Language, Identity & Power


Michel Foucault, the French postmodernist has been crucial in shaping theories about power and relations (O’Farrel 2005: 96­108). For Foucault, ‘power’ is not just an ability of exerting pressure rather, it is diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge and ‘regimes of truth’ (Foucault 1991). Power is transmitted through the ‘way of speaking’ whilst meanings convey social ideas and in the process, construct identities. Since, meanings are interpretations ‘..and always negotiable’ (Jenkins 1996: 4–5), language and identity share a dialectic relationship.

Language although utilized for conveying ideas, by virtue reinforces some while attenuating other notions. The nationalistic agenda of Pakistan, is survived by the creation of a nation with an appeal to Islam. The definition of a modern nation state necessitated symbols of unity ­ the flag, the currency, the map­ all different from the Indian identity. Pakistan’s national language, Urdu bears the same historical narrative as Hindi or Hindustani or Urdu spoken in India, used interchangeably prior to partition. The two nation theory is not applicable in the separation of India­Pakistan, although, “history can be manipulated and so it was in both Pakistan and India” (Kumar 2001; Saigol 2000).

As a result of manipulating the historical narrative and adopting Urdu, identities have conformed to the ideology of a State. Accordingly, dominant perceptions form, often suppressing ‘the other’ forms of class, gender and religious identity.

This paper aims to highlight the importance of historical constraints in symbolic representation of Pakistan, given its internal contradictions with language, identity and power.

Power Structure Imposing Social Identity in East Pakistan:

“Language is a socially constructed entity in that it reflects the power structure and social identity of the society where it is spoken” (Naoko, Hosokawa). In the case for Pakistan, the

governing body unified and created a nationalist identity based predominantly on ­ Islam and Urdu, as a subsidiary symbol.

The Muslim League was ignorant to the disparity converging between the social identity and power structure imposed in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Soon, an anti­West Pakistan resistance movement grew amongst the intellectuals in East Pakistan. The Bengali Language Movement or Bhasha Andolan, in 1948 and 1952, highlighted the injustice of decision makers in West Pakistan, who aggressively altered identities of East Pakistanis through the Urdu language. The demand was that, that Pakistan’s national language should be Bengali and be employed in the public domain. Accordingly, negative perceptions formed in East Pakistan to deconstruct the imposed national identity, on the basis of language.

Bengali regained importance as Pakistan’s national language from 1955 to 1971, until East Pakistan became an independent nation state known today as Bangladesh on linguistic grounds. Etymologically, Bangladesh is ‘Bangla’ + ‘desh’ , implying native land of Bangla or Bengali speakers. It is presumed that “the language which would emerge from such a struggle for preeminence would be that which has the greatest value as social capital” (Haeri, Niloofer).

Power Structure Imposing Social Identity in East Pakistan:

Further, a minority population of Bengali speakers still reside in Pakistan since its creation in 1947. These small pockets are referred to as ‘refugees’ or ‘Mohajir’ since 1971. These Mohajir’s speak indigenous languages hence, Urdu as a prominent language and the first language of many Pakistanis, became a cultural hegemony. The government of Pakistan by enforcing Urdu as a national language upheld its privileged status. As the mother tongue of the dominant class, Urdu is the medium of communication and, as per the education policy of the state, the medium of instruction. This is theoretically justified by Carnoy as a critique of Bourdieu’s theory , “being dominant allows you to reproduce your dominance through the institutions of society that you control because you are dominant (Carnoy, Martin). It gives you control over knowledge,

learning, attitudes and values.’’ The ruling elite, with the vision of a united nation state, pronounced Urdu as the sole national language­ reconstructing Pakistan’s identity politically in 1971. Symbolically, the policy suppresses resistance from any minority ethnic groups and commands values.

Cultural Capital of Knowledge and Language:

The discourse draws on Edward Said’s rearticulation of Michel Foucault’s arguments on the link between textual representation and political power. While, Foucault equates political power to knowledge of production and control of resources. Said, applies this concept of control and subjugation of cultures, in his ’Orientalism’. The relationship between knowledge and power, creates possibilities of controlling ones representation. In the poststructuralist era, when historical narratives are conceptualized and created on the basis of political identities, ones voice is nulled. The Kashmiris in the disputed valley between India and Pakistan, have lost representation from either nation and now resist any form of political representation.‘Azad Kashmir’ or ‘Free Kashmir’ is justified in being called so by “assuming that the state has no rivals in its claims to the symbolic capital of the official culture of the country”(Haeri, Niloofer). Since, “symbolic capital would simply reinforce rather than challenge its hegemony” (Haeri, Niloofer). Hence, the discourse diffuses power through ‘the force of interpretation’, that is, the meaning deliberated and understood socially via language as a structure and thereby, negating the individual detail. Niloofer Haeri notes that in Egypt, power and language are infact related though “not always linear or free from contradictions”. Similarly, in Pakistan “the state, the the dominant classes, and the religious establishment have varying and changing degrees of power with regard to the official language and the reproduction of its values” (Haeri, Niloofer).

Symbolic capital of Pakistan is its official language ­ English, spoken in domains of power and a symbol of opportunity to interact with ‘almost a quarter of mankind’ (Ostler,Nicholas). The values attributed to the English language, are largely divided. Firstly, its ubiquity and vast acceptance as ‘linguistic capital’ by the consolidated elites,is in conflict with cultural traditions and retained hegemony of Pakistan. ‘The Other’ opinion resists the domination of English as ‘linguistic imperialism‘ (Philipson 1992). As mentioned, the national language Bengali in Bangladesh carried symbolic weight of nationality­ aiding to ghettoizzation of languages, such as Urdu in Pakistan, as a result of fear.

This paper rests on the notion of ‘linguistic capital‘ which is defined by Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, as follows:

“The constitution of a linguistic market creates the conditions for an objective competition in and through which the legitimate competence can function as linguistic capital, producing a Profit of distinction on the occasion of each social exchange (emphasis in the original Bourdieu 1981: 55).”

Although, those who learn languages for pragmatic reasons , often value their native language lesser in comparison to the one adopted (Rahman 2002:36). This phenomenon is known as a’ voluntary shift‘, though not ‘voluntary‘, in essence. When one’s own language is viewed as a liability rather than an asset , its economic value in a market is deficit in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu 1991: 230–231). However, The state‘s use of Urdu as a symbol of national integration, form of ‘Urdu imperialism’ has negated the linguistic and cultural diversity in the country.

In other cultural matters, westernization is accepted as a norm channelized through the English language as ‘linguistic capital’. It is regarded as means of gaining international leadership (Shim & Baik 2004: 172­195), promoted by the state for its advantageous economic perception (Chew, 2007). The dominant language and the policy governing the state helps preserve English for the intelligentsia while promoting vernacular languages in the public forum.

In reality, government schools are underfunded and deprived of skills necessary for the global world. Additionally, having a different national and official language is rhetoric given the present pace of g̳lobalization. English as ‘linguistic capital’ is an asset for the ‘wake of revolution’ and spread of ideas, values and knowledge. “Endowed with these associations, it is a language that embodies authority and bestows authority on those who know it.” “Therefore it is only through formal instruction that it can become accessible in understanding, reading, writing, and speaking education system, in the pretext of nationalism” (Haeri, Niloofer). Hence, the nationalistic agenda has deprived the masses of opportunity, while the elite have engaged English as the medium of globalisation.This vernacular­English divide, in Pakistan is neither due to acceptance or resistance of the colonial past, instead it is the monopolization and concentration of the linguistic capital of English.

By manipulating the historical narrative and in planning a modern nation state, social identities have transformed and been reconstructed. Although, it manufactured the idea of equality before the law thereby, eradicating innate differences of class, gender and religious labels. Modernity, a colonial product, references Western categories, by virtue reinforcing ideas and attenuating other identities . Pakistan’s radical transformation towards a western modern nation state with emphasis on unitary symbols denies pluralist realities. Denying multi lingual or multi ethnic social nature ­denigrates, suppresses and marginalizes indigenous identities reducing value of diversity. The state reduced the religious identity of its citizens to Muslim or non Muslim,as ‘the other’, for the dominance of national identity.

In Conclusion:

Values and attitudes portrayed in verbiage attributes to the symbolic role of language in society. Milroy and Milroy (1991, p.19, 45) argue that “language itself is a natural, descriptive phenomenon that varies across space and time and cannot be fully standardized in reality.” Hence, standardization of language as a policy concerns ideology of state and its enforced social structure rather than insights into the society. As a result of manipulating the historical narrative and adopting Urdu, identities have conformed to the ideology of a State.

Though as Niloofer Haeri aptly proves that power and language are infact related though “not always linear or free from contradictions” through the example of Egypt. Responses to English in Pakistan allowed the wealthy to gain privileged access to this ‘linguistic capital’. In the past known as the language of the colonizers, English had now become a constructor of the modern, Westernized, secular identity in free­South Asia. However, its rejection indicated class differences, birth new social divides and polarization of society. Democratization of English does not follow implementation of a peace policy, though values disseminated through a language, such as of tolerance and acceptance are values of western democracies with universal appeal to humanity. The contradictions of language should not be a source of conflict for class or ideology, instead empower individuals in Pakistan. However, Pakistan’s search and desire for national identity is ongoing as social identity is always created, manipulated and contested. The monopolization of the linguistic capital of English and cultural hegemony in the name of Islam, has prompted further complexities in the concepts of language, identity and power and its role within the trajectory of Human history. In the case of Pakistan, identities have conformed to ideology and definition of a modern nation state, thus have restricted independent thought. Foucault in his understanding of the limitations of thinking and power noted, “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” (221), if not , power clashes with identity. In Hegel’s master­-slave dialectic, the struggle for recognition between the master and slave ends when the subordinate no longer struggles, that is, is unwilling to risk its physical entity for an idea. Due to the passive violence, and lack of resistance, a ‘conscious being’ does not develop. Though, The Bengali Language Movement, in 1948 and 1952 and creation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 prompted by the English ­speaking intelligentsia, is thought to be the ultimate antithesis of language and oppression.


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