries like Pakistan and India where the ruling elites communicate in English while the majority of citizens is unfamiliar with the language. Ministers and experts pronouncing in English leave virtually the entire population out of the national discourse at great cost.

One illustration would suffice to make the point re lack of inclusion. The entire debate about development centered round the Millennium Development Goals is taking place without any credible translation of the term in Urdu or any other national language. How can the people participate in this debate? Contrast the case of China where every policy decision, sensible or otherwise, is summarized as a slogan in Chinese for popular dissemination – ‘Away With All Pests’ being one example.

This gulf is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s deliberation and decision. We need inclusive development, participatory governance, and a shared discourse. How are we going to get there? That is the real question that we face today.

Is it possible to bring the entire population to the level where it could follow the mangled English of its elite? Do we even have teachers with sufficient grasp of English to teach others? Or is it politically possible to do so in any one of the sub-national languages, even Punjabi that is the language of the numerical majority in the country? Or is Urdu the sole remaining feasible choice that the tragedies and follies of the past have, so ironically, transformed into the commonly understood language of the majority of the population. When a cruel fate throws us some crumbs we should at least have the sense to pick them up.

There is little doubt in my mind that the choice of Urdu as the official language would be the sensible and far-sighted one in the concrete situation that exists in Pakistan today. The debate should really be on how to operationalize the transition. My recommendation, keeping very clear the distinction between learning a language and learning in a language, would be to have the early years of education in the mother tongue, introduce Urdu second, followed by English. This would yield a sound educational foundation, a common language for communication, and a facility with English when the study of science and technology requires its use.

The experience of the European Union where the “mother tongue plus two” mandate is widely accepted, and where there is great emphasis on the acquisition of English, can provide very useful guidance on the stages at which each of the languages is best introduced and the points at which the language of instruction is switched, if warranted. There is little need to reinvent the wheel.

It is an added advantage that this transition does not take away the option of the provinces to conduct their parliamentary procedures in their own language or to make information available to their citizens in the language with which the latter are most comfortable. Indeed, this is what they should be doing in any case just as in the US most material related to citizen-state interaction is made available in Spanish as well as English.


Alam, Muzaffar. ‘The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics,’ Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, May 1998.

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Stupid in English,’ Dawn, December 3, 2010.

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Macaulay’s Stepchildren,’ Himal Magazine, January 2010.

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Millennium Development Follies,’ Dawn, December 24, 2010.

Coleman, Hywel. ‘Teaching and Learning in Pakistan: The Role of Language in Education,’ British Council Pakistan, 2010.

Coleman, Hywel and T. Capstick. ‘Language in Education in Pakistan,’ British Council, 2012.

Evans, Stephen. ‘Macaulay’s Minute Revisited: Colonial Language Policy in Nineteenth-Century India,’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2002.

Haqqani, Hussain. ‘Let Down by Both Carrot and Stick,’ The Hindu, October 23, 2015.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience, Oxford, 2015.

Macaulay, T.B. ‘Minute on Education,’ February 2, 1835.

Supreme Court of Pakistan. Order on Urdu as the official language of Pakistan, August 26, 2015.

Wright, Wayne E., Sovicheth Boun and Ofelia Garcia, Eds. The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education, Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Anjum Altaf is Vice-President and Provost at Habib University, Karachi.

  • furqanashraf
    Posted at 22:31h, 24 October Reply

    “We need inclusive development, participatory governance, and a shared discourse”-beautifully summed it up. Brilliant as always Dr. Saab!

    However, the idea of introducing English in High School seems inexact to me. Won’t it be too late for students to familiarize themselves with a non-native language? This can result it an unremitting communication gap; the gap that Chinese or Korean students suffer through every day.

    I look forward to your valuable thoughts on the matter.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 07:46h, 25 October

      Furqan: Thanks for the comment. I was a little cavalier in the recommendation (which is a matter of detail) and have now altered the conclusion to suggest that there is a lot of evidence from Europe on the optimal timing of the introduction of second and third languages. There is really no need to reinvent the wheel.

      That said, I continue to be intrigued by this premium on the communication gap. Why do you think the Chinese and Koreans, with their severe communications gap in English, are so far ahead in development, technology, and innovation? Could it be, at least partly, because they have a sound education in their first language which enables them to learn everything else much better?

  • Sonan Ahmed
    Posted at 10:01h, 25 October Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. Most of the current generation is not fluent in even any one language due to the lack of clarity and direction regarding the relative importance of each language. For example, my native language is Sindhi and I used to converse in Sindhi in my home and continue to do so. However, I am ashamed to admit that I was not given primary education in Sindhi in my private school in Karachi. Due to this, I have developed an abject inability to understand and read relatively complex Sindhi literature. I hardly read material in my mother tongue.I have much more familiarity with Urdu and English, but since my primary education, I have been simultaneously exposed to Urdu and English at school and Sindhi at home. In retrospect, I would’ve been a lot more fluent in my non-native languages if I had a firm base in my mother tongue.
    The elite of Pakistan suffers from an English complex and any potential devaluation of English is treated with hostility from their side to maintain a fake “snobbishness” and “bragging rights” that they exclusively have over the majority of population. In our elite institutions, fluency in English has become tantamount to intellectual prowess, whereas a preference or admiration for other native languages is seen as an indication of “illiteracy” and backwardness. I think the real issue with regard to language in Pakistan is the sheer confusion and misdirection, which is making people less capable in all of the languages in question.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 00:51h, 27 October

      Sonan: I agree completely with your conclusion. The real objective is to get rid of the terrible confusion in language policy that is inflicting a terrible (hidden) toll on the young. It doesn’t really matter what formula is chosen as long as people end up with a solid grasp of at least one language in which they can connect with its heritage. In my view, in Pakistan that language can be either the mother tongue or Urdu or both for the very fortunate ones. It just can’t be English for the vast majority, for whom its function will remain enhanced career prospects. I have nothing against that.

      Just so I can test some hypotheses, I am going to request you to participate in an exercise. Here are a few very well-known lines from T.S. Eliot. Read these and write in English what you take to be their essence. Then translate your interpretation into Urdu and Sindhi to convey the same meaning. Here are the lines:

      The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
      The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
      Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
      Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
      Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
      Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
      And seeing that it was a soft October night,
      Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

  • Hasan Abbas
    Posted at 10:22h, 25 October Reply

    Well articulated as always, sir!

    In many urdu medium institutions (I must admit, I have only visited a few and those only in my village near Pasrur, Punjab), kids are taught in Urdu till 6th grade and then English is introduced.

    However, with the poor quality of instructors, neither English or Urdu is properly taught with the focus medium of instruction being the native language (Punjabi in the cases I mention).

    According to me, I see a divide in language between urban and rural centers – my english medium education through Beaconhouse and no tutelage in urdu since 11th grade had severely crippled my grip on Urdu while, if I hadn’t made biannual trips to my village, I would not have come to terms with Punjabi as well. However, I (unfortunately in my view) prefer to read, write and converse (to a large extent) in English.

    On the other hand, my cousins who went through the urdu medium of study in their school, ended up preferring neither Urdu and (later on) English but still speak and even read Punjabi.

    For me, the language divide cannot be addressed without trying to bridge the regional, mother and foreign language elements simultaneously while, on the other hand, attempting to consolidate one medium of study overall and removing the O/A level + Matric/FSC divide altogether.

    One board of education might facilitate better in my opinion.

    On the other hand, I think the vertical usage of Urdu, in official capacity, is a welcome addition as it would help in many official matters most notably within the judicial system of Pakistan where many witness statements are recorded in Urdu and then transliterated into English (since English is the language of the order) and during that process, often vital details are lost or can lose their significance.

    Regardless, this topic requires a great insight and shouldn’t be fiddled with no concrete plans in place.

    I look forward to hearing your valuable insight on the matter further. Thank you once again for providing a great read as always.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:00h, 26 October

      Hasan: All these vital questions require persistent analysis and an open discussion. Who is going to perform that role in our society?

      I think we can all agree that it is a very unfortunate outcome if a young person completes his or her education without a firm grasp of at least one language and its associated heritage, be it the mother tongue, regional language, or the language of upward mobility like English. I can only offer you my sympathies – you will have to work very hard on your own to overcome your handicap. The difficulty is that most people can go through life without feeling that they are handicapped at all – after all it is impossible to prove the counterfactual, i.e., how much more creative you might have been had you been firmly rooted in any one tradition.

      Here is a test for you. Take the following two lines of a beautiful poem by Faiz:

      sabza sabza suukh rahii hai phiikii zard do-pahr
      diwaaroN ko chaaT raha hai tanhaaii ka zahr

      Now, first interpret these lines and tell me what they are saying. Next, translate them into Punjabi and English as best as you can to convey the same meaning.

  • osamamunir
    Posted at 17:45h, 25 October Reply

    Reblogged this on osamamunir.

  • A. Alp-Ercelan
    Posted at 18:01h, 25 October Reply

    “When a cruel fate throws us some crumbs we should at least have the sense to pick them up.” Excellent advice.

  • A. Alp-Ercelan
    Posted at 01:02h, 26 October Reply

    Oddly, the author does not consider the role that arabic plays in pakistan for establishing a pecking order as an alternate expression to that made by the english-speaking elite

  • Radhika Yeddanapudi
    Posted at 21:31h, 26 October Reply

    This is a fascinating discussion and fascinating situation in Pakistan with the Supreme Court’s decision. May I present my own experience:

    I was born into a South Indian, Telegu speaking family whose head, my father served in the Indian Air Force for 26 years resulting in us living mostly in North India. Ergo, I learnt Hindi first, at school and with neighbors and most importantly, with my peers. Telegu was for the home but the added complication was that my mother was trying to learn English and helping us learn English so we spoke it at home. This reduced the time for Telegu and it remains weak in my case (don’t read and write in it). While I learnt Hindi, the middle-class aspiration that propelled most families like mine, drove us to using either English alone or a hybrid Englindi – notice, I don’t say Hinglish because the dominant language was ENGLISH and not Hindi. I retained Hindi because of two decisions: to take it as a minor at university and to read extensively in my 30s. This latter move really helped my Hindi. At school from 6th-9th grade we had the 3 language formula in Central Government Schools like the Kendriya Vidyala where I studied. English as the main mode, Hindi for a single class and social interaction, Sanskrit/regional language as available where you are located. In my case this was Sanskrit.

    I do feel out of place in my home state of unbifurcated Andhra Pradesh. Language is complicated – we learn it to communicate and to gain access to power/control. Hindi was the language of the Armed Forces and I perceived it as progressive because of what I could say with it. For example, I could say that I went to swim. As a 10 year old girl who could wear a bathing suit in India in 1977, I knew that there was no way to communicate this lifestyle in Telegu (without the risk of seeming brazen). I experienced Telegu as a restraint on my freedom and therefore didn’t want to speak it. I can still remember being told in Telegu not to walk out of the house without a bindi on for fear that I would pass for a Muslim girl in my shalwar kameez. Worse yet, the whole mohalla came out to look at me bindi-less and clad in shalwar kameez. I am so glad that has changed. I am now working on my Telegu reading and writing.

    My point in providing these details of my personal experience is that there is also a gender dimension to language. If girls have poor access to an education in the first place, isn’t it better to go with their mother tongue? For this reason providing official correspondence, signage and public transactions in the mother tongue is very helpful. There has to be a way of providing information to those stuck in traditional roles where their interaction with the world is very measured. The current decision is focused on school-based learning but there is a vast number of marginalized people who don’t interact with the school system. They need to be reached too. Anjum’s examples of countries from South East Asia has a point – but Pakistan and India don’t have homogenous societies. For example, bus signs in Telengana are in Telegu and English. One has to wonder how this can be acceptable when 12% of the population of 80 million is Muslim and at least to all appearances they speak in Hindi/Urdu or Hingu (Hindi/Urdu base, Telegu addon)….The combinations are mind-boggling!

    As far as schooling is concerned, children are completely capable of learning all languages at once. For example, my son is in French immersion i.e. all subjects in French from 1-4th grade. Then from 5th-7th grade he has 80% of subjects in French and in 8th grade it goes down to 50% till the end of high school. He has been hearing Hindi from me since birth but he knows I understand English. His dad speaks only English. Of course, I have not given him any Telegu at all – am totally exhausted by all language agendas. It has been uphill all the way even with Hindi but he recognizes almost all the letters and can form simple words with Hindi blocks. This gratifies me no end. Some combination of three languages if made available to children from a young age usually will make them at least fluent in a hybrid speech. Writing and reading is a separate issue. We now read to my son in Hindi, English and French. It is insane. But, again, the class issue and the ‘mother tongue’ effect is in play. English is my mother tongue in effect and because my son only hears Hindi from one person – me, his acquisition is slow. If we take the case of a lady in Pakistan that is a native speaker of Punjabi and has functional Urdu and the school teaches in English – well!!! Her child will learn a hybrid. That is what happened to middle-class kids in India. Bollywood-speak doesn’t help.

    I think the practical route is still best provided by the 3 language formula. Whether some of us will be fluid in one completely or in all three is based on things beyond the Supreme Court’s control perhaps. If the mode of instruction becomes Urdu, will people who can afford it send their kids to private schools or tuitions for English? Will the divide become greater? How much bearing does the Supreme Court’s decision have on public perception?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 01:40h, 28 October

      Radhika: Thanks for the input. You have highlighted all the main points – the need for a medium of social interaction and for conveying information to all and not just a few. The trick is make this work effectively. I agree that children at an early age can learn a number of languages at the same time. The question is which language will be the one in which they learn other things, e.g., arithmetic, geography, etc. If your son is leaning in French in an environment that includes a lot of French around him, it would work fine. If you try and teach him in French in Guntur, it would be much less effective.

      You have also highlighted the fate of regional languages by narrating your story. Amongst the upwardly mobile, the fate of Telegu you describe parallels that of Punjabi for many in Pakistan – it is shunned for serious interaction and as a result its rich literary heritage especially of poetry has become both inaccessible and ignored.

      You are also right that any policy would foster attempts to bypass it but I feel these can be anticipated and neutralized. For example, the SAT-type entrance tests to the leading colleges in Pakistan are entirely in English. I have been pressing to have a section added that has to be answered in either Urdu or the first language of an applicant. Such a provision would force parents to demand that all high schools provide this ability so that the prospects of admission to prized institutions is not diminished. The three-language formula makes a lot of sense. We just need to think more on how to find the right balance and to make it acceptable to all.

      It is good to know that young Himadri is progressing well in his life. We look forward to being updated on his linguistic progress.

      For Readers: Radhika’s exquisite narrative of growing up in Delhi is one of the prized posts on this blog:

  • Vikram
    Posted at 13:27h, 29 October Reply

    Apropos Radhika’s comment above regarding the Telugu language’s more restrictive environment, I found the lyrics to this Punjabi song released on Independence Day as a ‘wake up call’ to young Punjabis telling.


    One can see that the song is laced with misogyny and what Santosh Desai has called ‘the fear of women’. If even seemingly self-aware and socially conscious song writers have such a problem with women’s personal freedoms, then we have a problem on our hands.

    I am surprised Radhika felt more liberated in using Hindi, perhaps it was easier to use English words while speaking it since she had grown up speaking the natural Hindi of the market vis-a-vis the Telugu of the book ?

  • Arun
    Posted at 01:02h, 01 November Reply


    I’m sorry to say I disagree with your proposals and also with many who have offered their comments here. I find them rather romantic and backward-looking. Instead of an argument, I simply cite some observations that I believe are factual:

    1. There are over 6000 languages today and over half of them are endangered. One language dies every month. Only about 12 languages are adequately represented on the Web. Your own blog is in English.

    2. Children can easily learn two or three languages simultaneously and if this is done with care, they will not only be able to communicate in them but also discuss various things like science and art in them. This remains an ideal at a mass level but there are a number of people who are comfortably bilingual.

    3. After the age of six or seven, I believe, it becomes quite difficult to really ever become fluent in a language – “think” in a language – because of the way the brain is.

    4. While it is true that the Japanese especially and the Chinese to a lesser extent have some proficiency in science, it is unlikely that this is because of their native languages. When South Asians not trained in their mother tongues go to the US and Europe, many of them become accomplished in their chosen fields including science. It is more likely that a certain modern culture and modern institutions make it easier to excel. Japan modernized earliest among the Asian countries and that is why it is the most advanced, not because of Japanese. If your hypothesis of native language instruction were true, the Japanese and Chinese would have been equally advanced.

    5. For various complex reasons, there was a scientific revolution in roughly the 17th century in the West which led to the Enlightenment and then to the Industrial Revolution. Such large-scale changes are required in our societies to make (relatively) rational communication widespread. The language of science and modernity today is largely English. Without real fluency in it, any person will be at a very serious disadvantage.

    6. Today, the world is also highly globalized. Many will have to interact not only internally but also externally, even just to access the Web. For this, English will continue to be the primary language for the foreseeable future.

    7. There is a reason why all elites everywhere favor real fluency in English today. It is the only way of remaining the elite. Now that China is rising, many in the US learn Chinese as a third language.

    8. The question of literature and culture is a sensitive one but there is a simple fact: though still poorly done, there are more translations of various vernacular literatures into English than any other language. Also, would you not rather have societies learn world culture in this globalized age?

    9. The key is a globalized modernity and how to bring it about.

    10. I’m not making any concrete suggestion because there are many difficult ground realities to consider.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:25h, 01 November

      Arun: There is no need to be sorry; you are not obligated to agree with me. These are the typical observations that one comes across and I am glad you have listed them in one place. It would help the readers evaluate and respond to them one at a time.

  • Radhika Yeddanapudi
    Posted at 18:59h, 01 November Reply

    No.’s 6, 7 and 9 refer only to the status quo that is also changing all the time. On the internet, one can clearly see the rise of the non-English speaking world. English may remain lingua franca, but a parallel universe may also exist. In fact, the Indian government has an excellent translation project that turns out versions of Indian regional literature in other languages – not just English.

  • Arun
    Posted at 19:55h, 01 November Reply

    Yes, I’m aware of the translation project though I do not know its quality. There is a technical point to be made here. Because of the nature of language – it is highly contextual – automatic and even human translation is very difficult. If good automatic translation were possible we could all be monolingual without any loss. But this may take a while and it may not ever be fully satisfactory. The question remains open.

    I’m not against languages other than English. Just as many in the US are being exposed early to Chinese as it is likely to become important, so English is even more important, even for the Web, whatever parallel universes may exist.

    Anjum’s framework is nationalistic rather than global. Ideally, one should be educating world citizens for today’s and tomorrow’s globalized world.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 23:42h, 02 November

      Arun: I have give an assignment to students: ‘Arun believes Anjum’s framework is nationalistic rather than global: Discuss.’ Let’s see what comes out of it.

  • Umer Farooq
    Posted at 16:38h, 02 November Reply

    Dear Dr Anjum saab,
    I could not agree more to your analysis about mother tongue, Urdu and English. And i also propagate the exact same words of you as recommendation, mentioned below.

    “My recommendation, keeping very clear the distinction between learning a language and learning in a language, would be to have the early years of education in the mother tongue, introduce Urdu second, followed by English. This would yield a sound educational foundation, a common language for communication, and a facility with English when the study of science and technology requires its use.”

    But i want to add something more, to what you have said regarding languages. I am reading Ashis Nandy’s The intimate Enemy Loss and recovery of Self Under Colonization. In which i have come to read about how 150 years the impact of West on Eastern societies has been felt through political, cultural, economic and even psychological domination. And now how difficult it is for these societies to come out of this colonized minds. I think keeping in mind this extensive Colonial effect on mind set also play an important part regarding choice and selection of Languages. So, a deliberate effort and importance should also be give to the give importance the local culture and mother tongue while teaching in schools and colleges.

  • Arun
    Posted at 00:23h, 03 November Reply


    Sure. Please request them to look at the ten observations I have made and draw conclusions from them.

    For example, one implication of #3 is that one cannot hope to be comfortable in English if one is exposed to it in one’s teens. Further, if one is not comfortable in English, then one will find it hard to engage with and compete in the global marketplace of ideas and commerce. Alternatively, they can find evidence to refute #3.

    If they reason in similar ways, it would be a good exercise.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:49h, 03 November

      Arun: I am sure they will consider the ten points.

      I am not sure where you picked up the notion of students being exposed to English in their teens. As I mentioned, there has been much research on this in the EU and the recommendations of a Pakistan-specific British Council study (also cited) are as follows:

      The report recommended that after initial education in mother tongue, “from class three to five Urdu is introduced and gradually replaces regional language as the language of instruction.” It added: “English is studied as a main subject for four years up to grade 9. At class 10 English becomes medium of instruction with Urdu and regional languages become subjects.”

      One doesn’t need to consider this sacrosanct but it does provide a point of departure for a discussion with English being introduced earlier than you have indicated.

      Having said that, I am not convinced by your assertion that one cannot be comfortable in a language if introduced to it in one’s teens. One sees contrary cases all around but let the students investigate empirical evidence which must surely exist. Of course, it depends on the specification of ‘comfortable’ and one has to judge how comfortable you need to be to engage with the global marketplace. And, not to forget, the opportunity cost of being comfortable enough to write poetry in the new language. There is no free lunch, is there?

  • Arun
    Posted at 14:31h, 03 November Reply


    You have said: “My recommendation, keeping very clear the distinction between learning a language and learning in a language, would be to have the early years of education in the mother tongue, introduce Urdu second, followed by English. This would yield a sound educational foundation, a common language for communication, and a facility with English when the study of science and technology requires its use.”

    From this I surmised that there would be a reasonable number of years with each language, say 5, so that if instruction in the mother tongue begins at the age of 4 or 5, then Urdu would be introduced at age 9 or 10, and English at age 14 or 15.

    The British Council study you quote from has a more complicated plan where English is switched from a third language to a medium of instruction. These details were not there in your original write-up.

    In any case, while obviously appropriate experts must have drafted the policy for the British Council, I find it unrealistic. I believe even if English is introduced as a third language at age 10 (grade 5), it may be too late to acquire real fluency. And switching the medium of instruction twice – from the mother tongue to Urdu and then from Urdu to English – will likely leave every student without a firm grasp of any language.

    The key insight that is missing from your proposal and from the BC study is the possibility of introducing multiple languages *simultaneously* as opposed to *sequentially* at an early enough age that facilitates fluency. You cite the European model but you ignore two crucial facts: most Europeans are not good at English and this may be partially responsible for why they are not as innovative in the global marketplace; they nevertheless do have a tradition of science in their native languages owing to the special history of Europe, otherwise they might have been even worse off. Even China is trying very hard to make up for its lack of English.

    Also, just as you wish to exploit the crumbs fate has thrown you with respect to Urdu, why should you be averse to similar crumbs thrown you by the fact of colonization with respect to English?

  • Arun
    Posted at 14:41h, 03 November Reply

    Here is a link about language acquisition that may be found helpful:


    The Wikipedia page may also have useful information.

  • Arun
    Posted at 15:05h, 03 November Reply

    Here is another link from Wikipedia:


    Apparently, the evidence is mixed and not yet fully conclusive about whether there is a critical age cutoff or not.

  • Hasan Aamir
    Posted at 23:24h, 08 November Reply

    Thank you for moving the debate in the right direction i.e. towards a 1st vs 2nd language modus viviendi and away from an Urdu vs English duel.

  • zsabree
    Posted at 05:17h, 17 November Reply

    This is such an important topic, thank you for sharing the piece. It is also very good to see the way you have invited your students to reflect on it and to contribute their own viewpoints. I largely agree with your positions on this issue, especially as regards the Supreme Court’s verdict. Here are a few, relatively peripheral points of disagreement:

    1. You speak of the Urdu-Hindi dispute as contributing to the partition of India and of the Urdu-Bengali dispute as contributing to the partition of Pakistan. While in the first case, there is considerable evidence to support the view that Muslim antipathy and resistance to modern trends of Sanskritisation caused and continues to cause much bad blood between various Hindu and Muslim communities, for the second case, it would be harder to assess how great a role linguistic policy played in the emergence of Bangladesh. Despite Jinnah’s dismissive comments about Bengali, East Pakistan was successful in getting Bengali recognised as the country’s second official language (along with Urdu) in 1956, and perhaps this a fact that is most essential to mention when discussing the question of Pakistan’s linguistic policy and its effects. After all, in its official role, Bengali enjoyed more visibility and prominence in official documentation than Sindhi does today, for while Sindhi is used for official purposes in Sindh alone, Bengali appeared alongside Urdu on rupee notes, on stamps, and even on the PTV logo. The logic of this kind of parity can be explained by East Bengal’s demographic predominance, which by far outrivals that of any West Pakistani province. Where Bangladesh’s secession is concerned, the immediate causes really seem to be the Mujib-Zulfi electoral dispute and military action on the heels of tremendous, long-standing economic grievances. In the presence of such towering causes, it seems not so easy to assess the extent to which continuing linguistic resentments fed into these grievances, or whether the effect of hard-won linguistic concessions was simply neutralised by other, non-linguistic grievances.

    2. On the question of certain languages enjoying acceptance at the official level because of their political ‘neutrality’, I must say that feel that in certain places you are taking a more pre-meditated view than may be historically accurate of wider trends which allow certain languages to take root and gain acceptance at the official level. You speculate that the Mughals chose Persian because it was a totally foreign language (and not even their own), and thus a more neutral choice. I’m not sure that we would find concrete historical evidence for that kind of conscious decision. My own sense is that Persian’s administrative predominance in the region rather predates the Mughals, and the Mughals were merely continuing an already existent tradition. Moreover, the Mughals were influenced by an already existent trend among the Turks of Central Asia where Persian was popular as the medium of literary expression and administrative work. While the Mughals’ continued promotion of Persian in India may be motivated by pragmatic concerns, and while it may lack the kind of chauvinistic attachment that modern Iranians may display towards the language, it may not be shorn of an emotional/aesthetic attachment bred by long force of cultural habit. The concern with privileging the ‘mother tongue’ (and even perhaps the very concept of identifying with a single ‘mother tongue’) is, of course, quite a modern phenomenon, and even in the modern era it hasn’t taken roots in vast tracts of regions like South Asia. What is also doubtful, of course, is the extent to which the modern state’s language policy can be compared with that of pre-modern kingdoms (although the latter has an effect on the former) for the pre-modern kingdoms seldom share the modern state’s concern with mass education and of having state structures which reflect the national/ethnic identity of its citizenry. The status of Persian in Mughal India is also problematic with respect to the point of neutrality and ease of access for all aspirants. The degree (or the generations) of exposure that you or the particular subregional community you had grown up in had had to the language would certainly work in your favour. And from what we can observe from the steady stream of migrants that Indian courts saw from Iran, the privileging of Persian made India an especially attractive destination for those whose backgrounds predisposed them to shine in this particular realm. Of course, another factor which may also be important to take into account is that of religion. Although over the centuries, many Hindu writers distinguished themselves in the field of Persian, India’s most revered figures in this respect remained predominantly Muslim. It may also be interesting to observe how many of those Muslims were sprung from immigrant families who arrived in India from areas which already had a very strong Persian literary tradition.

    3. You indicate that West Pakistan’s acquiescence to Urdu (or perhaps we should say the overwhelming lack of active opposition to Urdu, though Sindh may be considered an exception after a particular point) was motivated by a conscious intention of counterbalancing the political weight of East Pakistan. I wonder if we have any concrete proof for this from the historical record, preserved for example in policy debates and discussions? If we do, it would be very interesting to know more about it. Otherwise, it seems plausible to attribute the more ready acceptance for Urdu at the official level here to certain historical trends which were already in motion in the decades before Partition. One thing which most of the languages have in common with Urdu is the heavy degree of Persianisation. There is a conscious, historical bent towards Persian vocabulary, particularly where the higher register is concerned. This is in marked contrast to modern Bengali, which by all accounts has interestingly become only more Sanskritised in Bangladesh following first the split with India, and then the split with Pakistan. My own sense is that Urdu has in some manner been seen by West Pakistanis as a kind of modern inheritor of the historical administrative status and legacy of Persian in the South Asian region. Unlike Bengal and Sindhi, in most other regions in West Pakistan (and parts of India like Bihar and Rajasthan), education was already taking places in languages other than people’s mother tongues. In the Punjab, Urdu had gained quite a tremendous foothold from the late 19th c onwards among all religious communities, and this really played a large role in determining that the choice of Urdu was put on the table at all immediately after Partition, despite the presence of an initially Muhajir-dominated government. Of course, had Pakistan’s geography been different, this trajectory of Urdu in the Punjab may also have been reversed. If, for example, historical circumstances had allowed a substantial part of UP to come to Pakistan, then there might have been a greater push for official use of Punjabi in the face of UP-ites domination. Hence, your argument about Urdu’s relative neutrality in today’s Pakistan (where ‘native speakers’ are few in percentage) certainly does have relevance to this extent. Of course, while scrutinising this aspect, we should also keep in mind the case of Indian Kashmir. Why has Urdu historically enjoyed a higher status there at the official level than the local Kashmiri has? It is an interesting question, and the answer seems to be the historical status of Urdu in the last two centuries following on the heels of Persian. Of course, all this may be liable to change through the evolution of new language policies. But this appears to have been the predominant trend so far.

    As far as policy recommendations are concerned, I am in agreement with most of the positions you have taken in the three sections of this piece. I’m not sure, though, that I share your enthusiasm for the graduated introduction of different languages of education (home language to Urdu to English) at the school level. The reasons behind my disagreement have been laid out here in this piece which appeared in the Herald last year:


    It is largely based on my own experiences as a student and teacher in various Pakistani private and public English-medium universities in recent years, and most particularly the University of Karachi. I also paste here a more recent piece from last month’s Herald which responds directly to the Supreme Court’s move:


    You will find that the views presented in it resemble quite nearly the ones you have expressed here, especially with regards to the nature of most of the criticism which has been raised against the court’s recommendations. It will be interesting to observe where this movement leads, or whether it leads anywhere significant at all.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 13:47h, 18 November Reply


    1) Most Hindu and Muslim communities in India did not (and still do not) speak Hindi or Urdu. The Hindi-Urdu debate was essentially a dispute between two sets of elites responding to the new colonial order. But the key point here is that how the centrality of this dispute to the elites led to the politicization of the mass as Hindus (for Hindi) and Muslim (for Urdu), especially in the United Provinces.

    It is this mode of politicization that ultimately led to the defining of Hindu and Muslim political blocks in the subcontinent. By 1900, both Hindi and Urdu were declared official languages, and the actual rhetoric near partition did not have language as a major issue. I just finished reading Venkat Dhulipala’s book on League politics in the UP in the 40s, and although the issue of Urdu does come up, it is merely in the background. The rhetoric on the ground from the League and the JUI ulema did not emphasize it.

    I would say something similar happened in Bengal. Once people had been brought into the political arena on the platform of linguistic discrimination, all issues down the line were seen from that angle. In a democratic system, one could have imagined the left leaning Bangladeshis forming alliances with peasants in Sindh and Punjab. After all there is a Communist government in Tripura, West Bengal and Kerala, three totally disconnected Indian states. But the perception of West Pakistanis as oppressors had been formed, and not enough was done subsequently to allay the apprehensions of the Bangladeshis.

    2) The Lodis had introduced Hindavi as an official language in the areas they ruled by 1451. The Gujarat sultanate used Gujarati as its official language, while the sultanates of Bengal, and Bijapur used Indo-Aryan languages along with Persian. It is a significant extrapolation to claim that there was a singular tradition to use Persian as an official language in the courts of Muslim rulers in India.

    This is also made clear by the fact the Akbar specifically proclaimed Persian to be the official language in the 1580s. There would have been no need to make this proclamation if it was already the tradition. None of this denies the aesthetic importance ascribed to Persian (not just the language but also musical and sartorial traditions) by Muslim elites across India. But to claim that critical political decisions were being made on this basis is difficult.

    3) This point is an interesting one. The court language of both the Talpur dynasty in Sindh and the Sikh Empire in Punjab was Persian. And Pakistanis and North Indian Muslims do identify strongly with Persian. Persian (and not Arabic) almost takes the same role for them that Sanskrit does for Hindus. This might partly explain why Pakistani elites resent Arabic influence so much.

    In the case of Urdu in Kashmir, Onaiza Drabu makes an interesting point that counters your thesis here (http://tinyurl.com/pl8dk8q),
    “The state language of Kashmir is Urdu. What people speak in Kashmir, like anywhere else in India, is essentially a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. While Ghalib called it Rekhta, it is now popularly known as Hindustani. The insistence to define it as Urdu and not Hindi like the rest of the country asserts yet another aspect of identity. Kashmir is the only state with Urdu as its official language; the only state with a non native language as its official one.

    Urdu has little place in Kashmiri culture outside the religious context. As an ethnicity we ought to speak Kashmiri. Yet under Indian accession this language, is how we state our individuality.”

    • Vikram
      Posted at 01:18h, 23 November

      Some more evidence regarding the deliberation that went into making Persian the official language of the Mughal Empire:

      “Numerous works, both academic and popular, stress his [Mir Damad’s] role as the foremost philosopher and scientist of his time in the Persianate world, and attribute to him a series of important technological innovations and reforms of the administration, including the adoption of Persian as the official language of the Mughal chancellery;”
      – Mir Damad in India, Sajjad Rizvi, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 131, No. 1 (January-March 2011), pp. 9-23

      This seems to indicate that Hindavi was the official language before this, possibly a policy of the Sur empire of Sher Shah before the Mughals ?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 00:45h, 24 November

      Vikram: Before Akbar one cannot really speak of a unified unit of governance. The various quasi-autonomous principalities must have had quite different working languages. It seems quite unlikely that a principality in Bengal would have had Hindavi as the official language. What might have been the reason for such a choice?

      Before the Mughals, e.g., in the Sultanate period, wherever the Sultans ruled they had started to use Persian. Whether they were Afghans or Turks, the languages they spoke at home were not preferred to Persian because the latter was the high language of that time.

      However, do read the following about the Kaithi script. Even during the Mughal period it seems land, legal, and other administrative records were kept in this script. We need to find out more about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaithi

    • Vikram
      Posted at 22:14h, 26 November

      I was referring to the fact that Bengali was used alongside Persian as an official language in the Bengal Sultanate.

    • zsabree
      Posted at 19:05h, 29 November

      Thanks, Vikram, for the comments. Here is the response:

      1. While the emphasis in Venkat Dhulipala’s book may be different (the idea of Medina, etc.), but I think you will find the reference to Urdu’s role in Congress-League politics in the 1930s in plenty of other books. Certainly, perceptions of Congress’s resistance to give Urdu space at the local level in the provincial ministries is often cited as being one among the several reasons the League gives for why Muslims should celebrate a Day of Deliverance in 1939. Hence, while it would not do to over-emphasise the role of Urdu in causing alienation between members of certain communities prior to 1947 and after afterwards, there also doesn’t seem to be sufficient reason to put it too much into the background. We know that the Baba-i Urdu, Maulvi Abdul Haq, is often quoted as saying that the issue of Urdu is what essentially led to Partition. Naturally, that is the kind of statement (and I neither take it at face value, nor can confirm its exact veracity) that many pro-Urdu scholars in India would like to de-emphasise now for political reasons.

      As far as East Pakistani politics are concerned, you make an interesting point. I think you will find that there was some amount of commonality in voting patterns in certain parts of West Pakistan (such as Karachi) and East Pakistan over a variety of issues. Definitely, the left in West Pakistan was left much weakened by cessation of Bangladesh, and possibly has never recovered its prior influence/relevance since then.

      2. You will notice that I did not by any means claim that there was a “singular tradition” to use Persian in Indo-Muslim courts before the Mughals. I spoke of an “existent tradition”, and that I think remains true. for Persian had a strong place not only at the Ghaznavid court, but also under the Sultanate. There may be a period in the middle in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries where its influence in India may have receded a bit in comparison to Hindawi (which appears to have been favoured by Sher Shah Suri for administrative purposes), but its continuing influence in neighbouring regions ensured that it remained a popular courtly option as a cosmopolitan language of communication, especially at official levels, and therefore must have served as a highly visible example of a choice that would have been available for the Mughals when the process of consolidation was taking place under Akbar and when Todar Mal proclaimed Persian as the language of administration at all levels. I also used the phrase “predominant tradition” – this is certainly less easy to support, as your helpful comments indicate. As Anjum Sahab writes here, there was no unified unit of governance and various principalities had differing working languages. Yet what were the competitors of Persian when it came to deciding the language for an administrative unit spanning a very wide area and encompassing multiple provinces? Certainly, Turkish in India had never really had a widespread tradition in terms of administrative use and literary production, though certain important books were written in Turkic dialects from time to time. The other options seem to have been Braj, Hindawi, Sanskrit, and Prakrit (Bengali and Sindhi and Punjabi, though much more might be happening ). I know very little about Prakrit, except that Muzaffar Alam says that it was not considered high enough for certain kinds of usage, but circumstances appear to have made Sanskrit too high and exclusive for wider use. Braj was quite important in terms of literary production and perhaps its importance only increased for quite some time during the Mughal period; however, it is seen by Muzaffar Alam as being a rather regional phenomenon. There’s no saying, though, that it need have remained so. Hindawi was also a strong contender, yet it would have had to be standardised considerably for use in wider areas, and perhaps this would have happened in different circumstances. In any case, although Hindawi became more prominent at a certain moment of time, its literary prestige did not seem to have rivalled that of Persian in a wider geographical sense at any point in the pre-modern period or at least well into the eighteenth century, and then we saw what happened in terms of conflict over standardisation – though the language of Delhi came to be favoured as far as the standardisation of grammar was concerned, the matter of higher register just could not be resolved, and today idiom may also be said to be becoming divergent. Meanwhile, Persian was a language that had a readership in India and abroad, and it has a standardised form which was understood across a very wide region. All this certainly did not make it a foregone conclusion that it would be become the language of government for the Mughals; however, in all probability it has a huge impact. Hence, I would argue that factors in India prior to the Mughals and factors in neighbouring regions/kingdoms contemporaneous with the Mughals did impact the Mughals’ language policy.

      3. The comparison of Persian and Sanskrit is an interesting one. Yes, there are many parallels. For a language of literary production and appreciation, both Persian and Braj seem to have acquired a prominent place for both elite Muslims and Hindus. Additionally, as you indicate, Persian certainly became the language of high mysticism, and therefore the language of religion itself. However, for certain kind of texts, Arabic always remained a prominent language of use in South Asia, especially where juristic texts are concerned. For more folk mysticism, Sindhi, Punjabi, Siraiki, and others came to have considerable significance, and today of course their significance may be said to be much greater for people than that of Persian, since the practical space for Persian has shrunk considerably over the last century in all of Muslim South Asia, being taken up by Urdu, English, etc. I am not sure what you mean by the Pakistani elite’s resentment of Arabic. There has never been a serious question of Arabic as being an official contender in any domain of Pakistani life. What is resented is a dumbing down of certain Urdu vocabulary in a false/misguided effort to bring it closer to the Arabic original, and that has definitely been contested, as would attempts to bring standardised vocabulary to some misguided notion of what the Persian original must be.

      Thanks for sharing the link to Drabu’s piece. In this also, there may be many opinions. Certainly, the political role of Urdu in Kashmir today is an important point. It would also be useful to explore what presence Urdu had in pre-Partition Kashmir. We know that many Punjabi officials were increasingly finding employment in Kashmir during that period – this may or may not have been due to their facility in Urdu. Certainly, some of the finest Urdu in India today seems to be emerging from Kashmir, rather than UP or Hyderabad. As far as the issue of Hindustani is concerned, I must admit that I am not convinced that it is a real category. It seems more to be a polemical/political one. I also know that while some share this opinion, many do not.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 09:42h, 25 November Reply

    Zahra: Thanks for your very thoughtful input into this discussion. It is only if we give this kind of attention to the subject that we can hope to learn enough and hope to move forward intelligently.

    1. You are right to point out the nuanced position regarding Bengali. I think one can say that it was a contributing factor symptomatic, perhaps, of a reality in which everything that should have been a matter of right was conceded reluctantly and after a struggle. Clearly, the weight of East Pakistan was such that Bengali could not have been ignored. There wasn’t enough effort to find an inclusive solution instead of trying to impose what was deemed good for the ‘nation.’

    2. Regarding Persian in India, my point of departure was Muzaffar Alam’s paper cited in the text. it is true that Persian was in use prior to the Mughals but in very limited domains. We only get to a large sustained geographical area to administer under Akbar where language policy becomes a n important decision. It is true that the policy would have given an advantage to Persians but in the big picture how large would have been the number of Iranians who moved to India for that reason alone. The challenge must have been to find a medium that would not disadvantage large majorities within India itself. As for religion, it seems the majority of the administrators in Mughal India were Kayasths who acquired Persian. Also, it seems that most records were kept in the Kaithi script, akin to Nagari, and not in the Persian script. At the very least, it seems these were not all whimsical or egotistical decisions.

    3. Here my source is the new book by Jaffrelot cited in the text. The One Unit was a mechanism derived to counterbalance the numerical weight of East Pakistan. It required provincial identities in the west to be abandoned and a unified identity adopted. This unified identity also needed a language which was Urdu. This was certainly helped by the more ready acceptance of Urdu in the dominant province in the west.

    • zsabree
      Posted at 19:49h, 29 November

      Thanks for the response. On the first point, I would agree. The delay and reluctance shown in granting Bengali only after the death of certain protesters has gone on to be listed as one of the grievances against Jinnah and other early Pakistani leaders in official Bangladeshi historiography. On the second point — sure, in time the majority of administrators are likely to have been members of local Hindu communities, especially from the seventeenth-century onwards. Once again, what were the competitors of Persian — Hindawi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Bengali? While Sanskrit could have played a cross-regional role, everything else seems to have been inconceivable for use by a relatively centralised administration, standardisation being the main problem. I am still not sure about the extent to which linguistic neutrality was at the forefront of the Mughal mind, as opposed to other concerns such as how rich a history of standardised literary production a language has. Besides a historical process in which Persian had already been making marked inroads into India (with the region that is today Pakistan feeling a deeper influence earlier than the rest of India, because of the role of Persian in the Punjab, for example, from the time of the Ghaznavids), he attributes the prominence of Persian at the Mughal court to the Iranians accompanying Humayun upon his return from Iran and Akbar’s interest in fostering intellectual contact with Iran. All this led to a situation where there was considerable accomplishment in the language already in the Mughal court at the moment when Todar Mal proclaimed it as official policy for the wider kingdom, at least at the highest levels of administration, things at the lower levels, as you indicate, being more fluid with some amount of variety in the scripts used even for official purposes.

      These, of course, were historical matters which have considerable bearing about how we think about and approach the present. It would also be interesting to get your opinion on other issue. Now many people and organisations are in favour of a policy of introducing English by stages, of keeping primary education in the home language while retaining English for higher education purposes. What is your opinion of this? And what, if anything, should be done by the government to ensure that this is done across the board? This is a question that interests me considerably.
      The thing is that when people see the children from the elite learn English from the very earliest stage of schooling, they often desire the same for their child. Naturally, it seldom works quite as imagined, because it tends to compromise the quality of education. When it comes to primary education in languages other than Urdu and English, we are faced with an additional problem. We have known cases in Baluchistan, etc, where while the facility for learning in the home language is available, parents like to avoid this and send children directly to an Urdu-medium school, because they don’t desire them to have a slow start in this. Here is where we face a dilemma. According to most proposed system of graduated transfer to English, a student is to learn in his or her own mother/home language for the first three or four years, then shift to Urdu for the next few years, while studying English on the side, and is ultimately expected to gain a college education in English, and, thereafter, to look for work in a job environment that potentially also requires ease in using English. All these stages can conceivably be covered quite adequately through this approach. But when English is the ultimate end, how will parents from less privileged backgrounds be convinced to put their children through all these stages when children from more privileged homes directly proceed to English from the word go? So is any of this workable until the government takes effective measures to root out English from the domains of public and private-sector employment, and from the elite school system (you may well imagine the outcry!). If the government can create a higher education environment where the highest quality of education in the country is offered in a medium other than English, this would provide greater incentive for scholars and publishers to develop a similar quality of resources for students studying in local languages to the ones they are currently developing for elite English-medium students. As I suspect your own experience has indicated, even at private institutions of higher study increasingly, students are more comfortable with Urdu grammar rather than English, and in my experience often more articulate. In public institutions like the Karachi University, we are in an odd situation where students are writing exams in Urdu, while the paper is set in English and the study resources made available to them are also in English while the lecture is in Urdu laced with English terminology.

      So that is one problem — how to ensure that the private and public sector are on the same page as far as the importance of Urdu vs English is concerned, so that certain groups may not gain/lose more than others. The second is the issue of local languages other than Urdu — aside from the quality of general education through the use of the home language, as far as making sure that people actually do end up being literate in the home language (rather than treating it as a vernacular alone), I wonder if instruction in the language and literature of a provincial language such as Pashto or Punjabi should not be made compulsory (just as English is made compulsory) just to ensure that the right message is sent out as far as dignity of language/identity is concerned. Because leaving it as a primary language alone may not send out the kind of message that is required/desired.

  • Pingback:An Open Letter to a Private English-Medium School’s CEO | Hanging Odes
    Posted at 13:45h, 29 November Reply

    […] my views as a technical paper, only drawing your attention to one of the recommendations (quoted here) of a British Council study titled, ‘Language in Education in Pakistan: Recommendations for […]

  • Shoaib Khan
    Posted at 15:53h, 13 March Reply

    This question also appeared in erst while Soviet Union, where imposition of Russian as national language was seen as Rusification of the Soviet Republics. But then the question arises which language will bind the Soviet Republics. Today all the 15 independent republics in Central Asia, Caucasus, Baltics, and Slavic Republics where more than English they are comfortable in Russian as a means of communication to bridge the language gap. Similar is the case in the sub-continent, the question arised why Hindi is made the national language of India when Hindi is not spoken by majority of Indians even the Hindi speaking belt which we call so do not speak Hindi as their mother tongue, they have their own sub regional languages. Same is the case with Pakistan, South Indians were completely wrong when they agitated against Hindi and Bengalis were completely hypocrates when they were against Urdu, you have to learn the national language of the country you live in besides your own language. Even in China they have different languages but Mandarin is the national language which binds them together. Whoever made Urdu the national language of Pakistan and Hindi as the national language of India were wise enough as the question is which other subcontinent language binds the population together other than Urdu and Hindi? I welcome the Pakistan court decision to replace Urdu with English and I appreciate Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi for one thing at least for speaking in Hindi at the United Nations. If the two country want to progress instead of falling in the arguments they must try to make Urdu, Hindi and if possible other language advance enough equal the East Asian, Latin American and European languages.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 22:20h, 13 March

      Shoaib Khan, Hindi is not the national language of India. In fact, India has no national language.


      If two educated Indians meet, and if one starts talking in Hindi, it indicates a clear political preference (its somewhat like two Indians meeting and one greeting with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ instead of Hello), and is a highly controversial matter. Especially if the other person is Bengali, Marathi or South Indian, such a conversation might not end positively.

      Please see the twitter accounts of the Indian PM and PMO, every tweet in Hindi will be followed up by a tweet in English, this is a legal requirement in India, and not a reflection of anyone’s personal preferences.

      Linguistic policy in India is quite complex, and in no way does Hindi enjoy the kind of status that Urdu does in Pakistan. For example, you will not see many articles discussing the state and development of Hindi in newspapers like ‘Times of India’ amd ‘The Hindu’, as you would see discussing Urdu in ‘Dawn’.

      To help understand, the complexity of linguistic policy in India, please see this website and the various reports linked in it:


      You would be interested in knowing that the current commissioner for linguistic minorities in India is a renowned scholar of Urdu,


      Pakistanis need to move beyond Bollywood to form their perceptions of India.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 17:48h, 10 June Reply

    This academic article “Giving a Nation a Voice — Urdu in Pakistan” by Jacob Anderson should be of interest.


Post A Comment