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The Role Language Plays

Rekha Chakravarthi

Edited by Alyssa Ayres
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 217, NA


Alyssa Ayres’s 217-page book is a mas-terful exposition of the role that language has played in ‘engineering’ the ‘idea of (modern) Pakistan.’ Divided into ten chapters, Ayres fleshes out Pakistan’s experience with the Urdu language, used by the state as a means to justify the ends of nationalism and national unity in what came to be known as Pakistan post the partition in 1947. As the author herself states, the study has been driven by a desire to examine why the role of Urdu language in building the nation-state of Pakistan has received a ‘less than central focus in academic analysis of Pakistan’ despite the fact that the country has been plagued by cultural-linguistic challenges emanating from within its four provinces, almost immediately after its birth in 1947. By doing so, the book raises critical questions regarding the call for a homogenous language in order to create a nation and thereby national belonging to its peoples. While the idea of a national language occupies a central position in defining the identity of a nation, Ayres’s work suggests that Pakistan, in its quest to locate its historical and cultural origins in West Asia as opposed to South Asia, may have indeed taken this idea too far. The book begins with a brilliant first chapter, aptly titled ‘articulating a new nation,’ on the emergence of Urdu as Pakistan’s national language, which according to Ayres, was neither obvious nor natural (p. 16). The chapter delves into the impact of British colonization in the pre-partition Indian subcontinent, the resulting Hindu-Urdu controversy and the metamorphosis of these languages as the bearers of Hindu/Hindustan and Urdu/Pakistan respectively, this despite the fact that neither Hindi nor Urdu was the language used in the religious texts of either of the two religions. Hindi and Urdu as the bearers of Hindu and Muslim religions gave rise to the notion that Muslims and Hindus have never been able to live amicably, thereby, legitimizing the call for a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent in the form of Pakistan. That the Muslim League’s call for a separate homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims did not enjoy popular support before 1945–46, the resulting Pakistan was crafted through ‘careful politicking’ (p. 24–25), the undercurrents of which would rear its ugly head in the soon-to-be independent nation-state. The newly born state endorsed Urdu as the bearer of Islam and therefore ...

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