Language and Identity
Tariq Rahman has engagingly traced the history of the ‘upstart’ Urdu language, involving its gradual displacement of Persian from the middle of the nineteenth century to its blossoming as a ‘badge of identity, a mark of sophistication and refinement’ for elite Muslims. Its journey was to culminate in it being accorded the status of Pakistan’s national language, although at the time of independence only around 7% of the population spoke it as a mother tongue. The initial refusal to accord a similar status to Bengali, the language spoken by most Pakistanis in 1947, was a factor in the growing tensions between the country’s eastern and western wings.
From the 1900 foundation of the Urdu Defence Association onwards, Urdu was a major symbol of Muslim political identity in colonial India. The association owed its birth to the success of partisans of Hindi, securing its recognition alongside Urdu as an official language in the United Provinces (UP). Urdu had been adopted as the official language of UP in 1858, but Hindi language activists mounted increasingly vociferous public campaigns to change this government decision. Altogether 118 memorials signed by 67,000 persons submitted in favour of Hindi as the medium of instruction when the Commission on National Education sat in 1882. The Hindi-Urdu controversy really intensified, however, at the beginning of the next century, arising from the anti-Urdu stance of the Lieutenant Governor of the North-Western Provinces, Sir A.P. MacDonnell. During its course, both Urdu and Hindi became identified as the language of essentialized ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ religious communities. In this respect language advocacy intersected with the growing impact of socio-religious reform in North India.
Urdu was not only the mother tongue of the UP Muslim elite, but was spoken by members of the Muslim upper classes throughout India. The mass of the Muslim population, however, spoke a variety of other languages, with Punjabi and Bengali having the greatest number of users. The British had made Urdu, however, the official vernacular language in Punjab from 1854 onwards, thereby marginalizing the Punjabi mother tongue. The decision, partly taken for administrative convenience and resting on official prejudices against the ‘rustic’ Punjabi language, possessed profound long-term significance.
Attachment to Urdu became a key component of the Muslim separatist platform in colonial India. Nonetheless, Urdu has proved much less effective in promoting a national Pakistani identity than have regional languages in articulating ethnic identity. Centralization around one language has strengthened the role of regional languages in identity politics. This is especially marked in Sindh, where the language movement emerged in resistance to the local influx of Urdu-speaking Mohajirs as well as to the national domination by the ruling Mohajir and later Punjabi elites. It is present in most parts of Pakistan, although it is muted in Punjab, outside of its Seraiki-speaking belt. This arises from the colonial tradition of subsuming Punjabi to Urdu. It also reflects the fact that the Punjab has been the core of the Pakistan state. Influentials segments of its inhabitants have largely been prepared to eschew cultural nationalism in favour of physical control of state political and economic power.
The rapid social mobility arising from internal migration has certainly strengthened Urdu as a common lingua franca. The process has its limitations, however, because of the politicization of language in smaller provinces of Pakistan. Urdu itself became the focus of an ethnic identity, rather than of Pakistan nationalism with the emergence of a Mohajir political identity in urban Sindh early in the 1980s.
Sindhi has long been an important element in identity politics along with other community markers relating to dress (wearing of the ajrak shawl), poetry and Sufism. Indeed, it was Sufi poems (kafi) which helped to establish Sindhi linguistic traditions, despite their ancient origins. The nationalist politician and writer G.M. Syed drew on these ancient cultural traditions to support the demand for an independent Sindhi homeland, Sindhu Desh, in the 1970s, although the driving force of his separatist stance was the ‘Punjabi-‘ political domination. Syed had warned even in the early 1940s that Pakistan was likely to be a Punjabi-dominated state. There was considerable resentment the influx of Punjabi agriculturists following the completion of the Sukkur Barrage irrigation scheme in 1932. This was nothing compared with the flood of Urdu-speaking refugees from India in 1947.
During the colonial era, Sindhi was standardized in the Arabic script, formerly having also been written in Nagri and Gurumukhi. Since independence, Sindhi language activists have been engaged in clashes with the state. A strong sense of Sindhi cultural identity lay behind the resistance to the centralizing and Islamizing policies of Zia, as can be glimpsed in such poems as Naz Hamayooni’s ‘Love for Homeland’. G.M. Syed, despite his long-term resistance to the Pakistan state, stood aloof from this movement, however, in the main because of his hostility to the PPP. Ironically, Karachi’s Urdu-speakers celebrated the veteran Sindhi nationalist 81st birthday in January 1984.
Pashto from the colonial era onwards has become an important component of Pakhtun ethnic identity, although before this Persian was the ‘language of sophisticated discourse’ and the moral code of Pakhtunwali undergirded identity. The British imposition of Urdu as the official vernacular language encouraged the promotion of Pashto as a symbol of anti-colonial resistance by Red Shirt movement of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Whilst the use of Pashto thereafter became central to the Pakhtun identity, along with Pakhtunwali and Islam, it met with resistance from both Hindko-speaking Muslims and the Hindu-Sikh population. The Pakistan state viewed Pashto with similar suspicion as did their colonial forebears, because of Afghanistan’s irredentist claims and the Afghan state’s promotion of Pashto over Dari as symbol of Pakhtun domination. During the 1950s and 1960s, the issue of Pashto was central to the aspirations of Pakhtunistan secessionists. More recently, the integration of Pakhtuns into the Pakistan state has seen the rise in Urdu use, although Pashto retains its symbolic significance in identity politics and demands for greater autonomy, which culminated in the renaming of the North West Frontier Province as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Tribal social structures have been more important in framing Baloch political identity than language, as Balochistan’s multilingualism has limited such possibilities. Its linguistic mix resulted not only from the presence of a sizeable Pashto-speaking Pakhtun population in such areas as Sibi, Zhob and Pishin, but also from the prevalence of a Brahvi-speaking Baloch ethnic group. Indeed, the Khan of Kalat’s family were Brahvi-speaking, but inspite of this Baloch nationalists have looked to Mir Nisar Khan, who had forged the Kalat state in the second half of the eighteenth century, as an inspiration for independent statehood. Seraiki-speaking tribes such as the Jamalis also identify themselves as Baloch. Urdu was the recognised vernacular language of the British administered Balochistan. Since independence, the Pakistan state has promoted Urdu as a vehicle for national integration. Its prevalence among the Baloch elite, the underdeveloped nature of Balochi as a written language and the divide between it and Brahvi have led to tribal loyalties and economic and political grievances, rather than language driving nationalist resistance to the Pakistan state.
Modernising states’ reactions to ‘sub-national’ political identities based on ethnicity, language and religion have been a major factor in encouraging authoritarianism not only in South Asia but throughout the developing world. Superficially, Pakistan’s limited range of politically-conscious ethnic groups in comparison with India’s appear less of a threat to democratic consolidation. A number of scholars have argued conversely, however, that India’s complex ethnic structure has worked as an enabling factor for democracy by for example preventing the state from being captured by a single dominant ethnic group.
In any other region of the world, a state of Pakistan’s size with a population of around 175 million, an army of around 500,000 and a GDP of over $160 billion would be a significant power. India, however, with its 1 billion plus population, 1 million of which are in arms, and GDP eight times higher than Pakistan’s, dwarfs it and in doing so perpetuates the sense of insecurity which has dogged Pakistan’s history.
While Pakistan cannot match India’s size, military and economic might, its population and economy have grown rapidly since 1947. According to the 1951 census the population for what now includes Bangladesh as well as Pakistan was just 73 million. Today’s truncated Pakistan, with an estimated population of 185 million, is the sixth largest country in the world in terms of its population. The rate of increase is still around 2.2% per annum; this compares with 1.4% and 0.6% respectively for its Indian and Chinese neighbours. Around half of Pakistan’s people are under the age of 15. Some estimates put the population under the age of 25 as high as 100 million, making this one of the largest youth populations in the world. This youthful dynamism is a factor in the state’s resilience. The youth bulge could either prove a demographic dividend, helping to drive forward economic growth, or it could prove to be a time-bomb, if the state is unable to educate and utilize it.
Rapid population has been a contributory factor to Pakistan’s poor achievements in educational provision for its citizens, although they are primarily a result of the state’s historically low tax levels and the privileging of defence expenditure over that on both health and education. Literacy stands at around 55% of the population, although this masks significant regional and gender imbalances. Only around a third of adult women are literate, while little more than a fifth participate in the labour force. Women made up only 10.96 million out of a total labour force 51.78 million in 2007-8. Pakistan in 2007-8 stood 125 out of 138 countries in terms of the Gender-related Development Index, and ranked 82 out of 93 in the Gender Empowerment Measure. The following year, the increasing security crisis in the Malakand division and parts of the NWFP kept girls especially from education. According to one report perhaps as many as 80,000 girls in Swat were deprived of education. Scandalously high rates of female illiteracy in the more conservative areas of Pakistan such as the Frontier and the Tribal Areas (with just 18% female literacy in the former and 3% in the latter) have exacerbated the failures of half-hearted government programmes of family planning. A recent report revealed that only 18% of the women in the countryside use the modern method of family planning. Around 200,000 women are admitted to hospital each year because of unsafe abortions, at a conservatively estimated cost of $22 million. A dramatic expansion of female education is essential, not only in terms of addressing gender inequalities, but because if its historical connection with the slowing of population increase. Bangladesh’s better record than Pakistan in reducing fertility rates is directly attributable not only to its more effective family planning policies, which have been largely provided by NGO (in Pakistan they account for around 13% of family planning services), but to its policies designed to educate and economically empower women. According to some accounts, there is a gap of 25% between the demand and supply of contraceptive services in Pakistan. Its consequences are revealed by the slow pace in the decline if fertility and the chilling statistic that 1 in 7 pregnancies end in induced abortion.
Population growth continuing at its current rate of over 2% per annum could in future reach crisis proportions. Some demographers project that this will result in a population of around 335 million by the mid twenty-first century, this would make Pakistan the fourth populous country in the world. More immediate high levels of population increase poverty in the absence of policies of economic redistribution; around 1 in 5 Pakistanis continue to live beneath the poverty line. About 60% of Pakistan’s population subsist on less than $2 a day.
There are again marked regional differences in this exposure to poverty, with the poorest populations being found in the Tribal Areas, the interior of Sindh and Balochistan. It is significant to note that the areas which were most developed in the colonial era have retained their advantage since independence. There are parallels with India with respect to the former Princely States, in that there were pockets of deep poverty in some of the Princely States which acceded, while other states were ‘progressive’ (e.g. Mysore in the Indian context) and had similar standards of living to those of neighbouring British India districts. Khairpur and Bahawalpur were the most developed states that acceded to Pakistan, as they shared in the irrigation (the Sutlej Valley Project) and communication developments of the adjacent British provinces. The Frontier Princely States of Amb, Chitral and Dir lagged far behind the settled districts of the Frontier. Swat had a literacy rate of just 1.75% in 1951. Education was banned by the Nawab of Dir in case it undermined his autocratic rule by which he owned all the land in his state. However, the Balochistan states with their poor communications and nomadic inhabitants were the most backward of all the states that acceded to Pakistan. Kharan and Lasbela had only one middle school each for boys by 1949. The disparity of socio-economic development between the Princely States and the former British provinces, together with their strategic location, complicated their integration in Pakistan. With the notable exception of Kalat, extremely low levels of political consciousness accompanied the poor social development indicators.
Even in the most prosperous areas of Pakistan such as the Punjab, the rural areas lag behind their urban counterparts. The absence of amenities and life chances in rural Pakistan has contributed to another marked feature of the country’s economic profile: that of high levels of migration. Rural-urban migration has resulted in Karachi and to a lesser extent Lahore as emerging mega cities. Future migration trends will increase their size and those of other urban combinations, so that by 2030 it is estimated that half of the population will live in urban centres. Nonetheless, Pakistan continues at present to have a large rural population. Agriculture still accounts for around 20% of the annual GDP and provides employment for over 40% of the country’s labour force. The extensive production of rice and wheat is possible because of the existence of one of the largest irrigation networks in the world, which waters around 16 million hectares of land.
Pakistan is a society on the move. Its birth was accompanied by by the Partition of the subcontinent and the division of the two Muslim major priory provinces of Punjab and Bengal. The Partition-related violence sparked the largest uprooting people in the twentieth century. While the two way transfer of 9 million Punjabis in the short period of August-December 1947 forms the iconic representation of this upheaval, migration of Muslims into Sindh continued well into the1950s. By 1951, the Urdu-speaking UP migrants (mohajirs) numbered around 50% of Karachi’s population. The creation of a UP Urdu speaking enclave in the sands if Sindh was to have profound consequences for Pakistan’s politics. The cultural and political assimilation of Punjabi-speaking migrants, unlike their Urdu counterparts in Sindh, has obscured the fact that the greatest number of migrants from India (over 5 million) came from East Punjab. They settled on the agricultural land abandoned by the outgoing Sikh farmers in the Canal Colony areas and in the towns and cities of West Punjab, where they frequently accounted for over 50% of the population. The Punjabi migrants have formed a constituency for Islamists and extremist sectarian movements as well as for the mainstream factions of e Muslim League. They are also staunch upholders of the Kashmir cause, reflecting the fact that there was not only a significant influx of Kashmiri refugees into Pakistan in 1947, but the experiences of upheaval by ethnic Punjabis led them to an anti-Indian stance. The Punjabi refugee element in Pakistan’s politics has been overlooked, but in fact has formed another of the longer-term shaping factors which are not always recognized in contemporary security driven analyses.
Since independence, internal migration has formed an important feature of Pakistan’s experience and helped shape its political developments. There has been outright rural-urban migration, but also movement from countryside to small towns, sometimes as a staging post in the migration process, while the overall population increased by 250% in the period 1947-81, urban population growth was close to 400%. Karachi’s population had risen from under half a million in 1947 to 13 million in 2007. Lahore’s population stood at 5 million, with six other cities having a population of over 1 million. By 2025 it is projected that Pakistan’s urban population will total over 100 million, with Karachi and Lahore, both forming mega-cities of around 19 and 10 million respectively. The presence of large migrant communities in towns and cities has sustained outlooks and community networks from the rural setting rather than resulting in the emergence of a new ‘modern’ urban class. Small towns especially represent more of a village environment than is expected by the Western conception of an urban society. The migration of Pakhtuns throughout Pakistan, alongside the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, may be seen as a factor in introducing tribal cultural mores and norms into a growing ‘orthodox’ expression of Islam.
It is impossible to understand Karachi’s political turmoil in the 1990s (which by 2010 had shown dangerous signs of resurgence) without acknowledging the fact that this is not only the city of Indian migrants (mohajirs) but is the third largest Pakhtun city in the world and has a greater Baloch population than Quetta. Ethnic struggles for power and control over resources, in which criminal mafias play a role, have been contributory factors in the city’s reputation for violence. While Karachi is the melting pot par excellence, no area of Pakistan is homogenous, although provincial politics are frequently discussed in these terms. Around 40% of e population of Balochistan is, for example Pakhtun. There are significant Kashmiri populations in such Punjabi cities as Lahore and Sialkot. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan brought an influx of 3 million Afghans. Internal displacement of populations has been a feature of the military operations in the Tribal Areas. Indeed one aspect behind the resurgence of violence in Karachi in 2010 was the growing number of Pakhtuns who had moved to the city from the Tribal Areas. Alongside economic migrants and victims of military conflict, the natural disaster of the 2010 floods was another factor in internal displacement. Finally, there is little reported movement of perhaps as many 100,000 Punjabi settlers from Balochistan as a result of the growing number of targeted killings of Punjabis in the current phase of insurgency in the province.
Overseas migration has also impacted both on Pakistan’s economy and its international image. During the colonial era there was considerable migration from the Punjab future heartland of Pakistan; this included Muslim Rajputs from the poorer northern areas of the province as well as Sikh Jats from its central districts. Military service was a common feature for both areas, providing exposure to lands well beyond the native home (Desh) and creating a culture of international migration. There was also a tradition of migration from the Sylhet region of Assam ( now part of Bangladesh) based on the poorer sections of its population turning to careers as lascars (sailors) which led them to life overseas. Independence continued the earlier pattern of migration in that most international migrations were from Punjab and East Bengal. One discontinuity was provided by the push to overseas migration for the population of Mirpur in Azad Kashmir, following the displacement created by the construction of the Mangla Dam.
North America, Europe and the UK were the main centres of permanent migration, although large number of workers also moved for short-term contracts to the Middle-East from the 1970s and 1980s. This has undoubtedly increased the size and scale of middle-class wealth in Pakistan. The psychological reactions arising from the frustrations of newly enriched returnees has been dubbed the Dubai chalo (Let’s go to Dubai) theme in Pakistani society. Overseas Pakistanis in UAE and Saudi Arabia provide the largest inflows of remittances. In the period July 2010 to January 2011, for example, almost half of the $5.3 billion in remittances came from Pakistanis in these two areas.
However, Pakistanis living permanently in the West also provide large sums for their homeland’s foreign exchange reserves. The cultural impact of overseas migration is much less quantifiable than its economic consequences. The growing religious orthodoxy coincided with the increase of labour migration to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Assessments of the ‘Arabization’ of Pakistani Islam tend to focus on the Saudi export of Wahhabism in the political context of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In doing so, they overlook the influence of growing numbers of migrant oil and construction workers who returned home to Pakistan,not only with increased prosperity, but commitment to a scriptural Islam in opposition to popular ‘folk Islam’.
The UK received the largest number of migrants, with the 2001 Census revealing a population of over 1 million persons with Pakistani or Bangladeshi origins. The growing South Asian diaspora in the US from 1965 onwards was dominated by Indian migrants, although there also the emergence of a professional Pakistani class, comprising engineers, academics, and especially medical practitioners. The size of the Pakistani population in the US is disputed, as US Census figures which put it around 200,000 do not include college students or second and third generation members, if they are accounted the numbers can increase to 700,000. While the Pakistani diaspora has not played a pivotal role in national politics as have, for example, overseas Tamils through their support for LTTE, all parties have overseas branches. London and Dubai were twin poles of the PPP during the years of exile of its leader Benazir Bhutto. London has also been the residence of Baloch nationalists. The MQM is run by Altaf Hussain from its London Secretariat. Former President Musharraf launched his All Pakistan Muslim League in London at the beginning of October 2010. Within the UK, , Birmingham because of its large diaspora community is another centre of intense political activity.
The diaspora represents an important economic resource through remittances, support for the major parties and for humanitarian aid, as at the time of the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods. The US community is the wealthiest Pakistani diaspora and provides the most in remittances (around $1.73 billion p.a.by 2007-8). Indeed periods of Pakistan’s rapid economic growth in the early 1980 and again two decades later appear to have been driven in part by overseas remittances which increased consumer demand for housing and transport. The involvement in the 7 July 2005 London bombings of the British-born young Muslims of Pakistani descent who had visited radical mosques in Pakistan, followed by the failed Times Square bombing in New York in May 2010, represented a more disturbing element in the ongoing diaspora-homeland connection. Further evidence came from the fact that the grey-bearded Swat Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, was a returned former painter and decorator from the Boston area.