Photo by Hui Huan Tang/
Photo by Hui Huan Tang/

Until a quarter of a century ago the debate whether Urdu should be adopted as the medium of instruction or not would come up in conversations. Now rarely does one hear such arguments that used to take place at conferences, in newspapers and magazines and staffrooms of schools and colleges.

When in the 1960s, Dr Ishrat Hussain Usmani, the then president of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, deliberated on the issue in his presidential address during the fifth annual conference of the Scientific Society, he enlisted a number of reasons that, according to him, were preventing Urdu from becoming the medium of instruction for sciences. Though Dr Saleemuz Zaman Siddiqui, a world renowned scientist, had disagreed earlier and had favoured Urdu for the purpose, a large number of scientists concurred with Dr Usmani and the issue was later discussed even at a vice chancellors’ conference. Aftab Hasan, who was associated with Karachi University and was an ardent advocate of Urdu as the medium of instruction, vehemently opposed and wrote a booklet titled ‘Urdu zari’a-i-taaleem aur istelahaat’ (Urdu as a medium of instruction and terminology), dispelling the impression that Urdu lacked in that regard, citing the case of Usmania University of Hyderabad Deccan where all subjects were taught, including sciences, in Urdu about a century before the issue came up for discussion at the conference.

But gone are the days when Urdu was considered a symbol of our cultural heritage and national pride. Forget that Urdu is likely to become a medium of instruction in the foreseeable future, rather its status as a compulsory subject too is under threat. Now Urdu is becoming a stranger at the higher education institutions as teaching Urdu at the primary level is not taken seriously. Even those who teach Urdu are looked down upon at schools and as a result society now treats Urdu as something redundant.

Let me quote two separate incidents that show how our society looks at Urdu — the national language and the language that, according to the 1973 Constitution was to become the official language in 1988. The first incident took place at a government women’s college that had a shortage of lecturers. Hence, the principal asked the education department to fill the vacancies and post more lecturers at her college. When a teacher mentioned that the principal had forgotten to request for an Urdu teacher from the education department, the principal replied: “It’s not a problem, anybody can teach Urdu.” That’s how our educators think of Urdu, what to say of the man in the street.

In another episode, during the Musharraf era, the then federal education minister had openly said during a meeting that the Urdu Science Board (Lahore) had no justification to exist since nobody studied science in Urdu. The then director of the USB, present at the meeting, later informed this writer that the minister had expressed his reservations even over the existence of the Urdu Dictionary Board. Both organisations fell under the jurisdiction of the ex-military man running the education ministry and he was bent upon folding up these two organisations, though they had been promoting the cause of Urdu for long. I don’t know who dissuaded him, and how, from closing down these organisations (each of which consumed only a few million rupees every year from the ministry’s budget that ran into hundreds of billions), since hardly any mundane “civilian” in the land of the pure has any brains or a shred of patriotism, let alone convincing the men in uniform.

But we are reaping what we sowed in the early 1980s. Back then, the unchecked mushrooming of private schools prompted the entire education system to be converted to “English medium”. It was not something bad in itself, since learning English is necessary and not knowing English in today’s world means being deaf, dumb and blind, all at the same time. But the problem was that many of these so-called English medium schools hired teachers who knew only incorrect English, if at all. Even today you can see many signboards proudly advertising an English medium school, with glaring errors. One can only imagine the standard of education these schools are imparting. How can students poorly taught in the so-called English medium schools cope with the syllabi when they take admission to colleges, where the medium of instruction is English?

My personal experience is that even at the university level out of a class of, say, 35 students, hardly 10 can express themselves in correct English. And, since they take pride in being educated at an English-medium school or college, they announce arrogantly that their Urdu is very poor, as if not knowing Urdu is an additional qualification. As a result, the new graduates that the colleges and universities are churning out every year know neither Urdu nor English. I am sorry to say that most of them are semi-literates though they hold degrees. Most of them cannot grasp even the basics of the discipline they claim to have graduated in as one major stumbling block is language.

It is a fact that only those nations that use their own language as medium of instruction have been able to make any progress in the fields of science and commerce, be it China or Japan, Korea or Russia, Germany or France. By no stretch of imagination can one see a United States or United Kingdom school imparting knowledge in Urdu! But we teach our children to cram ‘Baa Baa black sheep have you any wool’, without bothering to understand what racial and imperial implications it has. Once this writer asked some primary schoolteachers what the meaning of ‘Baa’ was and, believe it or not, all he received was blank stares.

Shan-ul-Haq Haqqee, one of the greatest lexicographers and connoisseurs of the Urdu language, wrote way back in 1986 that “Urdu has forcibly been kept away from the fields of science and technology ... we do not have confidence in ourselves and our language ... it has been reduced to a status which has rendered it useful for culture and literature alone.” One is afraid that soon we will reach a stage where it will be of no more use for literature or culture even. The reason is that our educational institutions do not take Urdu seriously, though up to intermediate Urdu is a compulsory subject.

The reason why I have brought this issue up is that the Bazm-i-Asatiza-i-Urdu Sindh (BAUS), an organisation of Sindh’s teachers of Urdu, has been expressing its concern over the removal of Urdu as a compulsory subject from Karachi University’s syllabus of BCom. Urdu had remained a compulsory subject in BCom for over two decades but in the 1990s it was removed. According to the BAUS office-bearers, learning and knowing Urdu is a must for the students of BCom since all economic activity and even advertising requires a good knowledge of Urdu. They also say that 80 per cent students of BCom solve their question papers in Urdu since they do not have a good command of English and teaching them Urdu as a compulsory subject will definitely improve their prospects both in exams and job market.

Updated Jul 15, 2013 01:24pm

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Comments (30) (Closed)

Jul 15, 2013 02:50pm

Urdu is a complete language, according to the constitution of 1973, Urdu is an official language of the government, but here in Pakistan 0 percent implementation on the above rule. why these people in the government don't apply the above rule?

Jul 15, 2013 03:37pm

Education MUST be in English. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan highlighted the importance of English over 100 years ago. Most countries in the world are teaching their children English. China is trying to teach English to more than 100 Million children. Either they are stupid or we are?. I guess we all know the answer to this question. Please try and talk to engineers and doctors (and for that matter MBAs) recently qualified in their respective professions and ask them to speak English for 2 minutes on any topic of their choice and you would know what I am talking about. I have tried this.

Jul 15, 2013 05:23pm

One global and one local language, for every child. That is the norm all non English countries follow. The problem is only in Indian subcontinent, where there are multiple languages and one local language tries to impose itself on the others. This is exemplified in the form of imposition, and the resultant opposition to Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan. Both are fighting a loosing battle.

Jul 15, 2013 06:29pm

WE are a free nation by the name of ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF PAKISTAN, liable to enact any reasonable laws by the legislator for the community capable to receive. As regards Urdu as medium of instruction Pakistan must remember to avail of the best findings of modern science and technology available in English. On account of analyzing its own world leading centers of Science and Technology if Pakistan is capable of competing with the modern world far ahead of it; there is no hesitation to adopt URDU as medium of instruction. However as a national language all must be familiar with their national language. At present Pakistan needs to be content with what Sir Syed Ahmad Khan enunciated in a speech insisting students to be well versed in ENGLISH!
Jul 15, 2013 06:35pm

I thought Urdu is as alien to Pakistan as Sanskrit. Arabic should be made compulsory to ensure every person in Pakistan becomes truly Islamic. I wonder if Nadeem Bhai would agree with me.

Jul 15, 2013 06:54pm

As a multilingual country like Pakistan or India for practical reasons English should be the language of education, mother tongue should be encouraged to learn properly, Urdu which is not the mother tongue of many people should not be imposed by the name of religious sentiment.

Jul 15, 2013 07:02pm

Is Urdu a language? Or it is simplified Arabic for the inhabitants of Indus Valley? Urdu was popular amongst those migrating from India to Pakistan. Never saw Urdu as a language and it should not be imposed on people.

Jul 15, 2013 07:24pm

@Khalid: Germans don't teach in English. Neither to the French, nor the Italian nor even the Icelandic. Why our people are drowned in the inferiority complex?

Prakash Rao
Jul 15, 2013 07:39pm

I studied at Usmania University Hyderabad, where all subjects were taught in Urdu. We had a translation bureau on O\Usmania University campus where science and technology books were translated into Urdu and these books were adapted in educational institutions.

The only problem we faced was when we had to go to other Universities in India where English was the only medium of education we were lost, at least for some time.

Most of the books translated into Urdu, during the reign of Nizam of Hyderabad were initially adapted by Pakistan.

Even now Urdu is taught in some schools in Hyderabad and U.P but it is not a favoured language.


Jul 15, 2013 08:51pm

@Khalid: So then why there hasn't been any significant progress in our English-loving country? What are those Pakistan cum British doing? Singing English songs, Eh?

Jul 15, 2013 08:52pm

Pakistanis and Indians suffer from an extreme form of inferiority complex. They are shameless nations and will continue to remain such until they take pride in their culture and languages.

They believe that they rather speak bad and broken English, than admit knowledge of their mother tongues.

Here is an example of the shameful behavior: A minister in previous Sindh Government was begging some low level British sarkaari baabu at the British Council in Karachi to please, please, send us more funds so we can teach English to our students. Pakistanis are bhikaaris of the highest order and will remain so for a long time.

I. Ahmed
Jul 15, 2013 08:53pm

Even in Universities that are English medium, teachers mostly try to explain concepts in Urdu and only use English for key terminology. True, China was focusing education on local language - but as education is expanding in China the challenge of over 50 indigenous languages mean they are slowly moving towards English as medium of instruction. Then there is a case of India, where medium of instruction is predominantly English and they have done very well academically over last 30 years. The challenge for country like Pakistan is different. After nearly 7 decades of independence we have yet to figure out the system we want to be governed by?We were created in the name of Islam, majority of the people pray regularly but do all of them know what they are saying in Arabic during prayers? We have/had rich culture from Karachi to Khyber, but do we promote them? Honestly, we are where we are because generally we don’t care about anything - rather than language our attitudes need to change!

Sayyar Khan
Jul 15, 2013 09:23pm

Urdu should not be the National language. Students should have option either to read urdu or there own Mother tongue in schools. Students should be taught Pahsto, Punjabi , Sindhi , Baluchi or any language they prefer. English should be official language and main subjects should be taught in English.

A. Vetta
Jul 15, 2013 09:40pm

Obviously, Mr Parekh is not a scientist. If he were he would know that the scientific field is changing rapidly. Pick up an issue of the two foremost scientific journals, Nature (UK) and Science (USA) and there is a galore of Indian, Chinese, Japanese and even Korean names. English today is the universal language. Its sister, Hinglish is reputed to be spoken by the largest number of humans in the world. Urdu, like English, is also changing. In my Vernacular Final examination in 1945, Ghalib’s poem “Dil hi tao hai” was offered to the candidates for simple translation. I do not know if the 12-13 years olds in Pakistan today can understand and translate Ghalib. Now, whereas I appreciate and enjoy many Urdu poems, I find it difficult to read the Pak Urdu newspapers. The reason is that both in language and writing, Urdu is being Arabised. Many Pakistanis may regard it to be ‘good’ and I would disagree with them. I think the Urdu of pre-partition days could have a future if both Indian and Pakistani writers modernise it by introducing Hinglish words instead of Arabic words. Incidentally, I also learned Farsi, Hindi and Gurmukhi.

Sami Qureshi
Jul 15, 2013 10:06pm

It is ridiculous to read such articles in Pakistani newspapers where people have already divided in different segments and antagonism prevails in its very core of its political atmosphere, because such cotroversies have no remedies at all, for at least a few decades to pass. Urdu or Hindi is a North Indian language which is widely spoken from Jalludhar to Kolkata in different accent . The origin of Urdu/Hindi and the regional languages spoken in different Northern areas of India is the same and closely related to each other. Thus they have no problems like Pakistan where a coglomeration of languages made it difficult for the masses to collaborate with each other through a single language. The origin of Brahvi and Baluchi is not Indic. Pashto, Chitrali, Dari, Shina and Balti have different ancestors than the Panjabi, Gojri and Saraiki. Their grammer is different despite having the same back ground of Sanskrit. Sindhi is more linked to the Gujrati. Which language you want to impose as the National Language of Pakistan? None of them. The Quaid declared Urdu in The Eastern wing, where, ironically, none understood urdu. Ayub Khan once delivered a speech in Punjabi at Lahore that was vehemently opposed by the Punjabis themselves. Ziaul Huq, on the other hand made a tamasha of the teaching medium by aspiring to introduce Arabic throughout Pakistan. English was the only language which could be introduced to start with. But it was only possible if had been implemented at the time of the creation of Pakistan. If it is implemented now then a century is required to get the final result. As we know, our graduates qualifying from our universities can not even write a correct sentence in English. This sort of national crisis is not solved through opening language controversy at this juncture.

Jul 15, 2013 10:55pm

Although URDU has a very controversial history in Pakistan. Some times I even wonder how it became our national language when our natinal anthem is in Farsi , and our national poet mostly wrote in Farsi and only has 4 books in urdu which in my opinion are mostly annotations on other people's works. Thats being said the identity of Pakistan is dieing and Urdu is dieing with it. In school I had no intrest in learning the subject and I studied it as a 2nd language (o'levels) I have always struglled with languages and my teachers in school made no effort to help me or to increase my intrest in the subject.I have basically forgotten how to write Urdu by now. I was lucky that when I moved abroad I tried to search for my identity , I rediscovered our litrature and poets (e.g Faiz etc) but have to read them in English and that makes me sad.

Jul 15, 2013 11:26pm

I was a strong proponent of English medium schools. However, the more one looks around, it seems that we have gotten it wrong. I am not saying that English medium schools should be closed down and English should be banned. They have a role, but we have over done it.

Without a doubt research as well as other popular nations, such as, China, Japan, Finland, etc have demonstrated over time that it is natural and best to teach children in their mother language. More so, it is important to do that during the earlier years of their education so that they can focus on the concepts rather than the language of instruction. As far as English goes, it should be taught as functional language so that one can easily communicate with the rest of the world.

Greek Tragedy
Jul 15, 2013 11:47pm

After Chinese and English, Urdu along with its poorly developed Hindi cousin are projected to be the most widely spoken languages in the world. Pakistani Bombay-English elites have always opposed the development of Urdu and its implementation. Urdu is the most developed of South Asian languages. Languages grow by borrowing words for the same object or idea from other languages,thereby increasing nuance. Persian flourished after Arabic was introduced in Iran and Central Asia. Urdu has indigenous, as well as borrowed words from Farsi, Turkish Arabic and English words making it a very rich language. Since Independence it has also incorporated additional English and words from local vernaculars making it even richer and complex.The difference between English and French: English incorporated French words after the Norman conquest and Scandinavian words after the Vikings. it therefore has a much large vocabulary than French. In a sense, Urdu has a similar relationship to Hindi , as English has to French. Hindu prejudice lead to the atrophy of Hindi, as Gandhi/Nehru duo and his social engineers tried to purify Hindi Mata and tried remove foreign words from 'Hindi". Usage has kept Hindi alive. Kemalists had done the same in Turkey. Their Western agenda was to remove Persian and Arabic words from Turkish. Unfortunately Turkish is n ow less widely understood and is a pooere language.

Jagmohan chadha
Jul 16, 2013 12:31am

'It is a fact that only those nations that use their own language as medium of instruction have been able to make any progress in the fields of science and commerce, be it China or Japan, Korea or Russia, Germany or France.' This quote from the author turns his argument in favor of Urdu upside down. Does he realize that the mother tongue of most Pakistanis is Punjabi, Sindhi, or Pashto. Do you realize the cost of teaching an alien language to a Punjabi Sindhi or Pathan child. Specially if that language is not even useful as a science or technology language.

Jul 16, 2013 01:38am

@MO0/\/: As much as Urdu is a complete language, I am also led to believe the Quran is a complete book and so is Islam, the best,complete and final religion and there should not be any reason for anyone to resort to anything else.

But my dear, the reality of today quite unequivocally points to the contrary. Things haven't worked out and therefore, should one not try something completely different for a change.

Jul 16, 2013 01:58am

@Khalid: Totally agree to this. Recently I came across Mr. Mahathir's stance on how Malaysia introduced Science, Maths in Malay and their performance has declined. Mahathir stated against this and said these courses should be taught in English. for us, why learning language is not good? As a matter of fact, English, Urdu and Arabic should be taught in our schools and regional languages must be omitted.

Hasan Awan
Jul 16, 2013 03:18am

For more than 80 percent population of Pakistan both English and Urdu are the same languages as both are not our mother tongues as for example my mother tongue is Punjabi along with Pushto. But one thing is understood that English should be the medium of instruction as we should remember that Urdu is the imposed official language of Pakistan and Urdu is acting like a slaughterhouse for Balochi, Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi and local languages.

Urdu should be the mode of communications between people in Pakistan but i should never be the medium of instruction in our schools as In our villages like in my village of Attock i can perceive Urdu as the Enforced language as we cannot speak that language but still we are told time and again that this is the language we have to bear all the times and should dump our centuries old languages, history, culture and traditions for the love of Urdu.
Jul 16, 2013 03:48am

I think people have spoken.

Jul 16, 2013 10:47am

Urdu is an Indian language of the region what is known as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Its source is the Awadhi dialects of this region which developed into the Sanskritized Hindi, and and the Islamically sanitized Urdu, which borrows mostly from Persian and some Arabic and gives it a Middle Eastern flavor. The fact remains that not one group in Pakistan is a native speaker of Urdu. Pakistan tried to impose Urdu in East Pakistan with disastrous results which eventually broke up Pakistan. Urdu much like Hindi, despite decades of governmental patronage went nowhere. These languages prove to be inadequate for higher learning and academic purpose, and should not be tried beyond lyrics of Bollywood type movies, which again tends to move towards English.

Jul 16, 2013 10:52am

@Greek Tragedy: Nonsense. There is not even one University in Pakistan with a Hindi department, and yet you sit and lecture on Hindu prejudice??? There is not even one Pakistani school that even offers a course in Sanskrit or any Indian classical language. You crave for your Persian or Arabic roots even though they call you miskin. Urdu is an Indian language developed in the UP region, by the bombardment of native language by Persian and Arabic diction. The language proved a disaster in East Pakistan because no one understood the highfalutin Farsi words imported from outside of Pakistan.

Jul 16, 2013 10:57am

@Syeed: Urdu is exactly what denied Pakistanis an identity. It always tied Pakistanis up with India through the juvenile movies of Bollywood with its shama perwana lovey dovey lyrics. Urdu was imported from India, just as Pakistan was cut out of India. It is time for Pakistanis to assume an identity and chose a native language like Punjabi, Pasto or Hindko. Bengali was the most suited, but Pakistan does not have East Pakistan anymore.

Jul 16, 2013 11:08am Dont ruin the lush green, fertile indus culture with sands from the Deseart of arabia!

Jul 16, 2013 11:13am

I can only say to those who are opposing -- "Kya Bhala Chaand sitaroon ka biyaan samjhen ge, Barkh phoolon ka, Parindoon ka Biyaan Samjhen-ge.

Kitne Bad baqt hain, Waqif nahi Jo URDU se ! Wo haya, Illm-o-muhabbat ko kahan Samjhen-ge !

Umar Aftab
Jul 16, 2013 11:18am

I am sorry to say but Urdu is a redundant language. The children from Punjab, KPK etc forced to learn a language during primary education for the cause of nation building that provides no benefit to them in later life is unfortunate. Hindi is not taught or spoken even at primary level in South India, this helped the quality of education in South India. For the vast majority of Pakistan Urdu has been a goverment sanctioned second language. If we need to teach a second language it should either be Arabic or Persian which either help us understand our religion or neighbours better. Urdu does not, will not and can not help us in the job market. We need to have a national debate about the medium if instruction.

Jul 16, 2013 12:34pm

@Hasan Awan: yes Urdu is the enforced language but so is English. But there is no argument that the indigenous mother tongues should be the medium of instruction at least till primary level. and they are in many schools!!! in the villages of Punjab, teachers teach in Punjabi and Saraiki languages in schools and colleges, the content though is in Urdu.