REVIEW - Tariq Rahman's Different View

Written by Ilhan Niaz  •  April 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Language Policy, Identity, and Religion: Aspects of the Civilization of the Muslims of Pakistan and North India is a compilation of Tariq Rahman’s research papers. Most of the papers selected for inclusion in this volume were written and published in international and national research journals or presented at conferences over the past decade. The compilation is divided into three sections that deal with language policy, identity and religion. A total of eleven research papers are thus distributed thematically.

For anyone interested in research in linguistics with reference to South Asia this compilation is absolutely invaluable. Rahman’s compilation, however, is distinguished from others academic publications in the genre by its accessibility, conceptual integrity and engagement of important contemporary issues.

In terms of accessibility, Rahman writes in clear and concise manner. The reader will rarely find the kind of jargon that is normally associated with academic publications. Owing to the requirements of scholarship in the discipline, references are provided, as is original research in the form of surveys and tables. The more technical components are often provided in annexure format and so do not detract from the narrative. Rahman has a lot to say and he communicates clearly.

Clarity of communication is in large measure ensured by the compilation’s outstanding conceptual integration. Rahman reveals that multiple forces drive the process of change in state and society. Each of these forces (economic opportunity, state policy, the international environment, localized feeling of deprivation, etc.) is in turn subject to constraints and the pushes and pulls of other factors. Language is thus elevated from being a passive medium of communication to an active medium of the exercise of power, the accumulation of wealth, and socio-cultural aggrandizement.

It can, like the English language, simultaneously alienate and empower those who attain fluency in it. Or it can, as is the case with many local languages, sensitize the fluent to their own culture even as it dis-empowers them economically and politically.  The basic theme that language in its evolution and application has immense social scientific significance in driving and reflecting the historical process, to the extent that there is any such process, underpins all the chapters.

The ace in Rahman’s sleeve is that he writes about issues that actually matter to people and even when probing deep into the historical background never loses sight of the need to understand the world in order to help change it for the better. Rahman thus engages with a large number of important issues that matter not only to academics but also to journalists, students, doctors, scientists, information technology experts, entrepreneurs, the telecommunications industry, and even truck drivers. Some of the important issues that Rahman examines with surgical incisiveness include language policy, globalization the impact of computerization on language learning, the culture of call centers, and popular inscriptions and symbols on Pakistani trucks.

Pakistan’s language policy is discussed at length. Rahman argues convincingly that Pakistan has a dual policy on language. The public aspect of this policy is that Urdu is the national language and the vehicle of national integration. The clandestine aspect of this policy is that the state and private sector subsidize and provide unbeatable incentives to those fluent in English. The result is a model of disintegrated development with a relatively small Anglophone elite that exists at a standard of living comparable to the West and monopolizes the best jobs and opportunities, and a large class of vernacular medium degree holders with limited opportunities and considerable exposure to a conservative nationalist world-view. The very obvious dangers of such a high concentration of linguistic capital in a small section of society to the country at large are ignored in favor of elite perpetuation.

Of course, languages do not exist in a bubble. Some grow, others stagnate, while others wither way, given the operational circumstances. A state’s policy towards languages cannot ignore global trends and of these the globalization of communications, trade and culture, imposes severe practical limits on the objective ability of a language to cope. An interesting example of this are the call centers set up in third world countries by multi-national corporations to service their domestic clients. The difference in time zones, for instance, imposes a nocturnal lifestyle on the call center employees. For them, life begins at 6 PM and they are isolated from other members of their society not only by their drilled accents but also by their odd working hours. Their existence (more so in India than Pakistan) is a tribute to the power of the core of the global market to reorder lives in the periphery.

Computers are another agency of the same process and due to the dominance of English in the information technology industry another agency of linguistic penetration. Indeed, globalization before the personal computer and the Internet was a bit like maritime travel before the invention of the compass.

The internal combustion engine has also impacted language in Pakistan. This impact has a popular and highly visible face in the form of truck art. It seems as if the worldview of those employed in Pakistan’s transportation sector is complex and inspired by a number of competing and often contradictory impulses. On the one hand the depiction of female beauty or paintings symbolizing male sexual prowess are popular. On the other, religious inscriptions and mystical incantations to invoke divine favor are also in vogue. Ayub Khan and a sympathetic police officer that did a lot for truck drivers in Balochistan, as well as contemporary political leaders, are also in demand in the truck art industry.

Language Policy, Identity, and Religion is eclectic, incisive and informative. There is something here for just about everybody and by directing research towards areas that are relevant to contemporary issues Rahman has ensured that his compilation of articles is well worth a read.

Title: Language Policy, Identity, and Religion: Aspects of the Civilization of the Muslims of Pakistan and North India
Author: Tariq Rahman
Published by: Chair on Quaid-e-Azam and the Freedom Movement, National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad (2010)
Pages: 329 pages, Hardback
Price: PKR. 450
ISBN: 9789698329136

Ilhan Niaz is the author of ‘The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan, 1947-2008’ and ‘An Inquiry into the Culture of Power of the Subcontinent’ He is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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