It is almost tyrannical how various governments have played with the fate of children in the 65 years of the country, juggling with languages in school education from time to time, many using it willfully as a political tool. Not once has consensus on a national language policy been achieved.
The result is a confused education system where parallel mediums of instruction run, and being able to communicate in English is considered the only sign of being educated.
It was in 1947 that Urdu was declared the national language and English the official language by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In one of his speeches in East Pakistan, Jinnah made it clear that the national language would be Urdu and “anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan”.
In a step to provide national identity, an Urdu Committee was set up in 1948, which attempted to introduce a uniform script to all languages in Pakistan.
The decision was met with major resistance, especially by the Bengalis, who thought this was a plan to sabotage their national heritage.
“As early as in 1951 there were language riots in East Pakistan, which was largely Bengali-speaking,” explained Aziz Kabani, director programmes, operation and research at the Sindh Education Foundation.
A three-step system was maintained from then on: English an official language, Urdu the national language and a provincial language for each province. It was decided by parliamentarians that Urdu would be used as the medium of instruction in primary education. However, the role of English was not specified. Therefore, a mix of English- and Urdu-medium schools flourished side by side.
“The policy of the government to continue the two mediums of instruction in education side by side reflected the British policy. It also served the same purpose: to create two classes of people, one that was trained to govern and the other to produce subordinate staff,” said a discussion paper titled ‘the future of English in Pakistan’ by the Strengthening Participatory Organisation.
When Ayub Khan took over he was largely pro-English, and believed “that the most qualified personnel acquire their knowledge in English-medium schools…However, at the same time due to increased activities of the pro-Urdu right wing group, English was not introduced as the medium of instruction in government schools,” said the survey.
Instead, he introduced cadet colleges — schools under the control of military, where the medium of instruction was English.
Dr Muhammad Memon, at the Institute of Education Development (IED), explains that in 1959 during Ayub’s era the Sharif Commission was set up to look into the language issue. “It was decided in the commission that within 15 years Urdu will be able to replace English as a medium at the university level. Therefore in government schools Urdu continued to be the medium of instruction but English was taught as a compulsory subject.”
This was a good way to placate right-wingers and continue with elite English medium schools for another 15 years.
In Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s era the language problem had somewhat simplified, considering there was no room for Bengali any more. “It was in Bhutto’s era a provincial language became compulsory in secondary classes, in our province’s case Sindhi,” said Memon.
This could be seen as a political tool to win the hearts of his largely Sindhi-speaking vote bank. But language had always been a bone of contention in the country. In the year 1971-72 there were major Mohajir-Sindhi riots in Karachi, over the issue of language, thus reinforcing the fact that all groups in Pakistan did not accept Urdu as their national language.
Bhutto in accordance with his popular slogan ‘roti, kapra and makaan’ could not aim to make Urdu the national language in the wake of these ethnic tensions. He opted for a safer route and introduced Article 251. It had two aspects to it; Urdu will be the national language, and arrangements to replace English with Urdu as an official language will be made in the next 15 years.
Zia ul Haq entered the scene with his Islamization policy. He denationalised educational institutes, introduced Arabic as a compulsory subject in schools and the Urdu language policy was strictly enforced in government schools.
But it was in Zia’s era when private English medium schools flourished, and O and A levels entered the market. Parents who felt English an important tool for success preferred to send their children to these private schools.
Come Benazir Bhutto in 1999, and she gave an option to the government schools to either use English or Urdu as medium. Furthermore, English was to be taught as an additional subject from grade one. “It was thought this would serve as an equalizer for all classes,” said the survey by SPO.
The latest addition to the compulsory languages to be taught is of Chinese, the motive behind which still remains unknown.
“It is a sad fact indeed that until now the policies made by the government considering the usage of language in educational discourse has merely added complexities. The last development in this regard was in 2003 when it was decided that computer, science and math will be taught in English at government schools,” shared Memon.
Solutions educationists suggest
Children should be taught in their mother tongue for the first three years of their education, say educationists.
“During the primary years it is important for children to comprehend that can only be done in the mother tongue. If they are taught in any other language they will only memorise, not learn,” maintains Memon, who himself was taught in a Sindhi medium school till his higher education.
Salman Asif, director, Education Research Development, agrees. “It is the right of every child to be taught in his mother tongue. If they are being forced to speak in English or Urdu then it is unjust.”
“In their primary years children should be taught in the language in which they dream,” said Aziz Kabani.
“In their later years more languages can be taught.” Kabbani said the number should be four; Urdu, English, Arabic or Persian, and working knowledge of a provincial language.
There are examples in the history of developing countries which have succeeded in developing national consensus on the language policy, despite having a number of ethnic groups inside their borders.
“In India each state can decide which language should be adopted in the early years, after which education continues in English. Bangladesh gives great importance to Bengali in education,” explains Memon.
“Pakistan has over 30 spoken language, New Guinea has even more, they have still overcome the language barriers in education,” said Salman Asif.
But Memon is hopeful. “A lot of time has been wasted; nevertheless, it is still not too late. An arbitrary body should be created which works on a comprehensive policy.