An uncalled for controversy

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

A LANGUAGE controversy has been brewing in Sindh for the last five weeks. It would have assumed the shape of a full-blown crisis had the earthquake of October 8 and its aftermath not diverted public attention. But as life returns to normality, attention is once again focused on the language issue which can become quite explosive if not handled promptly and tactfully.

The venom being spewed out is reminiscent of the tumultuous days of July 1972 when Karachi went up in flames, curfew had to be imposed and people lost their lives. It may be recalled that the cause of provocation at that time was the Sindh (Teaching, Promotion and Use of Sindhi Language) Act, 1972, which the Sindh Assembly adopted on July 7, 1972. This prescribed measures for the teaching of Sindhi in accordance with Article 267 of the Constitution which provided that a provincial legislature could promote a provincial language without prejudice to Urdu, the national language.

The Urdu-speakers, who migrated to Sindh in 1947 in substantial numbers, felt unhappy about it. They believed that since Urdu had been recognized as the national language of Pakistan it should not be displaced by Sindhi in the province of Sindh. According to them, the special status of Urdu was self-evident. Being spoken and understood by a large number of people of all provinces it served as a link language.

The language controversy of 1972 should be seen in the perspective of the political climate in the country in the post-Bangladesh era when the very existence of Pakistan as a federation was at stake. After the breakaway of East Pakistan there was widespread discontent in the minority provinces where the feeling was strong that their culture and language had been suppressed. In Sindh the Sindhi language had been a compulsory subject of study in educational institutions for a long time. It had been discontinued by the verbal orders of the martial law authorities.

Hence, many sensible Urdu speakers with political foresight condemned the reaction of their chauvinist compatriots and a compromise formula was found as enshrined in the Language Act. Sindhi was recognized as the provincial language of Sindh and Urdu and Sindhi were to be taught as compulsory subjects of study in classes IV to XII. No timeframe was laid down for the introduction of Sindhi which was to be “by stages”.

Thus the process of transition to Sindhi was started and by the mid-eighties all Urdu speakers appearing for their Matriculation examination studied ‘salees’ (easy) Sindhi in class IV to class X. The matter was not pursued at the college level where the nationalization of colleges had thrown this sector into turmoil.

It was only in July this year that the Sindh Professors and Lecturers Association (SPLA) called for among other things the teaching of Sindhi in colleges as provided by the Language Act. The matter was referred to the ministry of education’s curriculum wing in Islamabad which sets the course of study for the provinces — from the primary to the college level. This in itself is an example of excessive centralization in our system where even a matter such as what a child is to study in a remote village in Tharparkar is determined by Islamabad.

On September 27 the ministry of education notified the scheme of studies for the Higher Secondary School Certificate which the Sindh education and literacy department was “pleased to adopt”. Under this notification, the Sindhi-speaking students were to study salees Urdu (100 marks) in class XI and Sindhi compulsory (100 marks) in class XII. The Urdu speakers would study salees Sindhi (100 marks) in class XI and Urdu compulsory (100 marks) in class XII. Previously everybody had been studying Urdu compulsory (200 marks).

As nothing is extraordinary for the education department functionaries, the notification was issued after the classes had begun and there was no arrangement for books and teachers for salees Sindhi. That gave the college principals cold feet and they resisted the move. The SPLA also changed its mind. There was a flurry of notifications making changes and a verbal announcement before the chief minister took off for his spiritual mission to Makkah for umrah. The matter has been left in the limbo.

There are two dimensions of this matter. One is the administrative and academic aspect. Can arrangements be made overnight to teach a subject for which it is estimated only Karachi would need over 150 teachers?

The second question is whether Sindhi should be taught compulsorily at the college level. Some even question the wisdom of teaching Sindhi to all Urdu speakers.

The administrative aspect needs to be considered with an eye on the practicalities involved. It is plain that for the decision to be implemented smoothly and efficiently, more time, planning and organization must go into it. There are indications that the implementation may be put off for a year or two to give the college principals some time to work out the arrangements. It would also make sense if the language marks are not counted for students seeking admission in professional colleges where competition is tough. More worrying is the controversy surrounding the learning of Sindhi. A lot of hot air is being blown around by both sides. The nationalists and the regional press feel that Sindhi is under attack. The Urdu speakers have set up the Urdu Bachchao Tehreek which has taken up cudgels on their behalf. How the teaching of Sindhi would undermine Urdu is not clear at all. All this is unnecessarily politicizing the language issue which is an unfortunate development. At this stage, we can hardly afford a new controversy when so many disputes (water sharing, building of dams, distribution of financial assets and so on) are already on the cards.

If we are to promote social, political and cultural harmony in the province, it is essential that all Urdu speakers should learn Sindhi. Given their substantial presence in Sindh and their concentration in Karachi and other urban centres, they manage quite well without learning Sindhi. But justice and fairness demand that they must learn the indigenous tongue of the province they have moved to. Sindhi is a highly developed language with a literature of its own.

Some of the arguments that have been advanced against the learning of Sindhi are ridiculous. A child acquires language skills either by the natural process (by imbibing it from his surroundings) or through formal teaching. Children are known to pick up three or four languages simultaneously if their parents are bilingual and a servant speaks another language. But the mind is open to this process only till the age of four/five.

But when it comes to formal teaching of languages, experts are of the opinion that until the age of nine or 10 a child must be taught in his mother tongue — the language he speaks at home. A very highly qualified Montessori trainer, the only one in Pakistan qualified in the field from the AMI, Amsterdam, Farida Akbar, insists that it affects the development of a child’s mind if his early education is not in his mother tongue. Once the foundation of the language skills in the mother tongue has been laid, other languages can be introduced gradually in formal teaching and they will not burden a child. Sindhi for Urdu speakers in class IV, when a child is about nine years of age, should, therefore, pose no problem at all.

After all the teaching of Sindhi to students appearing for their Matriculation examination has found acceptance. The only problem that needs to be brought to the attention of the policymakers is the poor standards of the teachers. The fact is that all language teachers — Urdu, English and Sindhi — are ruining the communication skills of our children who do not learn to express themselves correctly in any language even after 10 years of schooling. If Sindhi teachers are provided a crash course in teaching Sindhi with modern pedagogical methods they could make the Urdu speaking students fluent in Sindhi with ease. Thus the population of the province with its mixed ethnic composition would become truly bilingual. We failed to do that in East Pakistan and lost half the country. Language has a powerful emotive pull and language crises can be most lethal. States with a multi-ethnic population have learnt how to conciliate the different communities rather than polarize them on the language issue. Belgium where Flemish and French are spoken, Switzerland with German, French and Italian speakers and Canada where people speak English but the Quebeckers speak French are best examples of how different languages can be accommodated in one fold.