The Punjabi-Muhajir Bureaucracy & Case of Urdu As National Language


Immediately after the death of Jinnah, all the executive powers that the government had were assumed by Liaquat Ali Khan. Liaquat Ali Khan cultivated his relationship with the bureaucracy and strengthened it during the four years of his rule. Interestingly, the better the Pakistani government was in the outset with regards to democracy and little or no influence of army over the government and the non-existence of the military-bureaucracy nexus, the bureaucracy and government accommodated abundant Urdu-speaking/Muhajirs apart from Punjabis.

The appointment of CSP Aziz Ahmed as the Chief Secretary of East Pakistan proved a turning point between the relation of East and West Pakistan. Aziz Ahmed, interestingly, was the same bureaucrat who is said to have influenced Ayub Khan to purge the Muhajirs from the bureaucracy during the late 1950’s so he could maintain a control of power over the entire bureaucratic setup. Aminullah Chaudhry in his book “Political Administrators: The Story of the Civil Service of Pakistan” writes that Aziz Ahmed may have been a competent bureaucrat but he was no where near worthy of becoming a Chief Secretary of sensitive region like East Pakistan where the general feeling was already in the air that Bengalis have been deprived of the representation in government jobs, including the civil services. A.J. Dash, a civil servant and chairman of East Pakistan Public Service Commission, delineated Aziz Ahmed as “sour, taciturn and dyspeptic; and that he seemed to suffer from some inferiority complex, perhaps he came from plebeian stock in the Punjab ….”

On the other hand, the primary polemical issue between East and West Pakistan was that of the “language”. The towering issue remained on the horizon, always and ever active and conspicuous, throughout the time leading to the independence of East Pakistan. When the central government of Pakistan opted for Urdu as a national language, the turmoil broke out in the East Pakistan which then had representation of 50% of the total population of Pakistan whereas Urdu was believed to be a language spoken by even less than the 10% of the total population of Pakistan. Inversely, the central government’s decision to set Urdu as a national language came out of the notion to promote national integrity  and truncate the gaps that existed between people belonging to different ethnicity and religion.

In March of 1948 when Jinnah visited East Pakistan in an effort to resolve the cry over the pugnacious issue of language, he addressed fervently in favor of Urdu at a massive rally at Dacca’s Paltan Maidan. He advised the youth, the students, who were in a bridgehead against the imposition of Urdu as a national language, to not get flim-flammed by the hidden forces antithetic to the ideology of Pakistan. For the time being, in a deference to Jinnah, the language movement assumed a low profile, but it never died. However, as soon as the news of the death of Jinnah came down to East Pakistan, the language movement rose its head again and not just naturally alone but on provocation of the civil bureaucracy. As Aminullah argues “the language problem was mishandled from the word go and the issues could have been assuaged by taking prudent administrative measures” where bureaucracy was part and parcel of the administrative setup. Some bureaucrats even turned up with the stand fast idea of  changing the script of Bengali from Devanagri to Persian or Arabic to grapple with the language issue in an evolutionary way. Another absolute piece of virtu that sprouted from a non-Bengali Education Secretary of East Pakistan, a CSP, F.A.Karim, was to make Arabic or Persian the national language of Pakistan instead of Urdu. Howeverm, during the 1950’s, the Basic Principles Committee Report plainly advocated the admission of Urdu as a state language. Thus the language riots became more conspicuous and bloody.

The major problem with the initial setup of Pakistan after its independence was the unbridled influence of bureaucracy over the central government in Karachi that had often led to grievous maladministration at the later stage. Both the Muhajir and Punjabi dominated bureaucracy pioneered the  most controversial decisions in nascent Pakistan at the expense of East Pakistan. The imposition of Urdu as a state language, as recommended in the Basic Principles Committee Report, was open-and-shut of the fact that the bureaucracy was sturdy enough in public policy-making and administration to predominate the entire politics of East and West Pakistan with or without the support of central government.

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