Time to revisit Jinnah and the issue of language

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah with Khwaja Nazimuddin (on his right).
Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah with Khwaja Nazimuddin (on his right).

FOR a leader who overcame formidable opposition to the creation of Pakistan from several adversaries — the Indian Congress Party, the British colonialists and five fellow-Muslim forces in the shape of Jamiatul Ulema-i-Hind, Jamaat-i-Islami, Khaksars, Punjab’s Unionist Party and those apolitical Muslims who were not attracted to the idea of Pakistan — did Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah make a profound misjudgement when he declared in Dacca on March 24, 1948, that Urdu alone would be the sole state language?

As his pronouncement became state policy and soon after his demise in September 1948 led to growing discontent and outright protests in East Bengal (whose name became East Pakistan in 1956), stoking deeper alienation until the 1956 Constitution afforded equivalent status to both Bengali and Urdu as state languages, in the view of many or most, Jinnah’s exclusion of Bengali reflected insensitivity and incomprehension of the sanctity of that language. It is held that this initial failing eventually magnified into the tragedy of disintegration in 1971.

Yet, not as widely known as his fateful March 24, 1948, address is the fact that the very same leader, almost a whole year earlier, in between March and May 1947, was the sole major non-Bengali political personality of the region who avidly supported the proposal of united Bengal’s premier H.S. Suhrawardy for the establishment of an independent, sovereign state of a single, united Bengal.

In response to a letter on 26 April 1947 from Viceroy Mountbatten on the subject, Jinnah reiterated: “I shall be delighted … they had much better remain united and independent. I am sure they would be on friendly terms with us.”

The Quaid-i-Azam was neither arrogant nor insensitive. At best, his insistence on Urdu being the sole national language was aimed at fostering nationhood. At worst, it was a human error by a great leader.

But within the Muslim League’s Bengal section, Khawaja Nazimuddin favoured the partition of the province to enable East Bengal to become part of Pakistan and avert exploitation by Hindu moneylenders across the province and Hindu business dominance in West Bengal. However, Jinnah’s views were rightly regarded as the authentic expression of the League policy.

Perhaps, without spelling out his rationale in detail, Jinnah knew that it would be very difficult for the imminent new state of a two-winged Pakistan to coalesce and transcend not only the 1,000 miles of a hostile India in between, but also the fundamental differences of language, script, aspects of culture and lifestyles between the peoples of the two parts whose respective majorities were Muslim but who nevertheless possessed distinctly contrasting features. Such contrasts also existed among the provinces of West Pakistan, but the divergences between the two wings were exceptionally stark.

The Congress strongly and formally opposed the Suhrawardy proposal and its endorsement by Jinnah. Mahatma Gandhi took another view. He wanted the division of states and provinces after the British departed. The Hindu Mahasabha wanted a new West Bengal province with a Hindu majority. Only a few Congress leaders, such as Sarat Bose, agreed with the Suhrawardy concept. The majority of Congress officials did not: they were bent on dividing the province.

A united, single, sovereign Bengal would contain a Muslim majority. So parochial was the core of the Congress ethos under its cloak of secularism that it could not countenance governance by a non-Hindu majority — despite the inclusive, secular temperament of Suhrawardy and his willingness to share power with non-Muslims in an independent Bengal. There were some mixed views among the British, but formally the viceroy also opposed the proposal.

With indecent, presumptuous haste, Mountbatten proceeded to impose both partition and independence at only 10 weeks’ notice — June 3 to mid-August 1947, instead of using the deadline of June 1948 given to him by the British government that could have enabled effective preparations and prevented the bloodshed of about one million human beings caused mainly by panic, shoddy arrangements, and provocative statements by Hindu and Sikh leaders.

Jinnah’s unequivocal support for an independent, sovereign Bengal separate from Pakistan in the west reflected his recognition of the distinctness, the dignity and the rights of the Bengali people in general, both Muslim and Hindu, to preserve and further develop their own national existence and their own cultural identity, a persona in which the Bengali language was among its most important features.

With Suhrawardy, he also realised that a sovereign, united Bengal would be the most potent way to overcome the long, historical injustices inflicted by the British on East Bengal in particular. The colonial prejudice against Bengali Muslims began with the Battle of Plassey and the treason-aided defeat of Sirajuddaula in June 1757.

That bias became more entrenched a hundred years later, in 1857 and thereafter, because Bengali Muslim sepoys were at the forefront of the War of Independence and the mutiny against the British East India Company’s army. After the British government replaced the Company, there was a tacit ban on the recruitment of Bengali Muslims into the military, as also open as well as subtle discrimination against jobs in the civil services, with Bengali Hindus being preferred.

Along with meagre allocations for development projects, and the British infliction of the huge famine in that province in 1943, East Bengal in August 1947 was among the most deprived parts of South Asia. It was only after 1947, when prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan took steps to cancel the entrenched discriminatory practices that Bengali Muslims began to enter civil and military organisations in fair numbers. But West Pakistan had a head-start and the 24 years between 1947 and 1971 were too short a period to fully overcome the large discrepancies inherited at the outset.

RELUCTANT ACCEPTANCE OF PARTITION: Back in 1947, faced by the intransigence of both the Congress and the British, and soon presented with something akin to a Hobson’s choice, the Quaid accepted — with much reluctance and apprehensions, the partition of Bengal, and of Punjab, — the ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan imposed by Mountbatten. After all, Jinnah is reported to have said: “To imagine Pakistan without Calcutta is to visualise a human being without a heart”; so significant for him was the whole of Bengal, its prime city, its people, Muslim and Hindu, its history, culture and language. Far from being insensitive to its sanctity, Jinnah respected the vital role of Bengali in the articulation of Bengali identity.

Post-independence, in the first seven months, a horde of inimical challenges confronted Jinnah as governor-general of the new state, which easily qualified to be the most awkwardly-constructed nation-state in all of history.

Leave alone monumental internal needs to house and feed millions of refugees in West Pakistan, the conjured accession by a Hindu ruler of Muslim-majority Kashmir to India and the instant occupation of Srinagar by Indian troops sparked a dangerous violent conflict on the West Pakistan front. In the other part, encircled on three sides by India, East Bengal was being harassed and coerced on a daily basis.

FACING SEVERE CONFLICTS, DANGERS: Parts of the address by Jinnah on March 24, 1948, express the severity of the conditions that Pakistan and he were dealing with. He stated: “… (H)ardly had the new state come into being when came the Punjab and Delhi holocaust. Thousands of men, women and children were mercilessly butchered and millions were uprooted from their homes. Over five million of these arrived in the Punjab within a matter of weeks. The care and rehabilitation of these unfortunate refugees, stricken in body and soul, presented problems which might well have destroyed many a well-established state.

“But … our enemies who had hoped to kill Pakistan at its very inception by these means were disappointed. Not only has Pakistan survived the shock of that upheaval, but it has emerged stronger, more chastened and better equipped than before.

“There followed in rapid succession other difficulties, such as withholding by India of our cash balances, of our share of military equipment and, lately, the institution of an almost complete economic blockade of your province (East Bengal) … of late, the attack on your province, particularly, has taken a subtler form.

“Our enemies, among whom I regret to say, there are still some Muslims, have set about actively encouraging provincialism in the hope of weakening Pakistan and thereby facilitating the re-absorption of this province into the Indian Dominion … a flood of false propaganda is being daily put forth with the object of undermining the solidarity of the Musalmans of this state and inciting the people to commit acts of lawlessness…”

TWO FACTORS: The Quaid’s view of the respective relevance of Urdu and Bengali were obviously shaped by two factors. First, that Urdu as a lingua franca was spoken far more widely across the northern parts of South Asia (including parts of India, such as Bihar, UP, etc.), and particularly in parts of West Pakistan — where, even though it was not, and is still not in 2022 the mother tongue of more than seven or eight per cent of the population — could serve as a binding strength for a vulnerable new nation-state. In comparison, Bengali, while being a rich, resonant language, was principally used only in Bengal; West and East. It could therefore be an official provincial language.

Second, the perhaps ill-judged advice tendered to him by East Bengali leaders who were more Urdu-oriented than being Bengali-oriented and who grossly under-estimated the passion with which East Bengalis regarded the right that Bengali possessed by being the mother tongue as well as the lingua franca of the majority of Pakistan’s total population.

Whichever the reason, or combination of reasons, the formulation of Jinnah’s views on the language issue were determined by the patently hostile India that clearly wanted to use every possible way to weaken Pakistan. Other portions of the Quaid’s address mirror his thinking at that time:

“Does it not strike you as rather odd that certain sections of the Indian press to whom the very name of Pakistan is anathema, should, in the matter of the language controversy, set themselves up as the champion of what they call your ‘just right’? Is it not insignificant that the very persons who have betrayed the Musalmans or fought against Pakistan, which is, after all, merely the embodiment of your fundamental right of self-determination, should now suddenly pose as the saviours of your just rights and incite you to defy the government on the question of language? I must warn you to beware of these fifth-columnists.

“… For official use in this province, the people of the province can choose any language they wish. The question will be decided solely in accordance with the wishes of the people of this province alone, as freely expressed through their accredited representatives at the appropriate time and after full and dispassionate consideration. There can, however, be only one lingua franca, this is, the language for intercommunication between the various provinces of the state, and that language should be Urdu and cannot be any other.”

In another portion of his speech, Jinnah referred to the proximity of Urdu with Islamic and Arabic moorings as further justification, but that reference had only limited relevance. The language of a religious scripture does not necessarily change the languages of that religion’s adherents.

In 2022, over 1,400 years after the revelation of the Holy Quran in its beautiful original Arabic, the Arabic language is spoken only in 22 Arab countries with a population of about 444 million, whereas the remaining 1.5 billion non-Arab Muslims speak a kaleidoscopic array of languages and dialects in everyday life. They recite Arabic verses from the Holy Quran every day during prayers, at births, weddings, funerals and festivals, but they use their own specific, local or national languages in all their other modes of life.

INADVERTENT BYPASS OF URDU’S IMPRACTICALITY: The rationale Jinnah gave for a language being used between provinces to be comprehensible by all was a valid one, Yet he inadvertently bypassed the truth that while Urdu was used as a lingua franca in West Pakistan, it was not comprehensible to the vast majority of East Bengalis despite being familiar to a few sections of East Bengal’s political, governmental and commercial segments.

So, the use of Urdu for communication with the province of East Bengal would not have been practical. In India, ironically, English alone served — and to this day, continues to serve — the requirements of interprovincial communication in a highly diverse multi-lingual state.

Today, in Pakistan, 75 years after that speech by Jinnah, English, not Urdu, is the predominant official language — in the judiciary and the legal sector, in the executive, civil and military, in large parts of the corporate sector, at multiple tiers of education, in currency notes, postage stamps, vehicle license plates, passports, etc — even as Urdu remains the spoken lingua franca throughout the country. And new mutations such as ‘Minglish’ and ‘Urdish’ are profusely used on the streets and in media.

TRUE VISION DEFINED IN 1947, NOT 1948: At best, the Quaid’s insistence on Urdu as the sole state language was a well-intentioned position to foster cohesion, stability and strength for a country facing unrivalled threats and dangers. At worst, Jinnah’s preference for Urdu was a serious misjudgement, a human error that even great leaders, being human, sometimes commit. The preference certainly did not reflect arrogance or insensitivity.

The Quaid acknowledged the formative role of Bengal in the evolution of Muslim nationalism in South Asia and as a catalytic factor in ensuring the emergence of an independent Pakistan. The categorical nature of his assertion on 24th March 1948 brought forth a paradox: that the very man who alone had the vision and the capacity for strategic victory over far larger forces to create the miracle of the new nation-state unintentionally cast the seed that others turned into a poison — to gradually alienate, and then actually separate East from West Pakistan. This happened through our own other blunders and disregard, and through the outrageous covert and then overt intervention of India.

Above all else, the most pertinent and irrefutable evidence of Jinnah’s enormous respect for the sanctity of the Bengali nation, language and culture is his outspoken support for a sovereign single united Bengal, in March-May 1947 — an authentic, imperishable truth that deserves more attention than the March 1948 address.

The writer is an author and a former Senator and Federal Minister. In 2021, he wrote and produced the 110-minute documentary film ‘Separation of East Pakistan: The Untold Story’ — www.1971Untoldstory.com.

Published in the Quaid’s Day supplement, Dawn, December 25, 2022.

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