Politics of language

February 17, 2019

To promote mother languages means to use them as venues for mutual understanding and human emancipation, and not for hegemonic designs, exploitation and otherisation. An interesting case of Pashto understood through the binary of Pakistaniat and Afghaniat

Politics of language

As February 21 draws near, great passion and commitment with respect to preservation and promotion of mother languages can be seen in certain sections of every society. Some of them might also feel marginalised. However, there is an overall consciousness about the importance of mother tongue from ethno-national, cultural and heritage viewpoints.

Of course, such cultural idealism is appreciable. Still, in the name of service, certain thoughts and patterns of domination and rivalry also work. It can be both in the context of inter-state relations and at parochial levels, such as conflicts between different language groups in a single locality.

In this article, an interesting case is presented about the politics of Pashto, also called Pukhto/Pakhto, language.

Pashto is a language, having so many regional variations, which is spoken by millions of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A considerable Pashto speaking diaspora is also found across the world. It has been since the beginning of the last century that Pashtun nationalism actualised and narrativised itself through Pashto. Khudai Khidmatgars, the movement led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka Bacha Khan, played a singularly crucial role in this connection. The creation of Pakistan added a new dimension to the politics around Pashto language and culture.

Pashto became almost a stigma in the early years of Pakistan. One of the reasons was the Khudai Khidmatgars’ association with the Congress and not with the Muslim League. However, the official position, on the surface, turned to soften soon -- it is obvious from the establishment of Pukhto Academy at the University of Peshawar in 1955. The academy works parallel to such institutions on the Afghan side of the Durand Line.

The Pukhto Academy was envisaged as a service to Pashto language and Pashtun culture through research and publication. The same has been true regarding the Pashto Academy in Afghanistan. The Peshawar Pukhto Academy has been working in a network of workable relationship with Pakistan Academy of Letters, Lok Virsa and institutions dedicated to the promotion of Sindhi, Punjabi and Balochi. Its counterpart in Kabul was a section in the combined Afghan Academy, established in 1967. The Afghan Academy also include[d] the Historical Society of Afghanistan; the Ariana Encyclopaedia Department; the Book Publishing Institute; the Public Libraries Department and the Press Awards Bureau. The Afghan Academy worked in the framework of the Ministry of Information and Culture (L. Dupree, Afghanistan, 1973). A reference may also be made to the Kabul Literary Society which also had similar goals to pursue: to study and clarify Afghan historical heritage; to study and promote Afghan literature and folklore; to engender and promote the Pashto language, and to spread knowledge about Afghanistan and its culture.

There is no denying that Maulana Abdul Qadir, the Aligarh University graduate and the first director of Pukhto Academy, has to his credit commendable efforts and services concerning the establishment of the Academy. His pioneering research activities about Pashto language and literature defined the future course of action for the Academy. In spite of all this, I would argue that the great literary and scholarly environment of the time, primarily due to the renaissance ushered in by Khudai Khidmatgars, had made the work easier.

The political context of Pashto scholarship on both sides of the Durand Line was much more complicated during the later twentieth century. It is common sense to invoke the creation of Pakistan and the attendant issues of Pashtunistan/Pukhtunistan and Afghanistan’s irredentist claims. No doubt, all this played havoc with Pashto language and literature and Pashtun literati in Pakistan. To publish in Pashto was tantamount to treachery and disloyalty to the newly-found state.

This situation, nevertheless, took an important twist soon. Some Pashtun intellectuals and scholars thought why not to embed Pashto into the institutional apparatus of Pakistan. A lukewarm response from the state could not be politically expedient for long.

Pashto became almost a stigma in the early years of Pakistan. One of the reasons was the Khudai Khidmatgars’ association with the Congress and not with the Muslim League.

On the Afghan side, the scene was also dominated by identity construction through history and language. Since the 1920s, archaeological evidence was used to add further depth to Afghan national antiquity. The concepts of Ariana and Khurasan were designed to apply them to the pre-Islamic and medieval Afghanistan respectively. Both were seen as not only covering modern Afghanistan but also parts of northern Indo-Pakistan. These efforts seem to have had the twin aims of irredentism with respect to the Durand Line and resistance to historical Persian cultural hegemony. Great ideologues in this context are Abdul Hai Habibi, Sadiqullah Rishtin, Qiyam-ud-Din Khadim, Abd al-Rauf Benawa and many more. Others who worked in the field of Afghan historiography, especially in Persian, are Ahmad Ali Kuhzad, Fayz Muhammad Katib, Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghubar, Aziz al-Din Wakili Pupalzai etc.

The services which both the academies have so far provided for Pashto language and literature and Pashtun culture and history are obvious to all. Many classic Pashto books such as Khair-ul-Bayan of Bayazid Ansari, Tawarikh-i-Hafiz Rahmat Khanii of Pir Muazzam Shah, numerous diwans of classical poets and so on have been re/discovered and published by Pakistani Pashtun scholars. Furthermore, researches on cultural, literary and historical themes have been done and published. This work is matched by the scholastic pursuits in Afghanistan. Needless to say, state sponsored institutions cannot afford to be indifferent to national and political demands. So is the scenario of Pashto scholarship both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While the role of the Afghan institutions has recently been critically investigated by various scholars in Afghan History Through Afghan Eyes (edited by Nile Green, 2015), the Pukhto Academy Peshawar is yet to be seen in a similar way. It was viewed as a counterpoise to the Afghan claims in relation to Pashto, Pashtuns and Pashtunwali. Let me substantiate this claim with two types of primary data.

First, it is clear from correspondence between well-known Pakistani academic, Prof. Ahmad Hasan Dani, and the Ministry of Education on the one hand and Dani and the authorities of Pukhto Academy on the other. All this happened in the UNESCO framework for the study of the civilisations of Central Asia in the early latter half of the 20th century. The geographical scope of Central Asia was so defined as to include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia and the then Soviet Central Asia. The scheme aimed at sponsoring various educational and research programmes such as seminar/conferences, publications, fieldworks, etc. One of its mega projects was to produce a comprehensive book -- comprising many volumes and covering a chronological span from prehistoric to modern times -- on the civilisations of Central Asia. And it ended up in what is now History of Civilizations of Central Asia (multiple volumes).

As regards Pashto, two proposals were on the agenda of the meeting of the Consultative Committee of the International Association for the Study of Central Asian Civilisations in 1976. They dealt with the study of Pashto in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan representative spoke for an International Centre for Pashto in Kabul. Dani, as he was representing Pakistan and had already been briefed by the Ministry of Education, objected to the word international. The controversy was, however, resolved by deciding that there should be a Centre for Pashto in Kabul and a Pashto Academy in Peshawar.

It is important to note how Dani tried to expediently represent Pakistani viewpoint on the occasion. The Pukhto Academy meant, he argued, "to give full justice to the language of our ten million people who speak it just in the same fashion as other regional languages like Sindhi, Balochi and Punjabi have their own academies and have done useful works in their own fields." He explained that besides being a degree awarding body -- Honours, MA and PhD -- the Academy was busy in collecting and publishing Pashto manuscripts. The word ‘international’ from the proposed Afghan institution was, thus, expunged.

On his return, Dani told the ministry that the Pashto Centre at Kabul had made a great breakthrough while the Pukhto Academy had not come forward with solid achievements. In this respect, he had also been in contact with the director of the academy, Pareshan Khattak.

Second, Pukhto Academy, as already shown, was founded on the premise of serving Pashto language and literature within the state of Pakistan. By implication, successful representations of Pakistan against the backdrop of Muslim identity and pan-Islamism were to be made. All this was actually done. In particular, I would like to refer to two works of one of the former Directors of the Academy, Syed Rasool Rasa. His book Armaghan-i-Khushal presents an absolute example of a discourse seeking Pakistanisation of Pakhtuns. He has gone to the extent of actually declaring Khushal Khan Khattak as a poet of Pakistan. The philosophy of Khushal and Iqbal was compared and interpreted as an Islamic response to the respective political affairs of their times. The work seems to be a tacit, nay open, condemnation of ethno-national politics of Pashtuns.

Rasa’s second poetic work Da Quran Pegham (The Message of Quran) is written in the style of Altaf Hussain Hali’s Musaddas and Iqbal’s Shikwa/Jawab-i-Shikwa. It is nothing short of systematic efforts towards integrating Pashtuns into the pan-Islamic agenda. A number of other books, such as written by Faqir Muhammad Abbas and others, in this context, can be mentioned as well.

The situation since the turn of the 21st century seems more complex. It is difficult to understand it in terms of binary opposites, Pakistaniat and Afghaniat. It seems that such ideologues and their socio-political patrons have exhausted their resources imprudently. Moreover, populous, majoritarian and chauvinistic politics, and as such similar identities, no more matter in an age characterised by a bitter experiential memory, cynicism and uncertainties.

We stand in sheer need of inclusive philosophies both in relation to our present, future and past. We should not let anyone exploit us in the name of ‘Indus land/man’, ‘Hindutva’, ‘Ariana/Khurasan’ or other such pure utopian pan-brotherhoods. Let us believe in what is our shared humanity and shared heritage. Let us remind ourselves on the occasion of February 21 this year that to respect and promote mother languages means to use them as venues for mutual understanding and human emancipation. Using them for hegemonic designs, exploitation, otherisation and domination is, no doubt, sacrilege.

Politics of language