Tuesday :: May 12, 2009

Pakistan: The Roots of Failure - Part 2: The Languages of Three Neighbors

by eriposte

[BACKGROUND: As I indicated in the Introduction and Part 1, this is a series focused on the issue of ethnic/linguistic suppression in Pakistan and its longer-term consequences for Pakistan's internal security and stability. In the Introduction, I provided an overview of the dominance of certain linguistic groups in Pakistan, to set the stage for a deeper examination of a major cause for Pakistan's current troubles. In Part 1, I explained why a constitutional, secular democracy never took hold in Pakistan since its creation in 1947 (it had little to do with religion or Islam and everything to do with the need to suppress certain linguistic majorities and minorities) and why Islamization was in part a key strategy to suppress internal ethnic/linguistic groups. One of the overt ways in which this suppression took place was in the suppression of languages.]

Today, both Pakistan and Sri Lanka are in the throes of an internal civil war. The bloodbath in Sri Lanka has been covered by John Boonstra and Mark Leon Goldberg at UN Dispatch (see the embedded video in the latter post - the team responsible for the video got deported as a result). The Pakistani government's ongoing assault on the Taliban has already displaced nearly a million Pakistanis. Although these are seemingly disparate events, one of the biggest reasons both countries are in this mess is because of policies enacted long ago to suppress ethnic/linguistic identities. In the case of Sri Lanka, the outcome of the policies eventually led to the creation of one of the worst terrorist groups in the world, the LTTE, and the outbreak of a decades-long civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE - a war that the Sri Lankan government kept claiming was essentially over back in February. With Pakistan, the surge of the Taliban is partly the consequence of a failed policy of Islamization intended to suppress ethnic/linguistic groups (and prevent the formation of an independent Pashtun state), combined with the military attacks in recent years inside Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan that has its own ethnic hues, as Selig Harrison writes in the Washington Post.

Given the significance of linguistic rights in the history of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the focus of this post is to compare the initial language policies of three neighbors in South Asia - Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India - soon after their independence from colonial British rule. In contrast to India where linguistic autonomy and freedom were given a high priority for most of its history (and sometimes in response to language-related violence), the initial language policies of Pakistan and Sri Lanka were repressive. In combination with other policies intended to directly or indirectly suppress certain ethnic/linguistic groups, the initial policies adopted by Pakistan and Sri Lanka caused serious internal destabilization before the governments started to walk them back. The post-independence contrast between the three countries was striking, as you will see in the charts that I've included in this post. Without a doubt, Pakistan's approach was the worst of the three countries. Before we dive in, though, it is worth recalling what I said in an earlier post. Specifically, language suppression alone is almost never the only cause of conflict. However, suppression of language is often a big seed that creates the roots of failure. The selection of one official or national language and the concomitant elimination of other existing languages could severely limit the ability of certain linguistic groups to compete for good jobs, get into institutions of higher learning (colleges, universities) and public service, and participate in the democratic process to exert political influence. Moreover, linguistic suppression is usually accompanied by other direct and indirect forms of ethnic discrimination and suppression. Since linguistic identity is such an important ingredient in the preservation of ethnic traditions and culture, language rights often become a rallying cause sitting atop underlying socio-economic and ethnic suppression. This is particularly true when religion is not in play as a defining issue.

This post is grouped into the following sections, for clarity (emphasis is mine, throughout this post).

1. Summary

2. Linguistic Freedom in India After Independence

3. Sri Lanka's Imposition of Sinhala After Independence

4. Pakistan's Imposition of Urdu After Independence

1. Summary

A comparison of the initial language policies of India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan is revealing and provides a window into the respective trajectories of these South Asian neighbors in the decades after their independence.

India had no dominant linguistic majority after independence. In part due to the inclusive nature of its first Prime Minister and other leaders, the vocal protests from certain linguistic groups, and the linguistically organized dominant political party (the Indian National Congress), the government of India did not impose the language of the ~30% plurality (Hindi) as the sole official or national language of the country. Provinces were allowed to use their respective languages and communicate in English with the Federal government. Although post-partition, some of the drive towards linguistic autonomy of provinces got stalled under the fear of further conflict, over time linguistic autonomy gained steam as leaders realized that language-related violence and destabilization would be higher without linguistic rights and freedoms.

Sri Lanka had a dominant linguistic majority after independence - the Sinhalese who represented roughly 70% of the population at the time. The language of the majority - Sinhala - was therefore imposed as the sole official language soon after independence. This had the immediate effect of dramatically disenfranchising the significant Tamil minority (roughly 23% of the population at the time) and eroding their ability to get into institutions of higher learning and obtain well paying jobs in the dominant public sector. The seeds of the decades-long civil war between Tamil extremists and the Sinhala-majority government are thus traceable to the original misguided, nationalistic imposition of Sinhala as the sole official language. Although the Sri Lankan government subsequently walked back some of the original provisions, the damage done by bad policies was significant enough that it could not reverse Sri Lanka's slide into civil war.

Pakistan did have a majority linguistic group after independence - the Bengalis. However, the national language imposed by the Mohajir-Punjabi ruling elite was Urdu - a language spoken by barely over 3% of the population. In many ways, Pakistan's language policy was the worst of the three neighbors and was indirectly intended to suppress not just other linguistic minorities but also the linguistic majority, as a means of preserving the power structure dominated by Punjabis and the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs. Although the Pakistani government subsequently modified the policy, the damage done by linguistic suppression and other policies was too significant to prevent large scale internal destabilization in the ensuing decades.

2. Linguistic Freedom in India After Independence

Post-independence (1947), India had no single dominant language. This is shown graphically in the chart below, based on data from p. 68 of the excellent book by Katharine Adeney - "Federalism and Ethnic Conflict Regulation in India and Pakistan". In Section 4 of this post I will comment on why I added an arrow in the chart pointing to Urdu, but the most important message from this chart is that, despite Hindi having been the language spoken by a notable plurality of Indians, there was no 50%-+ majority language right after independence. [NOTE: The year 1961 was chosen by Adeney because the accuracy of earlier data is in doubt due to misclassification - but it is unlikely that the demographics were substantially different right after independence].


As I pointed out in my previous post, right after independence there was enormous pressure on Indian leaders to make Hindi the official language of the country, in an attempt to create a national language that would "unify" the country. However, three factors made it certain that in India linguistic rights and identities would receive high priority, despite some backtracking in the immediate aftermath of the carnage of partition. First, the visionary and inclusive nature of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian leaders made it virtually certain that Hindi would not be imposed on the Indian provinces. Second, the fact that the plurality of Hindi speakers were still a minority of the population ensured there was strong counter-pressure from various linguistic groups, especially from Southern India, to prevent the imposition of Hindi as an official language. Thus, even before the Indian government formally reorganized provinces along linguistic lines, Nehru and other Congress leaders ensured that most provinces could use their own language while using English to communicate with the Federal government. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the recognition of linguistic identity had been a long-standing pillar of the only major political party in India at the time - the Indian National Congress - even in the decades preceding independence. This was because, in a country as large and linguistically diverse as India, the only way for the Congress party to successfully expand its reach country-wide and establish a democratic, representative and grassroots party structure to strengthen the party in its fight for India's independence, was to linguistically reorganize the provincial party committees. As Adeney pointed out:

In contrast to the reluctant acceptance of the creation of new Muslim-majority provinces, the Congress was deeply committed to linguistic reorganization. [...] As Pattabhi Sitaramayya observes, "wide and strong was the belief that for Provincial Autonomy to be successful, the medium of instruction as well as administration must be the provincial language" (1935, 250).


...The Congress's acceptance of linguistic reorganization of its own organization had everything to do with its mobilizing strategy in the struggle for independence....The systematic restructuring of the Congress's organization and a commitment to linguistic reorganization coincided with Gandhi's rise to prominence in the Congress. Although he initially opposed linguistic reorganization, in 1920 he cited it as one of the four principles that he held dear. Linguistic reorganization of its internal structure coincided with the Congress becoming a more democratic and active organization (Kaushik 1964, 34). Instead of a three-day annual wonder, it became an organization "humming with activity" throughout the year. The link between linguistic reorganization and the Congress's mobilizing success was a dynamic one. As James Manor argues, the fact that the Congress was such a broad church has as its corollary the need for internal representation, and linguistic reorganization strengthened the Congress in many regions (1990, 29). D. A. Low supports this, noting that when "the Congress provinces were redrawn they ... helped pave the way for the recruitment of new categories of supporters" (1991, 75)....[it] opened its ranks to non-English-speaking leaders. The Congress's success sprang from its ability to mobilize the masses, for which local organization was required, and its newly formed linguistic PCCs facilitated this. [pages 55-56]

After India's independence, the horrors of partition unfortunately led successive Indian leaders to partly postpone the creation of linguistically reorganized provinces under the fear of secession, but over time the leadership came to realize that there was greater risk of disintegration and chaos without linguistic autonomy. As Adeney wrote:

The belated acceptance of linguistic reorganization was an outcome produced by the danger of internal party dissent as well as external protest. As Meghnad Desai notes, language politics produced more street violence in the 20 years after the partition riots than did religious violence (2000, 93; Wilkinson 2002a, 15-16). [...] Despite the concerns articulated by Selig Harrison (1960, 135, 307) and Michael Brecher (1959, 21), linguistic reorganization accommodated conflicts and stabilized the [Indian] federation. [pages 77-78]

3. Sri Lanka's Imposition of Sinhala After Independence

In Sri Lanka, the two major ethnic groups are Sinhalas and Tamils. At the time of independence from British rule, the former group primarily spoke the Sinhala language and the latter group primarily spoke Tamil. The distribution of their populations in 1953 is shown in the chart below - based on data from this article in Wikipedia that used Sri Lankan government data.


As the chart indicates, the Sri Lankan government made a decision in 1956 to make Sinhala the sole official language of Sri Lanka through the Sinhala Only Act:

In 1951, the ambitious Solomon Bandaranaike broke with his party, the conservative United National Party (UNP) and created a new centrist party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). IN 1955 the SLFP decided to break ranks with the general consensus on the Left to have both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages and campaign on the slogan "Sinhala Only".

... In the 1956 parliamentary elections, the SLFP campaigned on largely nationalist policies, and made [that] one of their key election promises. The result was electoral victory for the SLFP, and "The Ceylon (Constitution) Order in Council" or "Sinhala Only Bill" was quickly enacted after the election. The bill was passed with the SLFP and the UNP supporting it, with the leftist LSSP and Communist Party (Ceylon) as well as the Tamil Nationalist Parties opposing it...

The Left bitterly opposed it, with Dr N.M. Perera moving a motion in Parliament that the Act "should be amended forthwith to provide for the Sinhalese and Tamil languages to be state languages of Ceylon with parity of status throughout the Island."

Dr Colvin R de Silva of the LSSP responded, in what some regard as famous last words: "Do we... want a single nation or do we want two nations? Do we want a single state or do we want two? Do we want one Ceylon or do we want two? And above all, do we want an independent Ceylon which must necessarily be united and single and single Ceylon, or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of language issue."...

The passage of the law was met with demonstrations from Tamils, which were repressed, the most prominent by Tamil MPs on "Galle Face Green" in the centre of Colombo.

Although some aspects of the law were subsequently reversed in 1958 and further changes were made in the 1980s, the repercussions of the initial policy were significant:

The law had its intended effect. In 1955 the civil service had been largely Tamil; by 1970 it was almost entirely Sinhalese, with thousands of Tamil civil servants forced to resign due to lack of fluency in Sinhala...For much of the 1960s government forms and services were virtually unavailable to Tamils, but this situation improved with later relaxations of the law.

The "Sinhala Only" bill was an attempt to break-away from the English-dominated colonial structure and to bring back the majority native language. However, the nationalistic hues behind the change appealed to ethnic Sinhalese who had fallen behind Tamils in employment and education during the British era, because of the greater English literacy amongst Tamils. The initial imposition of Sinhala as the sole official language therefore resulted in laying the seeds of nationalistic conflict by not just forcing a significant minority to learn a language that wasn't theirs - and thereby diminishing the Tamil language - but to do so in an environment where the principal avenue of employment was in the Sinhala-dominated public sector given Sri Lanka chose a socialist form of government with the public sector initially dominating the private sector. Thus, the majority's attempt to force their language on a long-established and significant minority served as a key catalyst for the decades-long, ongoing civil war.

4. Pakistan's Imposition of Urdu After Independence

Post-independence, Pakistan had a majority language - Bengali. However, this is not the language that was imposed as a national language by the Punjabi-Mohajir ruling elite. The chart below shows the linguistic demographics of Pakistan in 1951, based on data from p. 69 of the book by Katharine Adeney - "Federalism and Ethnic Conflict Regulation in India and Pakistan".


As I pointed out in my previous post, although the conditions under which India and Pakistan were created in 1947 were somewhat similar, the differences in the structures of the principal political parties in both countries and the visions and actions of their respective leaders, as well as the class and power structure in Pakistan, led to Pakistan becoming an authoritarian and unrepresentative non-democratic state. The Pakistani leadership placed higher importance on superficial national unity than on ethnic/linguistic rights and the power base was dominated by generally wealthier and more literate ethnic minorities (Urdu-speaking Mohajir and Punjabi-speaking Punjabi elites) who successfully suppressed both the linguistic majority group (Bengalis) and other linguistic minorities (Sindhis, Balochs, Siraikis, etc.) by retaining most of the power in the new Pakistan. This suppression was enabled by the fact that the structure of Pakistani government soon after independence was modified to make the civil bureaucracy far more powerful than the political class, and the bureaucracy and military - the two most powerful institutions - were initially dominated by Mohajirs and Punjabis. Representative democracy was thus antithetical to the main interests of the Mohajir-Punjabi ruling elite and this became clear when they declared Urdu - a language spoken by the minuscule Mohajir minority - to be the sole official language of the state under the guise of 'unification', thereby suppressing other languages. The fact that, unlike the Indian National Congress, the largest political party in Pakistan - the Muslim League - was dominated by minority Muslims from India (especially Urdu speakers) rather than the ethnic/linguistic groups hailing from the new Pakistan, and was therefore not a truly representative body, also facilitated this trajectory.

In his excellent book "Politics of Identity: Ethnic Nationalism and the State of Pakistan", Adeel Khan points out that the imposition of Urdu was protested in East Bengal, home of the Bengali majority in Pakistan:

When ethnic discontent was growing, the state establishment, instead of addressing regional grievances, resorted to methods of cultural imperialism with its centralising and homogenising strategies. Not only was the language of 3.7 per cent of the population, Urdu, imposed as a national language, but Bengali legislators were warned that if they used their own language they would be tried for treason. The songs of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore were banned on Radio Pakistan. In Sindh, the Sindhi language was replaced by Urdu as the medium of instruction. Though these discriminatory practices triggered ethnic and regional protest, in a state being run without any representative channels the voices of disaffection carried little weight. [page 66]

The sheer absurdity of a language spoken by barely over 3% of the population (Urdu) being imposed as a sole national language in Pakistan is even more striking when we recognize that a greater percentage of the population spoke Urdu in India (over 5%, see section 1) than in Pakistan. One of the questions this raises is why, given the dominance of Punjabi elite in Pakistan's power structure, did Punjabis accede to the imposition or Urdu. Adeney explains:

While there is a case to be made for categorizing the use of Urdu as a "neutral" language, similar to the adoption of Bahasa in Indonesia, rather than the dominant Javanese, Urdu was chosen as the state language because of its association with the Muslim nationalist movement in northern India. It thus took on exclusive connotations, as noted: integrationist strategies are not always ethnically neutral. Not only did it exclude the majority of the population - Bengali speakers - but it imposed higher costs for some communities rather than others. This was because Punjabi and Pashtu were "not normally...written language[s]" (Government of Pakistan 1951, 75). Only 0.2 percent of Punjabis claimed literacy in Punjabi, 0.4 percent of the population of NWFP were literate in Pashtu, and the figures for the literacy in Baluchi were so low that they were not reported (Government of Pakistan 1951, 73). In British Baluchistan and Punjab, the script was not standardized, making it impracticable for use in government. It is common to hear Pakistani Punjabis declare themselves "illiterate" in their mother tongue. 30

In contrast, Bengali and Sindhi had proud literary traditions. In those provinces, the foremost languages of literacy were Bengali (14.2 percent) and Sindhi (6.1 percent). Publications and media proliferated in both languages, encouraged by the development of printing and the standardization of the Sindhi language and script by the British (Rahman 1996, 81, 105-9). In their respective territories Sindhi had been used as a language of government in the lower levels of the administration since 1851 (Ahmed 1998, 41) and Bengali since 1837 (Rahman 1996, 81).  In contrast, in Punjab, NWFP, and British Baluchistan, Urdu had been used as the language of administration at the lower levels (Rahman 1996, 136, 164, 194). Pashtu was only used as a language of government in the princely state of Swat. Nothing demonstrates more strikingly why the decision to impose Urdu as a state language had higher costs for the Bengali and Sindhi salariat.31 Exclusion was compounded by the fact that the United Provinces (from where the Mohajirs had predominantly migrated) had also operated in Urdu before independence.

The language policy therefore reinforced Punjabi and Mohajir domination of the state and its institutions, and movements emerged in East Bengal demanding Bengali's recognition as one of the state languages of Pakistan. [...] in 1952, Nazimuddin, now prime minister, proclaimed that Urdu would definitely be the state language of Pakistan. This statement provoked a violent response from the students of Dhaka University and the police crackdown created several martyrs for the language movement. Constitutional innovations, such as Mohammad Ali Bogra's constitutional formula, ignored the language question (Bogra 1953). It was only after the decimation of the [Muslim] League in the 1954 East Bengal Assembly elections that the center conceded that "[t]the official languages of the Republic should be Urdu and Bengali" (Government of Pakistan 1954, Article 276[1]). [pages 101-102]

Just as in the case of Sri Lanka, the Pakistani ruling elite were subsequently forced to walk-back this egregious policy, but it was too late to stave off internal civil war. It is to that subject we will turn our attention to in the next post.

eriposte :: 7:31 AM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!