The Urdu Controversy

May 3, 2012 at 11:44
Wasio Abbasi
It is a well known fact that the integrity of any nation depends upon its people and how much they associate themselves to their country. When that integrity gets fractured or the people refrain from associating themselves with the country, it’s just a matter of time before the boundaries shift.
We saw that in the case of Soviet Union when few countries broke away to become independent nations, leaving behind economically weaker Russia. Pakistan is another case where its eastern-wing broke away to become Bangladesh.

Plenty of other countries have faced similar fate in recent or distant past. In recent history, only two nations were formed on the name of religion soon after World War 2; Israel for the Jews and Pakistan for the Muslims. Jews flocked from all over the world to the place where it now stands as Israel. There was no native Jew but plenty of Arabs (most of them Muslim) that now constitute Palestine. In essence, nearly all Jews of Israel are migrants from different parts of the world. To them the language that religiously binds them is Hebrew and common language that they use is mostly English (some use other languages as well like French, Italian or Spanish). The areas of serious conflict among them are next to none because everyone knows their place in the society, they are nearly all migrants and they already have severe hostile environment around them which keeps them on their toes. Nearly all other countries are based on their language or geographic characteristics – except Pakistan.
Pakistan is neither based on language nor on geographic characteristics. It is based on only one factor and that is the religion of Islam. At the time of creation the local Muslims of Pakistan were Punjabis from the province of Punjab, Sindhis from the province of Sindh, Pushtoons from the province of N.W.F.P (now Khayber Pakhtoonkhwa), Balochis from the province of Balochistan and Bangalis that comprised of the whole East Pakistan. The languages mostly spoken at that time were Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, Balochi and Saraiki.
After partition another language joined the ranks of most spoken languages – Urdu. The speakers of Urdu language were migrants from Central India who came to Pakistan for security, economical and religious reasons. The binding factor among the local Muslims and migrants was Islam, however Arabic language was never the binding force for communication. A very small part of population could speak in Arabic, the rest of the country spoke in other local languages.
Each segment of society had its own geographic value, language, culture and lifestyle. These segments all combined to become the state of Pakistan and they continue to be proud of their heritage. Migrants on the other hand brought a completely different culture to Pakistan which was foreign to the locals. The culture from central India was richer and language had seen tremendous growth in recent years, however the migrants formed a very small minority in the country.
The Punjabi migrants had settled in Punjab comfortably and so had Bengalis in East Pakistan but Urdu speaking migrants settled in some parts of Punjab and Bengal but majority headed to urban centers of Sindh. They mostly settled in Karachi and Hyderabad, effectively making these two prime cities of Sindh as their area of influence. Muslim League, the drive force behind the creation of Pakistan, was heavily dominated by Muslims from central India who were Urdu speakers. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, could hardly speak Urdu but he along with other members declared Urdu as the national language of Pakistan.
That became the first strike on the integrity of Pakistan.
Many people will disagree with me as so many have done over the years. The most common arguments I have heard in support of Urdu paint either Urdu speakers as tragic heroes of horrible tale or neglected child in need of greater consolation. These arguments usually are:
  • The migration card: Urdu speakers left their homes, lost families to brutal killers, travelled long distances with little food and water, sacrificed their lands and fortunes all for the sake of Pakistan. Since their sacrifices are the greatest, Urdu deserves to be the National language.
  • The minority card: Urdu speakers form minority in Pakistan and have no ethnic and geographic identity like other groups. Therefore Urdu should remain as National language so that Urdu speakers don’t feel neglected or left out.
  • The unity card: Since the state of Pakistan has many languages, declaring any of them as national language will lead to conflicts and great unrest in the country. We need a language that is not native in order to maintain peace among all the Pakistanis and Urdu is best choice.
  • The no-nonsense card: Quaid-E-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah declared Urdu as national language, bas baat khatam. No more nonsense against Urdu.
I came across too many people with these arguments and finally gave up. None of the above arguments are good enough justify keeping Urdu as the sole national language of Pakistan. All the progressive countries, and I really mean all, have either one or two languages at most for communication as well as education. They generate educational, business and every other related content in the local languages and keep one language for international communication (English in most cases).
For a country like India that has similar cultural structure as Pakistan, the easiest solution was to declare 15 languages as official languages of the country and greater autonomy to the provinces. This helped the provinces to develop on their own with people getting proficient in about 4 local languages and one international (usually English). They did their education in the primary language, learned their religious language if felt the inclination, went after English if decided to go abroad and learned one or two more local languages to communicate with Indians from other provinces.
In the case of Pakistan we have ONLY Urdu as national language that is primary language for less than 10% of the population. Our religious language is Arabic which no one bothers to learn. The primary languages of the rest of the Pakistanis have lost meaning since due to lack of provincial autonomy the education in their primary language is simply meaningless if they want to progress, they HAVE to be proficient in Urdu (a language completely foreign to them) if they want to progress within Pakistan and in English if they want to go abroad … and finding proper teachers for both these languages for whole of Pakistan is another nightmare better left untouched.
Some even say that it’s better to learn just Urdu in order to progress and not three or four languages like Indians. I say it is better to learn three or four languages because it will help us understand the people of our own country, their lifestyle and mindset and no one will resent Urdu as the language that was imposed on them and turning their own proud and ancient language useless in this modern era. You learn a lot about a person by conversing with them in their mother tongue and it gives an insight to their culture and lifestyle. I have not seen Urdu speakers ever caring to learn Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushto or Balochi, let alone trying to learn about their culture and lifestyle. In recent years their major obsession has become English which now has rendered their mother tongue useless. Neither any progress is taking place to add quality to Urdu nor new great writers or poets emerging; no great material is being translated … even the native speakers of Urdu now prefer to learn English at the expense of their mother tongue. This one language has not just rendered every other local language useless but also effectively hanged itself in the process.
Let me just explain how useless the earlier mentioned arguments are:


  • The migration card: Punjabis and Bengalis also left their homes and have equal or greater claim than Urdu speakers in many respects, both forming more than 70% of Pakistan’s population at the time of partition. Bengalis even fought for it and got Bengali as co-national language but they were resented for that and that small friction grew so large that ultimately East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. The difference was started BECAUSE of Urdu declared as national language.
  • The minority card: Feeling left out could be considered a factor at the time of partition but if even after 60 years of Independence the Urdu speakers would feel left out if Urdu is removed or does not remain the sole national language of Pakistan, then the question arise whether Urdu speakers truly settled in Pakistan. It simply means the Urdu speakers came here for benefits on the cost of indigenous population and are not willing to learn or understand the vary province they live in, let alone the rest of the country. If it is about being minority and having no ethnic geographic identity than the better choice would have been Arabic language. It is spoken by a very small minority, it is not native to Pakistan, it is our religious language so masses would have readily accepted it and it would have matched perfectly with Pakistan’s basic reason for creation, the religion of Islam.
  • The unity card: Again, if it is about being non-native in order to maintain harmony than a better language would have been Arabic. Again, it is not native to Pakistan, it’s our religious language, relates to the reason Pakistan was created and masses would have readily accepted it. Most of all, learning Arabic would have broken the power of Muslim clergy (i.e. Mullahs) who behave as sole protectors of Islam in Pakistan as common man would have been able to understand both Quran and Sunnah much better.
  • The no-nonsense card: If it is about Jinnah’s order than let us remember that Jinnah also wanted Pakistan to be secular and not Islamic Republic, that minorities should get equal rights to practice their religion and Karachi to be capital of Pakistan. Jinnah even had the national anthem prepared from a famous Hindu poet of Urdu language, Jagannath. Have we followed the other wishes/commands to the heart like Urdu one?


With so many differences caused just by declaring one language as national language at the expanse of all other native languages, 60 years worth of damage and a complete loss of land cannot be reversed. What can be done is to mend what can be mended and give a sense to unity in order to feel accepted. Recently Marvi Memon presented a bill to declare other local languages as National languages of Pakistan along with Urdu but it was rejected quite vehemently. It is hard to understand the reasons for such opposition despite glaring realities but some matters always remain unexplained.
In my childhood a tutor came to teach me and my neighbor Ahmed when we were 10 years old and during one session we were working on an Urdu lesson. I asked my friend to name areas where Urdu is spoken in Pakistan. After some hesitation he said Urdu is spoken in all of Pakistan to which I said wrong (the question was out of that lesson’s context anyway). Surprisingly it was the tutor who said that Ahmed is right and Urdu is spoken all over Pakistan.
Baffled, I said no one speaks Urdu in Larkana or even the village from where I belong. If I speak in Urdu there, hardly anyone would understand what I speak. The tutor simply rolled over my objection and sternly said “Urdu is spoken all over Pakistan, bas baat khatam”.
My only response was silence. Some people in Larkana may speak in Urdu (a sizeable Urdu speaking population settled in Larkana after partition) but as a child I have only seen Sindhi being spoken throughout interior Sindh and no other language. Even the Pathans and Balochis that have lived here for generations speak Sindhi. You take up interior Punjab and it is full of various dialects of Pubjabi, none of the speakers understanding a word of Urdu.
As explained in the book “Political Dynamics of Sindh: 1947 – 1977”, the partition of 1947 saw emigration of 943,000 Sindhis (Hindus and Sikhs) and influx of 1,167,000 Muslims from Central India to Sindh that mainly settled in the Urban centers of the province, particularly Karachi where nearly 1,046,825 settled directly while more shifted from interior Sindh at a later time.
The first language controversy sparked when provincial government of Sindh made it mandatory to pass an exam in Sindhi for government jobs in 1948. Urdu speakers retaliated by using authority of Federal government to make it mandatory to learn Urdu from grade 1 to Matriculation throughout Sindh (Karachi was capital in those days, completely under control of Federal Government that was fully dominated by Urdu speaking members of Muslim League who did not supported provincial autonomy as promised before the partition). This was especially imposed in Karachi and Hyderabad where Federal government and Urdu speakers had the most influence.
It clearly shows that the language conflict is as old as Pakistan itself and began during the lifetime of Jinnah who was unable to address it. In fact, many of the decisions taken by him in this regard actually complicated the matter and created a negative atmosphere. Jinnah, however, cannot be blamed for that. He was a man fighting illness that had nearly consumed him, he was fighting the fissures that were breaking the party apart, he was facing the Indians on the matter of Kashmir, he was facing the British in matters of governance, he was facing the US for financial and technological support and he was facing the pro-congress elements in Pakistan to make sure the new country survives its initial years. Moreover, he was a Barrister, not an educationist or graduate of social sciences to understand the implications of many pro-Urdu measures taken in and after his time.
Note: The purpose of this article is not about encouraging anti-Urdu or anti-Mohajir sentiments but to shed light on some of the problems Pakistan face related to Urdu’s enforced status as National language of Pakistan. The views of others would obviously differ and I respect that, however allow me to remind you that history itself has no emotion, just plain facts and logic. The article is written to enlighten the reader about a small part of Pakistan’s history.
Wasio Abbassi is m Business Graduate and currently pursuing MBA in Marketing hoping to be an academic and a scholar in future. Wasio is a sufi at heart, member of Students of Pakistan and a winner of Brit-Idol and Commonwealth essay competitions. He blogs at and Express Tribune.

Related Posts



Leave a reply




one + 8 =

%d bloggers like this: