Pakistan: The English language: colonial fetter, Islamic reject or key to freedom?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Dec 13 13:48:56 UTC 2006

EDITORIAL: The English language: colonial fetter, Islamic reject or key to

Islamabad has prepared a final draft for the English Language Curriculum
for classes 9, 10, 11 and 12, that sets the recognition and practising of
values and attributes such as tolerance, humanism, patience, equality,
justice, honesty and empathy, relevant for peaceful coexistence between
individuals, groups and nations, as the first benchmark of the new
syllabus. The government will send these curriculum guidelines to the
provinces and expect them to spread a moderate worldview through the
compulsory course set for the above four classes. If we look at the
phrases used in the curriculum we can conclude that the language used
therein bears no relationship to that used in similar texts since the
brainwashing era of General Zia-ul Haq. The students will develop ethical
and social attributes and values relevant in a multicultural, civilised
society after going though the new curriculum.  The contrast with the old
vocabulary of state ideology is quite marked and seems to have been
created by a very conscious effort to say goodbye to a way of thinking
that made Pakistan an inferno of intolerance and violence.  This is great

All the words used in respect of the texts to be imbibed for learning the
English language in Pakistan seem to carry us back to the
liberal-democratic outlook of our founding fathers. The Zia era replaced
humanism with an ideology that stressed piety and observance of collective
rituals and looked at multiculturalism and ethics as alien terms made
redundant by sharia. But the ironies cannot be overlooked. It was under
the liberal-socialist government of Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that the
education system was nationalised, including all the Christian missionary
institutions that had contributed to educating the Pakistani elite. The
Constitution finalised under his government laid down the enforcement of
Urdu as the national language and its use by state institutions in lieu of
English. That is when, unwittingly, Pakistan embarked on a self-damaging
course almost at the same time as Sri Lanka.  With the rapid decline of
market skills in Sri Lanka, Colombo soon decided to restart compulsory
English with the help of the British government.  India escaped doing this
linguistic hara kiri by the skin of its teeth.

When General Zia began his Islamisation, the earlier round of
nationalisation of education had prepared the ground for him. But he did
something that eventually served to undermine his programme of closing the
Pakistani mind. He denationalised education, hoping that the private
sector would pick up the slack and open Urdu-medium schools. But not many
Urdu-medium schools were opened in the private sector which mostly
followed the rapidly globalising market for the English language. Then Zia
attempted to get at the mind of the youth through the curriculum a process
of poisoning the mind that lasted till 2003 when the world cried stop but
language itself proved too strong in rationality to lie down.

There is no knowing what the language policy did to Pakistan, except for
one study by Pakistani scholar Dr Tariq Rehman in February 2003 under the
title Tolerance and militancy among schoolchildren. Carried out in
December 2002 and January 2003, the survey was based on a sample of 488
students of class-10 and 192 teachers of Urdu-medium, English-medium and
religious schools or madrassas. On militancy, the question framed was:
Should Pakistan seize Kashmir from India in an open war? About 59 percent
of the Urdu-medium students said no; about 64 percent of the
English-medium students said no; but about 59 percent of the madrassa
students said yes! On whether Pakistan should take Kashmir via jihadi
organisations, 45 and 60 percent of the respondents from Urdu and English
medium students respectively said no. On the question whether Pakistan
should support cross-border infiltration into Kashmir, Urdu- and
English-medium students said no by 75 and 72 percent respectively while
the madrassa students favoured cross-border infiltration by 54 percent.

Dr Rehman judged tolerance by asking whether the Ahmedis should be allowed
employment equally in all jobs. Surprisingly, given Pakistans almost
primordial hatred of the Ahmedis, the Urdu and English medium students
replied yes by 46 and 65 percent respectively (Urdu students said no by 36
percent), but the madrassa students said no by 82 percent! To the question
whether Pakistan should give equal rights to Pakistani Hindus in all jobs,
the Urdu- and English-medium students said yes with 47 percent and 78
percent respectively (Urdu medium students said no by 42 percent), while
76 percent of madrassa students said no! To the question whether Pakistan
should give equal rights to Pakistani Christians in all jobs, 65 and 83
percent of the Urdu- and English-medium students respectively said yes,
while 73 percent of the madrassa students said no. To the question whether
Pakistan should give equal rights to women, 75 and 90 percent of Urdu- and
English-medium students respectively said yes but 77 percent of the
madrassa students said no.

General Zia used the tool of education to impose a rapidly narrowing
version of Islam. And it was Urdu which became his handmaiden in this
programme. When the majority Sunni community began to define itself too
precisely, the non-Sunni Muslims and the non-Muslims were forced to
rediscover themselves. They discovered that the state had subtly and not
so subtly excluded them. The blowback came after General Zia. Because of
its global exposure and global input of data, the English language escaped
much harm but the Urdu language and culture was poisoned wherever it was
used, in textbooks as well as in newspaper columns. The biggest tragedy
has unfolded for the last three years in Gilgit where there is a 60
percent Shia majority. Having been forced to discover themselves, the Shia
want their textbooks to suit their school of jurisprudence. This is a
legitimate demand because Islamiat books suit the Sunni school of thought.
They want the Shia deviations reflected in the books they read. This
means, for example, that the kalima and the azaan will be different. Most
Sunnis know that the Shia fast on separate timings but dont know that the
other pillars are different from theirs. Therefore the deadlock in Gilgit

In the light of what has gone on in the life of Pakistan, let us start
again with what the Quaid-e-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, wanted us to do. To
do that, we have to begin by realising that our past is a heap of waste
because it was based on intolerance. The government of President General
Pervez Musharraf is to be commended for taking the first steps in the
right direction. *


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