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Politics of Language, Colonisation, and Visuality

Johannes Fabian, in Language and Colonial Power, begins by telling us a story about Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. As a pastime, she would compile a register of Russian words, translating them into as many languages as possible. What began as a playful distraction transformed over time into the first monumental collection of vocabularies. Her unprecedented work soon turned into a model of linguistic information-gathering, anticipating polygot dictionaries that were put to colonial service in the global south in the nineteenth century. Translations, no longer an armchair affair, became regarded as “official business and the wordlists became documents of state, witnessed with stamps and signatures”.[i]
Polygot wordlists became crucial instruments for colonial agents in the transition from “communication to command”. Use and control of communication was needed to form and maintain colonial regimes – military, religious, ideological and economic. Colonial expeditions were never just a form of invasion, but as Fabian explains: “They were determined efforts at in-scription. By putting regions on a map and native words on a list, explorers laid the first, and deepest, foundations for colonial power…as the power to name, to describe, to classify.”[ii]
The conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge – mastering and controlling Indian languages was at the centre of the colonial project. Knowledge of the language made it possible to issue commands and to collect information in order to assess and collect taxes, maintain law and order, and identify and classify groups within Indian society. Hence in the late eighteenth century, the British launched a program of appropriating Indian languages, learning both the “classical” and “vulgar” languages. This is witnessed in the production of texts such as grammars and dictionaries, teaching aids through which Indian languages were re-presented and transformed from an Indian form of knowledge into a European object.
In this colonial process of rule, seditious languages were brutally suppressed and replaced. Persian was one of many such languages. The British feared that “Persian was the language of dissidence and its suppression was desirable on political grounds.”[iii] Left to “die a natural death”, Persian was “sedulously excluded from courts and schools”. Urdu was the new language of colonial choosing, made popular through education policies and state incentives. For a language so deeply imbricated with Muslim identity in India and later, with Pakistani identity, it is ironic that Urdu was formally taught in schools for the first time by the British.
Through control and regulation of the vast array of Indian languages, the British committed what Gayatri Spivak defines as “epistemic violence,” the active obstruction and undermining of non-Western methods and approaches to knowledge. In deciding what languages were politically beneficial to teach and which languages posed a threat, the British attempted to control knowledge production, to alter the historic and social consciousness, readjusting and changing the language to what was considered more appropriate and less vulgar.
“Let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function.”
– Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Speech in Dhaka, 21 March 1948[iv]
Frantz Fanon, considering the possible corruption of governments after decolonization, warned (during the Algerian liberation struggle) that if not destroyed and re-invented, the physical and discursive reorganization of the colonial world may once again “mark out the lines on which a colonized society will be organized.”[v] In 1947, the new nation of Pakistan suffered such a state.
Rather than thoroughly challenging the colonial situation through all means necessary, as Fanon calls for, the state inherited and continued forward the colonial apparatuses of power and oppression. Rather than liberating languages, the Pakistani state continued to keep a tight control. English maintained its status of official language and Urdu, it was declared, would be the sole national language. The teaching of Urdu was made compulsory in schools, replacing vernacular languages. Marginalization of indigenous languages was central to the project of creating a Pakistani-Muslim identity through the promotion of Urdu.
Such appropriations of language have always had a distinctly visual field of dimension. The aesthetic appearance of language – its script – was at the centre of debates around institutionalizing language. Before British arrival, court language in Sindh was Persian. With the advent of British colonialism, in 1847 a public controversy arose around the need for a standard language to replace Persian, which was viewed as “unintelligible jargon”. Richard Burton successfully advocated the use of Sindhi as the primary language of communication.[vi] The British then set to manufacturing an appropriate alphabet and grammar that would adequately translate Sindhi into a script. Out of the three different alphabets used at the time – Arabic, Gurmukhi and Khudawadi ­– the British chose the Arabic alphabet because they deemed it more suited to the religious and cultural sensitivities of the people in the region. In order to better control and administer Sindh, the diverse traditions of Sindhi writing were erased in favour of cultural homogenization.
The Pakistani state continued to enact similar colonizations through language, a prime example being the language of Bangla in East Pakistan. Once again, the visual manifestation of language as script was at the centre of this debate. The state tried to use the Arabic script for writing Bengali, rebranding it as Pak-Bangla. In 1949, the Minister of Education, Fazlur Rahman argued that “the Arabic script will be a potent means of promoting cultural homogeneity and unity of national outlook”.[vii] Bengali script, being a derivative of the Brahmi family of scripts, was associated with Hindu identity and hence needed to be Islamized. It was assumed by the state, that if the multiple languages were made to look visually similar – through use of common script ­– by visually erasing differences (such as Sanskrit alphabets), the violently enforced uniformity of script would some how symbolically or otherwise lead to a more unified national culture.
While the history of the Language Movement of East Bengal is beyond the scope of this essay, the counter-argument posed by the detractors of Pak-Bangla (quoted below) is a hauntingly accurate prediction of our present moment, where the state’s policies of promoting education and learning of Urdu, has resulted in a generational unlearning of a multiplicity of other languages:
“People of East Bengal will at once be cut off from their cultural heritage of literature, enshrined in Bengali characters. Not to speak of the contribution of any other literati, even poets and literati like Ahmad Saghir… of the past, and Rabindranath [Tagore], Nazrul [Islam]… of the present age, will at once become unreadable and unintelligible to us. It will be a huge task beyond the capacity of the limited resources of the Government to transcribe even a small part of our past and present literary heritage. We, therefore, do not like to reduce ourselves to a nation of fools at least for two generations, if not more.” (East Bengal Language Committee)[viii]
Urban spaces in Karachi offer many material and visual manifestations of past and current policies of “othering” and silencing of languages. Walking through the city, we are often apprehended with old signage using scripts no longer known to us, ghost apparitions and temporal traces that serve as visual reminders of the diversity of languages and scripts once practiced in Karachi. The state policy of language-learning which is geared towards sustaining Urdu as the hegemonic language representative of a unified national culture and for squashing “provincialism” and “dissident languages”, has produced a generational gap, where readability of languages apart from Urdu and English has greatly declined. Younger people no longer have access to past local knowledge productions. In marginalizing a multitude of languages in favour of cultural homogenization, for the visual appeal of uniformity, generations have lost out on languages.
The Karachi Walla in his blog provides a fitting example for this. While visiting the Anjuman-e-Taraqi-e-Urdu – the home and resting place of Maulvi Abdul Haq, better known as Baba-e-Urdu, he comes across a plaque bearing a Hindu inscription. After much search, he locates someone to translate this text for him, who reveals that this plaque was the foundation stone laid by Mahatma Gandhi in 1921. The shrine of the man who advocated Urdu for the official language for Pakistan, used to be a Gujrati School named after Shri Sharda Devi Mata, the Hindu goddess of wisdom. This is one amidst the infinite examples of how by losing knowledge of different languages, we have lost access to the many past histories and socialities of our city.
Visuality is crucial to the colonial project of language acquisition and control. Art practice can play an important and urgent role in questioning and exposing the complicities of visuality in the nation-building project. Discussed below are two artworks that explore questions of language, power and ideology by mobilizing a politics of representation and creating new modes of visuality that challenge cultural hegemonies.
Sara Khan, in her series Kaida, explores the role played by visuality in producing and sustaining cultural hegemony of Urdu. She produces a (mock) Urdu picture dictionary, a key instrument of pedagogy in schools. She titles her book “Kaida”, meaning regulation, recalling the (past and present) colonial rules and regulations put in place by the state to subjugate or promote certain languages for their own means. However, Khan re-adapts the mode of the dictionary to unsettle assumptions and to rethink the relationship of language to our understandings and experience of material objects, beings and the world. “A man who has a language”, Fanon says, “consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language”. Therefore, the power to name is the power to possess and impose a dominant worldview through which a particular understanding/knowledge is promoted. By jumbling some of the words, such that they no longer correlate to the images, Khan subtly challenges dominant modes of language pedagogy, the most potent instrument of culture control.
Amjad Ali Talpur, in his work titled My Language, visualizes a personal politics of language and script. On a drawing board, he lays out the alphabets of English, Urdu and Sindhi. However, within this confined space, the multiple alphabets overlap with each other to such an extent that the individual letters are rendered obscure and unreadable. Rather than maintaining their distinct characters, they merge and morph into one another. Rather than assigning separate, isolated discursive and ideological spaces to the three languages, Talpur performs a coming together and conversation between these different languages and scripts. His work imagines a possible future, what Achilles Mbembe calls “pluriversity”, that allows for a process of knowledge production that is open to epistemic diversity; which removes the state imposed hierarchies of language by embracing a horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different linguistic traditions and their specific knowledge productions.[x] Rather than privileging a single language, Talpur visualizes a multivocality that allows for the possibility of resistance and disruption from within the ideological space of the neo-colonial.
Mbembe in “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of Archive” advocates the need to teach multiple languages in schools and universities. He writes:
“A decolonized university in Africa should put African languages at the center of its teaching and learning project.
Colonialism rimes with mono-lingualism.
The African university of tomorrow will be multilingual.”
At a time when nation-states worldwide are using force of coercion to supress the destabilizing threats posed by “dissident languages”, thinking of ways to resist brutal acts of censorship and violence against languages and its peoples, has become a matter of pressing concern. While works of Khan and Talpur are important critical investigations, they remain confined to private spaces of the gallery. As artists and cultural practitioners we must collectively start thinking of strategies of resistance within the larger public sphere. We need to build a network of exchange and knowledge sharing, regionally and globally, to learn from and adapt resistance strategies already in practice. Below are two examples from Karachi and Cape Town, initiatives that are working against the tide of cultural colonization, to create spaces that promote and preserve marginalized languages.
The Syed Hashmi Reference Library in Malir, Karachi, was started in 2003 by Professor Saba Dashtiyari. Running without institutional support, this library is devoted to preserving and promoting Baloch literature, in response to state colonization and marginalisation of Baloch languages and local forms of knowledges. The library started with Dashtiyari going to door-to-door in different neighbourhoods and asking people for book donations, and permission to make copies of any old journals they possessed. In this modest way, Dashtiyari managed to gather and compile the largest archive in Pakistan of literary journals published in Balochi.
At a time of extreme state censorship of Balochi texts, the library carves out a space of refuge for these shunned books. Balochi literary books are not allowed to be kept on bookstalls in most major cities of Balochistan like Turbat, Gwadar and Panjgur. Recently, even bookstalls in Karachi refuse to shelve Balochi texts – no matter what the content – for fear of persecution. In the face of this repression, the library opened its own publishing house, to encourage and provide writers the means to continue publishing. This library provides an alternative model for collective acts of cultural resistance.
Chimurenga Library was launched in 2008 in Cape Town, South Africa by Ntone Edjabe, Cameroonian cultural thinker, DJ and activist. The project was conceived in response to participation in Documenta 12 Magazines project in 2007. This cultural event was arranged around questions of access to situated, localized knowledges within the global art world. That only two African periodicals were invited to participate in this venture made Edjabe realize that the vast majority of African knowledges were still unknown, inaccessible and marginalized within the context of art discourse.[ix]
He subsequently mobilized friends and collaborators – who he calls Chimurenga people – to collaborate in putting together an inventory of independent pan-African periodicals from around the world. The participatory framework is a crucial part of how the library has been conceptualized, evident in its multi-layered modus operandi.[x] Its growing collection has made accessible historical publications that have been influential platforms for dissent and delineating new practices of art and politics. At a time when western knowledge production is assumed to be universal, speaking for all, the Chimurenga Library is an important venture of resistance which makes visible the silences, gaps and erasures of knowledges and art productions emanating from the African continent.
Shahana Rajani is a curator, artist, and educator based in Karachi, Pakistan.
[i] Johannes Fabian, Language and Colonial Power (1986), 1.
[ii] Ibid, 24.
[iii] Tariq Rahman, Language, Ideology and Power: Language Learning Among Muslims of Pakistan and North India (2002), 85.
[iv] Saadia Toor, “Containing East Bengal: Language, Nation and State Formation in Pakistan 1947-1952”, Cultural Dynamics 21(2009): 185.
[v] Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (1968), 37.
[vi] Hamida Khuhro, The Making of Modern Sindh (1999), 224.
[vii] Rahman, 195.
[viii] Toor, 195
[ix] Elvira Dyangani Ose, “The Poetics of the Infra-ordinary” (2013). [Excerpt]
[x] Ibid.


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