Language is often used as a symbol of identity. When used in such a way it mobilizes a pressure group for certain demands. This has happened in many countries of the world. For instance, the Irish language was a major symbol of Irish identity during the freedom movement of Ireland. Along with Catholicism, the Irish language galvanized the Irish people to face British colonial rule and finally win their independence from Britain. The irony of the situation, however, is that the Irish language was not spoken—and is still not spoken—by the majority of the people of Ireland. It was a powerful symbol but not a reality.
In the ex-colonies of Western countries, language was not a powerful anti-imperialist symbol. This was because the elite of these countries, which had picked up the philosophy of nationalism from the rulers, was more at home in Western languages than in their own. British India was no exception. Persian had been dethroned in 1837 by Lord William Bentinck’s government and English had taken its place at the upper level. At the lower level, however, the vernacular languages of India came to be used. Thus, ironically enough, the British became the first rulers to promote Urdu (as well as Sindhi and Bengali etc) in a systematic manner. The first schools functioning in Urdu were created by the British in the 1850s. The first courts to use Urdu were also created by the British. Seeing these developments the Islamic seminaries (madrassas) also switched over from Persian to Urdu. Moreover, Urdu was promoted in areas where the majority of the population did not speak it. In what is now called the Hindi heartland a number of local dialects were actually spoken by the people. These were called Awadhi, Purbhi, Birij Bhasha and so on. However, the elite of the cities did speak what the British called Hindustani. It was the same language, which Muslims called Urdu and Hindus started calling Hindi. Its formal and literary forms were already different in the case of Muslims and Hindus but the spoken form was (and remains) very similar. It was this language, which the British promoted.
The language promotion and the British
The British also promoted the same language in the Punjab and the N.W.F.P. In these places, the local languages were dialects of (Greater) Punjabi and Pashto. However, the schooling system and the courts now started using Urdu. The upper level, however, functioned in English all over British India. The elite, both Hindu and Muslim, learned English and were mostly better at it than their own mother tongue. The Muslim elite of the Hindi belt, Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Kashmir and Baluchistan learned Urdu and became very competent in this language.
With this background in mind, it is possible to understand the part which Urdu played in the Pakistan Movement. First, let us go back to the Bengal presidency which was the seat of British rule in India when it first started replacing native power. The British policy was to learn the Indian languages in order to understand the natives and strengthen their rule. Thus they established the Fort William College which taught, among other languages, Urdu and Hindi. The first grammar of Urdu and prose writings were developed here for both languages. It was here too that Lalluji Lal and Sadal Misra created Modern Sanskritized Hindi by eliminating Persian and Arabic words from the common Hindustani which was in use. Thus Sankritized Hindi became an identity-marker of identity-conscious Hindus. Similarly, Persianized Urdu became an identity-marker of identity-conscious Muslims.
In 1872 Sir George Campbell, Lieutenant Governor of Bihar, passed orders that Persianized Urdu should be replaced by Hindi. The Muslims were alarmed since their livelihood as well as identity were threatened. The order was not followed consistently because all British officers did not agree with Campbell. In 1868 Shiva Prasad wrote a memorandum demanding that Hindi should be used in U.P. Sir Syed was so alarmed by this that he prognosticated the division of India which, of course, did happen.
In 1900 Sir A. P. Macdonnell, Lieutenant Governor of the North Western Provinces (Part of U. P now) accepted the Hindus demands that letters written in Hindi should be accepted by the government. This alarmed the Muslims even more though Urdu had not been displaced by Hindi at all. What had happened was that Hindi had also found acceptance in addition to Hindi.
However, organizations in support of Hindi and Urdu sprang up all over the country and the Muslim league came out strongly in favour of Urdu. The ulema also supported Urdu and it became strongly identified with both the Muslim identity and the Pakistan Movement. As Hindi in the Devanagari script was similarly identified with the Hindu identity M. K. Gandhi’s formula of accepting Hindustani as the lingua franca was mistrusted. Moreover when in April 1936 Gandhi defined it as ‘Hindu-Hindustani’ the Muslims deepened their suspicions of Hindustani. From this date onwards language was strongly identified with identity which, in turn, was identified with religion. British India was moving towards partition.
Urdu and the Pakistan’s Struggle
It was thus that Urdu became a subsidiary identity symbol for the Muslims in their struggle against the Hindu majority as well as British rule. The primary symbol of group mobilization was religion, of course, but the secondary one was language. This is something which has happened in other countries—as in Ireland—and is not peculiar to Indian Muslims.
Unfortunately, Pakistani books of history present the use of language during the Pakistan Movement like a great conspiracy. They claim that the Hindus and the British were out to destroy Urdu because they hated it. The fact is that the British removed Persian for several reasons one of which was that it was a symbol of Muslim rule. But they promoted Urdu in the Perso-Arabic script and not Hindi in the Devanagari one which was the language of the majority of their Indian subjects. It is true, however, that, to begin with, Urdu was not a symbol of Muslim elitist identity but its script was. When Hindi became a symbol of Hindu identity and Urdu of Muslim identity it was natural for Hindus to support Hindi.. So, although the majority of the population was Hindu, the British carried on in English and Urdu till the partition. However, they did give concessions to the Hindi lobby because they felt that they would be opposed if they did not. And, if course, they wanted as less opposition as possible.
In this way Urdu contributed to the making of Pakistan. However, it was forgotten that Urdu was a symbol not a reality. The majority of Pakistanis were Bengalis who actually spoke and used Bengali. In Sindh too the language of the lower domains of power was Sindhi. In the Punjab and the Frontier, however, it was Urdu. Since the conditions had changed, the language policy should also have changed. However, it was not and the first challenge to Urdu came from Bengali.
Language issues and the one-nation theory
Language has always been a symbol of identity. Even before the nation-state made territoriality a basis of a ‘national’ identity, people recognized kinship lineage (class or biradari) and language as possible bases of identity. However, modernity made language an even stronger symbol of identity than lineage. For instance, while pre-modern people divided themselves very often on the basis of class, occupation (barber, potter, sweeper etc) and caste, the modern ethnic movements in the world define themselves in terms of language and religion. In Pakistan, for instance, ethnic groups define their identity in term of their language (Sindhi, Siraiki, Pashto etc). In short, one of the symbols, which creates and sustains a group identity is language.
If one looks at the formation of the modern states of Europe one finds that language has played a role in their establishment and development. For instance, the realm of the king of France had communities which spoke languages other than French. And even those who did speak French did not speak the Parisian, elitist French which was called ‘standard French’. What most ordinary people spoke were various dialects which were mutually intelligible but different from one another. By declaring the Parisian variety as the standard language, all the hitherto equal varieties—the dialects etc—became sub-standard, defective, uncouth forms of speech. Similarly, all the non-French languages were marginalized. Now all speakers had to learn standard French in under to get the best jobs and social prestige. In short, when national languages were standardized, the process militated against variety, marginalized linguistic minorities and facilitated the cultural domination of a certain urban power-elite.
The formation of European nation in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the United States facilitated, and was facilitated in turn, by the rise of a ‘national’ language. Of course, in some countries no language was officially declared as the national language, but everybody knew which language was used in official domains and possessed symbolic value. It was this language in which nationalist emotion was invested. And, in all cases, competing languages were marginalized, suppressed and eliminated. This process has accelerated under globalization which is killing the world’s over 6000 languages and thus reducing our cultural and linguistic diversity.
So far I have dealt with the way a national language strengthens the idea of a ‘nation’ while suppressing other languages. Sometimes, however, the process is reversed. In Ireland, for instance, the Irish language became the symbol of the Irish national identity during the last years of the nineteenth and the early ones of the twentieth century. This was all the more remarkable because most urbanized Irish people actually spoke and wrote in English. Irish was spoken only in rural areas in Western Ireland. Thus the value of Irish was purely symbolic. It was one means of resistance against the British who were ruling Ireland. Even now, although it is English which is used for most purposes in Ireland, Irish has an iconic value and is a potent identity symbol of the Irish nation.
Another language which helped forge a nation is Hebrew. Despite the primacy of the religious symbol (Judaism), it was Hebrew which made the modern Israelis into a nation. Otherwise the Jewish immigrants into Israel since the 1940s spoke so many languages that the sense of nationhood would not have developed easily had Hebrew not functioned as a unifying symbol. But in Hebrew’s case, too, a number of languages, including Arabic, were suppressed in order to give primacy to Hebrew. Linguistic nationalism, as we have seen, is hardly a painless process.
In South Asia the ruling elites and those who oppose them understand the unifying and divisive potential of language. Language has served to unify a class; a ‘nation’ and an ethnic group. Sanskrit, Persian and English create, sustain and unify a certain socio-economic class—the elite. All three were elitist preserves marking out an elite from the vast mass of the non-elite. Then there were such broad-based nationalist symbols as Urdu and Hindi. From 1860 up to 1947, these two languages served as identity symbols. Urdu became associated with the Islamic nationalist identity and Hindi with the Hindu identity. In reality, of course, most Muslims did not speak Urdu and nobody actually spoke Hindi. What was officially called ‘Hindi’was actally Sanskritized ‘Hindustani’. What people (i.e. Muslims and Hindus) actually spoke in North Indian cities and towns was actually Hindustani though the Muslims wrote it in the Persian script and put in a few more Persian and Arabic words than their Hindu neighbours who wrote it in the Devanagari script and put in some dialectal words. But reality is one thing and symbolism another. These two languages helped in the construction of two rational/or communal) identities which created two countries out of British India. Then again, language helps create an ethnic or sub-national identity. The major example of this is Bangladesh where Bengali became a component of ethnic identity as early as 1948. The language helped create a group and the group demanded a just share in power and wealth from the (West Pakistani) ruling elite. When this share was denied, the perception of a separate national identity, based primarily on language, led to the demand of autonomy and finally the creation of the nation-state of Bangladesh in 1971.
In India, too the ethnic group identities based upon language were a force to reckon with. However, India created language-based states, which did much to dilute the force of the ethnic demands. Where India failed, as in Kashmir, the identity-creating symbol is not language but religion. There are, to be sure, many identity-conferring symbols, and language is only one of them.
In Pakistan, there have been many cases of language-based identity. Sindhi, Pashto, Siraiki, Urdu, Punjabi and Balochi etc have all been used to create or sustain ethnic identity. It is necessary is to point out that just as a language helps in the formation of a single nation, in the same way it also helps in the formation of a single ethnic identity or nationality.
In short, language is integrative as well as divisive. But if language is a two-edged sword, how should it be used in the national life? This depends on the aim of the decision-makers. If their aim is the maintenance and consolidation of their power they would have no qualms in suppressing other classes, nationalities and groups. Sometimes, however, these policies backfire and there are rebellions, ethnic insurrections and terrorist strikes. However, if the aim is the maximum happiness and welfare of the largest number of people without suppressing the rights of any minority, then the language policy would respect diversity. In that case the exemplars would be Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and Spain (at least as far as Catalan is concerned). All these countries have given linguistic rights, jobs and prestige to linguistic minorities and really celebrate diversity. As most countries, at least in our part of the world, are multilingual, the policy which will bring most dividends is the one which will allow multilingualism to flourish. However, unless wealth and power are not distributed equitably, even the most egalitarian language policies will fail. That, essentially, is the message which the PONM ( Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement) is giving all over Pakistan. The sense of alienation in the ethnic groups comprising the nation can only be addressed by ensuring that they share in the pie; that they have respect; that they have power and, of course, their languages and cultures are respected. If this does not happen the frustrations with the Centre and economic deprivation will make people unite with the help of many symbols, one being language. In such cases language creates a ‘nation’—but at the cost of breaking up an existing one. So, if language is to create ‘one nation’, the decision-makers should see that they value unity in diversity and do away with injustice—for it is injustice, not language, which breaks nations.
The points I want to emphasize here are that language (in this case Urdu) was one of the symbols of the Muslim identity during the Pakistan Movement; that Urdu, next only to Islam, created the Muslim identity which competed with the dominant Hindu identity to win power and resources in British India; and, finally, this use of language is very well known when a minority (or weak majority) wants to mobilize itself as a pressure group in order to obtain a share of power from a strong or dominant group.
Urdu and Hindi both functioned as identity symbols for constructing the Muslim and Hindu identities in pre-partition India. These identities were in competition for power—which means goods, services, jobs, prestige etc—with each other. The Muslim minority especially feared democracy in India after British rule because that would have meant being dominated by the Hindus. This fear is expressed in what is now known as ‘the two Nation Theory’ and ‘The Ideology of Pakistan’. The idea is quite simple: no minority wants to be dominated by a powerful majority. Even no majority wants to be dominated by a powerful minority.
The pre-partition scenario was a subset of this classical condition: a minority (Muslims) feared domination by a majority (Hindus). And when such competing identities clash, all symbols of separation (religion, language, experience, dress, etiquette, values, norms etc) are used to enhance the feeling of a separate identity in order to win power. The majority can allay the fears of the minority by giving it concessions, providing safeguards and sharing the substance of real power. However, this did not happen and when it does not there is a partition. So, in this case, there was a partition. Pakistan was created.