Post-colonial elitism

Published January 24, 2021
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

A RECENT video that went viral on social media of two owners of a restaurant in Islamabad has drawn a lot of ire, with calls for boycotting the restaurant ranking at the top of trends in Pakistan for more than a day.

The video shows the restaurant owners interviewing their manager of nine years about the English language courses they sent him to attend, and then ask him to speak to them in English while pointing the camera towards him, saying they are doing this because they are bored. He responds in English well enough to be understood but in an accent less affected, and they laugh saying this is the result after his language courses, with them having paid him a high salary.

The video and the reaction raise several questions related to post-colonial elitism, the relationship between class and language, and the short-lived nature of outrage.

The owners quizzing their manager about his English-language skills after saying they are bored rightly enraged a lot of Pakistanis. It signifies the bored capitalist elite exploiting their power as employers to entertain themselves by humiliating their dependent employee for not being good enough at English — the language the elite is fluent in — after they have paid for his training in it.

The language of the colonisers is seen as a marker of success.

The supposed clarification from the owners afterwards made matters worse: calling it friendly banter is a weak cover-up; the video showed a clear instance of bullying where the manager got no chance to respond but only nervously do as the employers asked him to after putting him on the spot, on camera.

This episode also highlighted the relationship between class and language. English, the language of the colonisers that we adopted, is seen as a marker of success and prestige. Though it is a significant skill to have in the global arena, it is also often a prerequisite for class mobility and a marker of gatekeeping in elite circles, even for those with wealth. This South Asian phenomenon was wonderfully captured in the Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar starrer movie Hindi Medium.

The notion of English being superior is reinforced through private elite education in Pakistan. Schools mandate students to speak in no language other than English, and my nephew tells me his private school imposed a fine every time a student spoke in a language other than English up until the fifth grade. It is such trauma, reinforced through a financial penalty, for speaking one’s own language at school that leads to the inferiority that so many Pakistanis feel when communicating in their own language, and perceived superiority of English. That is bound to result in instances like the one in the restaurant.

There are several studies, most recently one by The Citizens Foundation, that find that children’s comprehension and fluency are maximised when children are taught in languages they understand and are familiar with while gradually learning foreign languages. It is also important to think of how several of the regional languages other than Urdu are also marginalised and looked down upon.

Pakistan has a history of alienating a majority of our population due to language issues, which led to the east wing breaking away in 1971. Only in Sindh is the regional language Sindhi taught in schools and hence preserved; in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pashto was introduced as the medium of instruction during the ANP government but reversed when the PTI came to power. This has again slowed down learning, while privileged elite children who grow up speaking English at home continue to benefit due to their birth.

The short-lived nature of outrage is also important to address in this case. The owners of this restaurant have been condemned, the issue has been trending on social media at the top for days, but what will this lead to?

Will boycotting a restaurant lead to the elite ceasing to think they are superior due to their English? Will employees start being respected by their capitalist employers? Will language skills cease to be a requirement for better employment? Will people have more empathy after this episode?

Or will we carry on with business as usual, mocking the English pronunciation and grammar of the ‘Urdu medium’, making Western accents a prerequisite for employment, treating employees like they are subservient, paying domestic workers less than the minimum wage, and acting like letting them eat in our house is a huge favour that compensates for the lack of a living wage in times of rising inflation and a global pandemic?

There is also something that has to be said about social media in this case: nothing that is posted is safe from scrutiny; you will be targeted endlessly once there is evidence of misdemeanour; the outrage will be more violent if the offenders are women; and one must apologise as loudly as one offends to mend the damage.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2021

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