Updated Jun 07 2020


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

An often-used Urdu expression ‘parrhay likhay jaahil’ means an educated man or a woman who talks or behaves the way an ‘illiterate’ person does. Such an expression is not as common elsewhere in the world as it is in Pakistan and India, and perhaps even in Bangladesh. Its usage is not found before the 19th century in literature produced during Mughal rule in the subcontinent. So one can assume it was not used before the 16th century. 

The expression largely emerged in the 19th century. It is mentioned in John T. Platts’ 1874 book, A Grammar Of Hindustani and Urdu Language. The 19th century Urdu poet Altaf Hussain Hali is known to have used it for educated people who refused to agree with the thinking of Muslim reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. 

One can thus assume that the expression became prominent when Indians began to gain ‘modern’ education introduced by the British colonialists, and the idea of being parrha likha (educated) began to carry weight. It meant a person who was now not only eligible to serve in colonial institutions, but had also gained a modern and rational outlook. Nevertheless, according to Hali and other supporters of Sir Syed, there were still Indians who, despite attaining modern education, had refused to adopt a progressive outlook and were thus parrhay likhay jaahil

The strands of education introduced by the British in India were largely engineered to produce local talent to man the vast colonial bureaucracy set up by the colonialists. According to an essay by Indian sociologist Karuna Chanana in the April 11, 1964 issue of The Economic Weekly, the middle-classes in India were formed by colonial social policies, of which the need to get modern education was a major plank. 

Gaining modern education to enter the civil service, become a lawyer or join the judiciary by the early Indian middle-classes also paved the way for them to enter politics in British India. This then led to demands for self-rule, formulated mainly by educated Indians who insisted that they were now educated enough to run a modern state of their own.

Who are the ‘parrhay likhay jaahil’ everyone seems to keep talking about? And why are they almost always drawn from the middle class?

However, in the 2017 edition of the Journal of Contemporary South Asia, Simantini Krishnan writes that, even after Partition, education was still engineered to produce an apolitical elite which could run the bureaucracy and, later, provide doctors and engineers. 

But over the decades, as the middle-classes in both the countries expanded and acquired increasing economic influence, they became weary of any form of politics that advocated left-leaning economic reforms. They believed such reforms would not impact the economic elites but instead try to appease the lower classes at the expense of the middle-classes. So an established elite as well as the lower-classes both became forces to be wary of. 

In a letter published in the April 1970 issue of the now defunct English daily, The People (published from former East Pakistan), a supporter of the ‘modernist’ and ‘pro-business’ Ayub Khan regime (1958-69) described religious scholars who had opposed Ayub’s social reforms, as ‘parrhay likhay jaahil.’ He writes, “They pose to be educated and learned about our faith, but their thinking is backward. They are the educated illiterate.” 

The religious parties at the time were seen to be representing large sections of the country’s middle-classes. This class had felt weary of the business elite formed during the Ayub regime and then felt sidelined by Z.A. Bhutto’s ‘socialism.’ In the 1980s, however, the economic influence of this class grew manifold during the reactionary Gen Zia dictatorship. It was during this period, according to the economist S. Akbar Zaidi in his 1999 book, Issues in Pakistan’s Economy, the ‘military-establishment’ allowed the entry of affluent middle-class sections to ‘share political power,’ even though Zaidi reminds his readers that the new political entrants were entirely controlled by those who had ‘allowed’ their entry. They were thus fed an illusion of power. 

Those who were opposing the Zia dictatorship would often lament that the country was being ruled by parrhay likhay jaahil. In a 1987 article in the now defunct daily Leader, Malik Adeel points out that education had failed to alter the views of religious scholars supporting Zia and of ‘the many petty ministers’ of the regime. He asked, “How could educated people see art as obscenity, and undermine proven scientific facts as a conspiracy against our faith.” He then added, “They are what are called parrhay likhay jaahil.”

Indeed, economic influence in this class made it wary of losing it to the elites above them and to the ‘free loaders’ below, and this is why they were/are always more likely to support dictatorial tendencies, especially in leaders who allow a semblance of middle-class participation in the wielding of political influence. 

There is nothing wrong in this class aspiring to gain political ascendency. But Simantini Krishnan sees the South Asian middle-class as ‘illiberal’ and prone to falling head-over-heels for dictators or charismatic populists coming in from the right, as long as they continue to mouth tirades against elites, corruption,  enemies (both real and imagined) and present themselves as being pious. 

Manu Joseph, in the August 17, 2011 issue of the New York Times, writes that the South Asian middle-classes “often derive their moral confidence not through the discomfort of examining their own actions, but from regarding themselves as decent folks looted by corrupt, villainous politicians.” 

And we have seen this unfolding in full view with the rise of BJP in India and the PTI in Pakistan. This class finally feels that its economic influence has been supplemented with political power, and it is willing to say or do anything to safeguard this illusion.

Social media is crawling with examples where ‘decent folks’ from both the countries haven’t hesitated to spout some of the most irrational quips which were once thought to be the domain of the lunatic fringe or the illiterate. If even the most logical step or policy suggestion is aired to address an issue, it will be rhetorically shot down by them if it in some way threatens the illusion. 

How many times have you heard someone respond to an irrational comment in this context by saying “and I thought he was educated.” Or “is she really a minister?” A minister in Pakistan downplayed the Covid-19 problem by lashing out against the idea of lockdowns and calling it “nothing more than flu.” There were many who literally called him “a parrha likha jaahil.” 

But the thing is, such characters actually believe this is what ‘poor folks’ want to listen to. In fact, this is what they and their class contemporaries want to hear. Because what one may consider to be a statement from a parrha likha jaahil, is actually a feel-good notion that comforts the many imagined or otherwise economic threats that this class thinks it is faced with. 

To them it is not they but you who are a parrha likha jaahil, because things like logic and reason are no criteria to judge someone’s education. This is a post-modernist notion gone mad.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 7th, 2020