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Urdu as medium of instruction and compulsory subject

July 15, 2013
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.