War On Language Naziha Syed Ali

I was invited to take a look at a room full of dusty cartons filled with Balochi books, both poetry and prose. These had been returned by the eight bookshops in town spooked by raids carried out by the Frontier Corps over the last year to confiscate ‘subversive’ and ‘extremist literature’.

War on language


WHILE visiting Balochistan, one becomes aware of just how removed that province is from mainstream Pakistan. And it’s not only the obvious things – such as the dire lack of development, the air of oppression or the stories of enforced disappearances and dumped bodies. There’s also the more subtle issue of language.

According to Article 28 in the chapter on fundamental rights, the Constitution says: “… any section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture shall have the right to preserve and promote the same and subject to law, establish institutions for that purpose”. Most of the national conversation on this is centred on the fact that many private schools, at least in urban areas, do not teach the relevant provincial language in contravention of provincial laws to the effect.

In Turbat some weeks ago, I learnt that the situation is quite the opposite in Balochistan. This is the only province where government schools do not teach either Balochi or Brahui, the two most widely spoken native languages outside the Pakhtun-majority areas in the north of the province. Balochi is only taught in a few private schools here.

Public schools in Balochistan teach neither Balochi nor Brahui.
One of the most devastating weapons of repression employed by a state is the suppression of a native language.

History is replete with examples of forcible assimilation of a people in this manner. To exclude the teaching of a native language while imposing on its speakers the language of the dominant polity is exactly what it sounds like – an act of cultural warfare. Language is an inherent part of a people’s identity, the repository of their history and culture, a record of epic battles fought and of heroic exploits for its generations to emulate.

It could be argued that education is a provincial subject and that, if it so chose, the National Party-led government could take measures to address the issue, but in Balochistan’s case it is the establishment that has the final say in keeping with its ‘security imperatives’.

Is it any surprise then that at Turbat University, the most popular department by far is that of Balochi, an elective subject at this stage? Even though the faculty and students maintained that political discussions take place in the classroom, there can be no greater political statement than that. By the time they reach college-going age, many young Baloch are keenly aware of the establishment’s ‘special’ handling of their province.

Balochi itself is said to be remarkably rich especially in its poetic tradition. A senior faculty member at the university told me he had compiled a book of 1,000 Balochi proverbs originating in the western part of the province alone.

At the Balochistan Academy, also in Turbat, with its ill-stocked, rickety looking bookshelves, I was invited to take a look at a room full of dusty cartons filled with Balochi books, both poetry and prose. These had been returned by the eight bookshops in town spooked by raids carried out by the Frontier Corps over the last year to confiscate ‘subversive’ and ‘extremist literature’. (Similar raids were also carried out on bookshops in Gwadar city.) Most of the ‘objectionable’ material, however, was literary works of fiction in the native tongue.

Bookstores in the province’s Makran belt – where both Gwadar and Turbat are situated – don’t carry Balochi books since mid-2014. Works by Gandhi cannot be found here either. Ostensibly Gandhi elsewhere in Pakistan is kosher. And so apparently is printing Balochi books; the publishers in Karachi have not been harassed, picked up or beaten.

For the Academy, which places orders with Karachi-based publishers for Balochi books that it then sells to these bookshops, it means the suspension of an important source of income. The institute receives an annual grant of only Rs500,000 from the provincial government, far short of even basic requirements.

Most of the books for the Balochi curriculum taught in the private schools and language centres in Balochistan come from Karachi, printed under the aegis of the Zahoor Shah Hashmi reference library in the city. However, several language centres have closed down, particularly in areas where the army presence is high, such as Mashkay, and demand has been steadily declining. No orders have been placed for new books since two years.

The words of one of the library’s administrative staff are telling. Speaking about the teaching of Balochi in Balochistan he said: “We don’t have funds to ensure that classes are always held in a purpose built place. Sometimes someone volunteers their home, or we even sit under a tree. We nominate people who are responsible and whom we can trust to hold such classes and we send them the books.”

When the teaching of their native language is considered a subversive act, how can we expect an ordinary Baloch to feel anything other than alienation at the hands of the state?

The writer is a member of staff.

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Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2015

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