A condensed version of this article was originally published at Oases of Wisdom and has been republished with their permission.
Note: I write the following from my perspective as a diaspora Pakistani. None of the following should be taken as a personal attack, rather a comment on structural realities. An Urdu version of this article is also available here.
The list of dead, white British men who lorded over the Subcontinent is long, but Thomas Macauley holds a special place among them. The archetypal British colonial administrator, Macauley was best known for his instrumental role in entrenching English into the cultural and epistemic life of the Subcontinent. In decreeing the supremacy of English as the language of power, and the displacement of traditional sciences and knowledges, Macaulay famously said:
“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, — a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
What does Macauley’s statement mean? Can you imagine an Arab or an Iranian (diaspora or not) who speaks their native language — but cannot read or write in it? One who refuses to even learn? It beggars belief, but this is a very common situation amongst upper-middle-class Pakistanis and diaspora. The most disheartening part of this phenomenon are its excuses: “I don’t need to,” “It’s too much effort,” and “Why should I?”.
Why should we take serious interest in Urdu? English is the language in which an increasing number of Pakistanis are most comfortable. This makes sense, as naturally one is most comfortable in the language spoken from a formative stage. Yet this is precisely the issue. From day one, we learn in English: we read, write, think and speak it. It is in English that we opine, analyze, criticize, advocate and condemn. We govern in English; we agitate in English. We celebrate, we mourn and we dream in English.
Meanwhile, the Urdu language slips ever deeper into engineered irrelevancy. The Urdu we claim to speak is often just the bare-bones of a Urdu/Hindi sentence with all the operative words in English. At what point is your language no longer yours, but someone else’s cheap imitation? Urdu languishes — a zombie of its former self, disconnected from political, economic, intellectual and social vitality; and little more than a domestic, household tool best fit for simple, low-processing action. The “real stuff” happens in English. At best, Urdu persists as a largely symbolic language consigned to the realm of quaint poeticism, a comforting indicator of a bygone heritage, but not much else. Some may demur: “Urdu is a beautiful poetic language, of course we care for it!” Indeed it is, but we must ask what more it can be. Do science, academics, mathematics, medicine, engineering — or politics, town planning, advocacy, and lawyering — happen only in English? Can Information Technology (IT) exist in Urdu? It’s a strange, radical, almost discomforting thought, isn’t it? A language like any other, Urdu is fit for, and can be made to fit, any purpose. It lives or dies in accordance with our collective will. The failure to connect Urdu to social capital and mobility, the proliferation of supposedly higher-quality English-medium schools in Pakistan, and a deeply-seated inferiority complex that cuts across social classes are not without consequence: Urdu’s days as a living, breathing, enriching and creative language seem gone.
These days, shame is an emotion increasingly considered out of vogue. Yet, I think one should be embarrassed to shirk from Urdu. It should be seen as strange, pitiful and deprived to not properly wield the language. How perturbing is it that we speak watered down versions of our native languages? Our inability to express higher-order thought in our native tongues — as we resort to English to fill in the gaps — should be a source of humiliation. We should be ashamed to reproduce the structural conditions that churn out class after class of Macauley’s children.
What is wrong with English, you may ask? To be clear, we should still learn English, which in today’s world is an absolute asset at best, a necessary evil at worst. Yet, we should not be learning it at the detriment of our own languages, heritage and culture. English should be a secondary language for us, not our primary method of communication. Though the domination of English over other languages incurs aesthetic and linguistic problems, the larger concern is civilizational. Remember that language is never neutral; it carries historical and cultural baggage. Using another language reflects more than a set of new words; ultimately, it is about embodying a different spirit altogether. Some may protest this assertion by saying that, as with chai and cricket, we have made English our own: Are the borders between languages and cultures so clear-cut? Have we not incorporated English into our domain — like Arabic and Farsi before it — and added yet more diversity and beauty into the mix? Are we not simply continuing a tradition of assimilation and creative reconstruction?
I concede that these are decent points, but we must acknowledge that Arabic and Farsi were organic integrations in the cultural and linguistic domains of the Subcontinent. They produced Urdu in a natural fashion. Furthermore, from a Muslim perspective, the integration of these languages represents a beautiful consequence of the global, millennia-old Islamic tradition. It reflects a different, horizontal power dynamic at play.
In contrast, we must never forget that the existence of English in the Subcontinent was far from a benign synthesis. Fundamentally a colonial imposition, the influence of English should be seen as pervasively detrimental. For example, the trend of Roman Urdu only contributes further to the collective degradation of the language. In the post-colonial era, we remain at the receiving end of Western globalization, secularization and mass consumerism, all of which employ English in their dissemination. To paraphrase Wael Hallaq, we Muslims are uneasy inhabitants in a modernity not of our own making and that runs counter to our fundamental existential values.
What can we do about the declining role of Urdu? To criticize is one thing; finding solutions is much harder. Deconstruction has always been easier than construction.
Here are four preliminary thoughts:
The first step is to produce quality education in the Urdu language. The proliferation of English-medium schools has relegated Urdu to the status of a quaint second language; meanwhile, the outdated and excruciating pedagogical techniques in Urdu-medium schools make learning the language nothing less than torture. Furthermore, these schools present almost all higher-level theory and literature in English, resulting in a situation where many people lack the very words to elaborate abstract thought in Urdu. Relatedly, we also need substantive Urdu digital literacy programs — the absence of which exacerbates the widespread use of Roman Urdu. Of course, for any of this to occur requires broader structural reforms in the education system.
Secondly, we must make a cultural and epistemic shift away from transliteration. Faced with a rapidly-changing and evolving world, we import words from English to fill in the gaps in our language. This overdependence on transliteration is lazy at best, and reflects an inferiority complex at worst; it tears ever greater holes in Urdu’s fabric of integrity. Urdu is an organic amalgam of three great civilizational/linguistic traditions: Arabic, Farsi and Sanskrit. In facing the stresses of modernity, we can and should draw instead on these three lingual roots. Unlike us in Pakistan, these cultural/lingual domains care for their language and have worked endlessly to ensure their relevance. For example, we can use language coined in modern Arab and Iranian culture, such as the Arabic word mutasafih for “Internet browser.” However, these words, transplanted from another context, sometimes may be too abstract for common understanding. If this is deemed to be the case, we can draw on our rich lingual heritage to creatively invent new words as needed. In lambasting the outsize role of English in our culture, I am not advocating returning Urdu to some sort of ‘golden’ Ghalib-ian era (which would be impossible anyway). Rather, we should have the internal self-confidence to define our own terms. In embracing translation and word-invention over transliteration and assimilation, we will deepen Urdu’s capabilities as a vibrant and creative contemporary language.
Third, we must make Urdu relevant in terms of upward social and economic mobility. The decision to learn English and sideline Urdu is rooted not only in a deep-seated colonial complex, but also in the perception that we need English to get ahead — in global contexts as well as within Pakistan. Anyone who doesn’t know English will be left behind, paid less, and unable to better their and their family’s economic condition. All important, socially respectable, economically beneficial jobs require and demand English. Thus, learning English is a necessity because of the structural conditions at play. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Framing Urdu as a language relevant for administration, law, politics, modern literature, sciences and the like, will incentivize more people to invest in and care about the language.
Lastly, and most importantly, we need to develop a love of Urdu. I previously mentioned the value of shame, but there is something more powerful. Love is the essential precondition to language-learning, which is one of the most exhaustive endeavors any human can undertake. It is love which gets you through the confusion, embarrassment and frustration of embodying a language. More specifically, love for Urdu reflects an attachment to the heritage, history and culture from which the language emerges. Languages may not have a religion, but Urdu’s existence is precisely a by-product of the Islamic tradition and its attendant civilizations. We must reclaim a sense of identity and pride in the Islamic tradition, which is rich with centuries of wisdom, beauty and brilliance. Never forget: a key objective of the colonizer is to convince the colonized that his own history is unworthy of remembrance. As decolonial author Albert Memmi incisively writes in The Colonizer and the Colonized, “the most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history … Colonization usurps every decision contributing to his own history…”
Ultimately, the future of Urdu is in our hands. Do we care enough? Who are we? Who do we want to become?
Note: This deserves an essay of its own, but I want to make a point here about our local, ethnic languages in Pakistan like Punjabi. The issue is very complicated. These languages have suffered immensely not just because of colonialism, but at our own hands in the name of advancing Urdu. Observe how the rich, deep language of Baba Fareed and Bulleh Shah has been degraded in the popular imagination to little more than a medium for cheap jokes. The degradation perpetuated upon Urdu pales in comparison to that heaped upon our native tongues.
The point being: bettering our Urdu does not have to mean the further languishing of our native languages. It is not the zero-sum game we learned from our colonizers. We can respect, empower and uplift Urdu, as well as our local languages. Anyone who says otherwise remains trapped in Enlightenment logics of domination and centralization, those most enduring gifts of the colonizer.
About the Author: Hamza Surbuland is a Masters by Research student in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. His thesis is looking at the political-historical thought of Maulana Maududi and Wael Hallaq, in the context of Mughal India. You can find him on Instagram here or by email at email@example.com.
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