By Dr. Manzur Ejaz
Research has shown that the students proficient in their mother tongue are better equipped to learn other languages. Furthermore, it is apparent that the countries that used mother tongues as medium of education were better in augmenting and creating knowledge
It was the International Mother Tongue Day three days ago (February 21). I want my fellow Punjabis to be tolerant of other religions/sects and look forward. I want them to be conscientious citizens who pay their dues to society and help people who are not very fortunate in their lives. How can I help in inculcating such a mindset in them? In other words, given the historical limitations, what goes into grooming the collective mindset that I desire?
Probably everyone would agree that besides real life experience, the mind is affected by what we observe, hear or read. As formal education starts quite early in life, the written word has assumed unprecedented importance. Therefore, the intolerant, obsessive mindset that most Punjabis or Pakistanis have assumed has to be traced back, partially, to our educational system and medium of education. There is an obvious correlation between the spread of education and the rise of religious extremism because the rural and formally less educated communities were much more tolerant than the new urban or semi-urban population that has been exposed to our educational system.
Let us take tolerance of others as a basic human value that we expect from an enlightened/educated individual. If there is no formal educational system, the individuals are left to their own devices to figure out their relationship with people who are different from them in matters of faith or traditions. Probably, the individuals will rely on the received word from indigenous sources, i.e. literature, the arts, traditions, etc.
In Punjab’s case, this meant reading — there were millions of people who could read Punjabi only — or listening to Punjabi classics. Some of these writings had religious undertones (Sufism) while others were just romantic legends though the traditional people interpreted them as symbolic expressions of spiritualism. These indigenous sources, preaching humanistic values, were helpful in creating a tolerant mindset. Taking it out of the educational system and replacing it with Urdu, Persian or English literature was alienating, and left the students with no real human values: few could really grasp the material and even they could not feel the spirit of foreign literature.
As another example, let us see what kind of a mindset can accept a secular state. It means that the people should understand that they are different from each other and no group, majority or minority, has the right to impose its own preferences on others. It also means that the relationship with the Supreme Being should be taken as an individual act rather than a group contract.
Mullah Shahi believes they have a unique contract with God and therefore it is their right to impose their group preferences on others. On the contrary, most Sufi literature in Punjabi (and in other languages) preaches an individual relationship with the Supreme Being and trashes the mullah for imposing group preferences. They kept their doors open to people of other religions as well as to converted Muslims from the lower castes — that constituted the majority of Muslims in India — who were treated like non-Muslim untouchables. By inculcating an individual relationship with the Supreme Being, Sufi thought does not impinge on the politics of the state. The majority of the population in many secular states like the US is very religious minded, but faith is considered an individual matter. Therefore, the Sufis were ahead of their time in preaching these notions.
Religious formations and other makers of the Pakistan ideology were quite adamant about keeping the people away from indigenous sources by imposing foreign languages as mediums of education. They were conscious about the secular content of the Sufi discourse. Therefore, if we want to create an enlightened mindset, we have to change course and adopt mother tongues as mediums of education so that the coming generations are groomed through humanistic literature.
Furthermore, the historical experience shows that mass literacy and, hence, enlightenment cannot be achieved unless the mother tongue is used as a medium of education, besides other factors. As a medium of education, the mother tongue affects the quantitative as well as qualitative outcomes. Mr Majid Sheikh has proved through historical records that at the time of British annexation, the literacy rate in Lahore and its neighbourhood was about 80 percent, which is down to single digits now.
The literacy rate plunged because the medium of education was changed from the mother tongue to Urdu and English. Some English civil servants had foretold the consequences of not making the mother tongue the medium of education. They argued that when Latin was the medium of education in England, education was limited to narrow circles. However, when French was adopted as a medium of education, the literacy rate expanded a bit, but mass education was made possible only when the Celtic dialect, adopted as Standard English, was made the medium of education.
The qualitative impact of teaching in the mother tongue is also immense. To start with, research has shown that the students proficient in their mother tongue are better equipped to learn other languages. Furthermore, it is apparent that the countries that used mother tongues as medium of education were better in augmenting and creating knowledge. East Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea and parts of India, where mother tongues have played a serious role, are much better off than North India (including Pakistan).
Of course this is only one precondition for the creation of a forward looking society. There are several other conditions that have to be met to achieve this goal, but they are not within the scope of this short column.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org