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Neighbour's Language

Language, Education and Culture by Tariq Rahman; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1999.

Lnguage planning was among the many dreams of nation-building that post-colonial societies like India and Pakistan pursued with remarkable hope and confidence. In the longest chapter of this book, Tariq Rahman explains what happened to that dream in Pakistan. For Urdu, which symbolised the idea of Pakistan itself, the responsibility to serve as an integrative force proved more complex than the first generation of nation-builders could have imagined. We can distinguish between two kinds of challenges that Urdu faced in Pakistan. One was the challenge of ethno-nationalist politics; the other was the challenge posed by the dominant status of English. Rahman tells us both stories with scholarly restraint and rigour. Language was one of the central issues that shaped the contradiction between East and West Pakistan. It is also a major issue in the ongoing politics of Sindhi identity. Rahman gives ample space to the hegemonic memoir of English and the battles it has enabled the civil-military elite to win.

The last major effort to give Urdu its politically appropriate status was made by Zia who declared in 1979 that the matriculate examination to be held 10 years later would be held exclusively in Urdu. It is a measure of the tenacity of English-medium elite schools that they forced the General to modify his order two years before the deadline. Thus, while Urdu served a key political objective during those eight years, English ultimately retained its status as the real integrative force behind elite-control in Pakistan’s multi-ethnic society. Education has been the central arena for both the politics of control and the politics of resistance. The ultimate issue in educational debates has been that supremely colonial concern for ‘medium’ of instruction and examination. Rahman throws ample light on the pathetic destiny of medium-related controversies though his own concern lies elsewhere – in the history and decline of higher education.

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