Feb 24, 2010

A lesson we must learn

It would be good if on this day all of Pakistan’s distinct nations could sit together and celebrate their diversity

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Today is International Mother Tongue Day. On this day a handful of public functions are likely to be organised and some lip service paid by government high-ups to the need for linguistic diversity and preservation of the various cultures that litter the social landscape of this country. But it is highly unlikely that there will be open acknowledgment of the history behind this day and the real significance of its celebration.

On February 21, 1952, at least a dozen Bengali (East Pakistani) students and youth were shot dead by state security forces in Dhaka during a peaceful protest. Since 1948 the Bengali language movement had galvanised young people across the length and breadth of East Pakistan and the cold-blooded murders of youth on this day was the ultimate expression of the Pakistani state’s depravity and its sheer unwillingness to accept the popular will.

Ultimately, of course, Bangla was recognised as a language of the state, but the broader policy of denying Bengalis their political, economic and social rights remained intact. February 21 became a rallying point for the Bengali nationalist struggle, and even after secession, Bangladeshis recall this day as the crystallising moment in their movement for self-determination.

It was not until 1999 that the United Nations explicitly recognised the sacrifices of the 21 February martyrs. In the subsequent decade, those who celebrate International Mother Tongue Day have grown in number and it is a matter of pride that some Pakistani progressives own this day, thus acknowledging the historic crimes of the Pakistani state against the Bengali people whilst underlining the need to continue the struggle to protect the rights of all nations that constitute this state.

But, unfortunately, the power to mould ‘public opinion’ in this country continues to be wielded by those who look at attempts to assert the multi-national character of the state as sedition. While certain segments of Baloch, Sindhi, Pakhtun, Seraiki, Kashmiri, Gilgiti/Balti society are willing mouthpieces of the establishment and project the unitary national-cultural model as indisputable, ultimately the critical mass of intellectuals, artists and political players that ensures that this model remains dominant are found within the Urdu-speaking and Punjabi communities.

The Urdu-speaking elite is necessarily touchy about dismantling the unitary national-cultural paradigm. Urdu has benefited from state patronage, thereby retaining its status as the language of Muslim high culture in the subcontinent. Urdu-speaking nationalists claim a political and social status that no other Pakistani can match. Theirs is a reactionary attitude and is informed by the same insecurity that informed the Muslim League’s politics in the period leading up to partition in the United Provinces (UP) and Central Provinces (CP) where elite Muslims saw their historical privileges being eroded.

The more interesting and arguably more important case is that of the Punjabis. Since the late 19th century the Punjabi intelligentsia has adopted Urdu as its preferred language — and thereby Urdu-inspired culture — thereby relegating its own language to inferior status. While Punjabi remains widely spoken in most working-class Punjabi homes, the Punjabi middle class has historically had a very ambivalent relationship to its mother tongue. In large part, the explanation lies in the fact that Punjab’s middle class was given preferential access to the (colonial and subsequently post-colonial) state and Urdu was a necessity to take advantage of this positive discrimination. It is another matter altogether that even Punjabi artists committing to resisting the dictates of the state chose Urdu as the medium of their art, thus limiting their prospects of reaching out to the teeming Punjabi millions who would otherwise have been a captive audience. Faiz Ahmed Faiz is a primary example in this regard.

As opposed to the Sindhi, Baloch, Pakhtun, or Seraiki middle classes, all of which celebrate and project their language and culture (in large part as a means of resisting the dominant national-cultural paradigm), the Punjabi middle class even today has little attachment to its language or specific cultural history. To be fair an alternative trend has arisen in recent years and some progressives groups are attempting to reassert Punjabi culture through language. But this is the tip of the iceberg; the majority of the Punjabi middle class continues to perceive its language and culture as an anachronism, particularly now that it has been exposed to the Brave New World of multinational employment, cable TV and cheap credit.

It would be good if on this day all of Pakistan’s distinct nations could sit together, celebrate their diversity and chart a path forward. But, instead, the history and spirit of International Mother Tongue Day remains a threat to the powers-that-be. It is in this context that it is important to not just blow off all the talk of a new Seraiki province. One wonders whether the PPP will have the courage to push through such an initiative; either way it should be endorsed by all progressive forces, and particularly those in Punjab. This will be a first step towards recognising that unity is possible only through the acknowledgment of diversity.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the acknowledgment of our linguistic diversity will help in reversing the trend towards fragmentation. The recognition of Bangla as a language of the state did not, after all, lead to the reining in of the Bengali nationalist movement in East Pakistan, and instead gave it further impetus. But this fact should not be used to justify the enforcement of the unitary national-cultural model. It is perhaps the most natural instinct of all: the more one is denied something, the more one wants it. February 21 should be a lesson and a call forward to us all.

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