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Jinnah And Urdu-Bengali Controversy

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

This is a quick blog to correct a historical fallacy.  A false impression persists – thanks to people like Amar Jaleel and the like who in the right royal Urdu press fashion have a hard time sticking to the facts- that Jinnah- who according to Jaleel was drugged or cornered into making the speech in question- somehow told Bengalis to outlaw Bengali language when he declared Urdu to be the state language of Pakistan.  This is historically inaccurate. This blog is not to discuss whether Jinnah’s declaration was politically suave or naïve but to set the record straight about what it was that Jinnah said which laid foundations for the Urdu-Bengali discord in Pakistan and led to Pakistan ultimately declaring both Urdu and Bengali the “national languages” of Pakistan.  Ironically Jinnah did not even use the term “national language”, drawing the very valid distinction between a state language or lingua franca and a national language.

The two speeches that are  at the center of controversy were made on 21st and 24th of March, 1948 at a public meeting and then at Dacca University convention.   In both speeches Jinnah took a consistent stand:

  1.  The people of Bengal were free to choose Bengali as the official language of the Bengal province.   This he said very clearly and unambiguously on both occasions and the premier of Bengal – Khawaja Nazimuddin also reaffirmed this.
  2. Urdu alone would be the state language and the lingua franca of the Pakistan state.
  3. Bengali – like other provincial languages- could be the official language of the East Bengal province but not the Pakistan state and the Pakistan center (Jinnah’s words).

 (See Pages 150 and 158 of “Jinnah Speeches And Statements 1947-1948” Millennium edition Oxford University Press-  he said “Realizing, however, that the statement that your Prime Minister made on the language controversy, left no room for agitation, in so far as it conceded the right of the people of this province to choose Bengali as their official language if they so wished, they changed their tactics. They started demanding that Bengali should be the state language of the Pakistan centre, and since they could not overlook the obvious claims of Urdu as the official language of a Muslim state, they proceeded to demand that both Bengali and Urdu should be the state languages of Pakistan.  Make no mistake about it.  There can only be one state language if the component parts of this state are to march forward in unison, and in my opinion,  that can only be Urdu”)

It may be remembered that in this – wrong or right- Jinnah’s policy was identical to India’s policy of constitutionally elevating Hindi and English.   Jinnah did not go even that far and described in the proper constitutional manner Urdu as the state language not a national one.  Urdu was to be – in the real sense of the word- a lingua franca for the diverse people of Pakistan.

The problem with Amar Jaleel – who recently appeared on Vussatullah’s show on Dawn News Urdu Service-  is that in his zeal for an otherwise good cause,  he liberally twists the facts.   For example in the show in question he declared amongst other things – as obiter dicta – that Gandhi had fasted in his last days to have wheat exported to Pakistan.  Frankly I don’t know where he got this from.  In reality however Pakistan connection in Gandhi’s fast was purported to be vis a vis Indian government’s refusal to give Pakistan its share of the treasury.   However what was hilarious was his claim that Jinnah was cornered by people to make this statement.

Amar Jaleel’s cause is righteous.   All Pakistani languages must be equally respected and given an equal status in the republic as languages of the people of Pakistan.  However should he murder history and discredit himself by repeating this lie or does he believe that the longer it goes unnoticed, it might one day be taken up as the truth?

I have always felt that the writers of the Urdu press are given to exaggeration and embellishment, even if they are not right-wingers and pro-Jamaat-e-Islami fanatics  but even self styled champions of leftists, liberals and ethno-nationalists.   In this respect at least one hopes that Dawn News Urdu Service will bring some balance to the force.

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