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Secret documents Reveal Afghan Language Policy E-mail

 

Zahir
 
www.Tajikistanweb.com

Declassified documents of the US Embassy in Kabul are shedding more light on the language issue in Afghanistan as the world celebrates the International Mother Language Day on February 21.

An airgram, dated May 23, 1964, by the Counsellor of Embassy for political affairs Howard J. Ashford Jr. informs the US Department of State about a new language policy undertaken by the Afghan government. Interestingly, the formerly confidential document’s subject reads: "Farsi-Dahri" to be Official Language".

Referring to events of April 4, 1964, the airgram reveals that Abdul Zaher, the President of the National Assembly and Chairman of the Constitutional Advisory Commission (who later became Afghanistan’s Prime-Minister) had told the American Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) about his plans to introduce 2 official languages: Pashtu and Farsi, "but the latter henceforth would be "Dahri" (misspelt "Dari" inserted in Afghan Constitution by King Zaher Shah – twc).

 

The paper adds some dodgy information about "two versions of Farsi in use within Afghanistan". Those two versions of the same language are categorically defined by the Counsellor as "Pahlevi-Farsi" and "Dahri-Farsi". "Pahlevi-Farsi" is the Iranian version which has been used increasingly in Afghanistan as the literary language since the 18 th century, he adds, while "dahri", according to its Afghan supporters, developed originally within Afghanistan thousands of years ago.

The word "Pahlevi" most certainly refers to the Pahlevi royal dynasty that was reigning next door at the time, rather than the identical linguistic term used as a synonym for the Middle-Persian language of Sassanids. If it’s supposed to mean the latter, the term is non-sensual as the language does not exist anymore.

"Tajik dynasties based in Herat and Ghazni from the 9 th through the 16 th centuries used this version of Farsi (dahri)," elaborates the secret document. "Differences over language, which are closely correlated to differences between the dominant Pashtuns and the subordinate farsi-speaking ethnic groups, came to a head within the Commission during March when a Pashtun member of the Commission suggested that the draft Constitution employ phraseology which would commit the government to support the purity of Pashtu and emphasize its use as a national language." ( http://www.icdc.com/~paulwolf/pakistan/ashford23may1964.htm )

At first sight there seems to be a very feeble logical link between cause and effect of the act. A Pashtun parliamentarian suggests strengthening his mother language and the parliament decides to rename one of the two official languages from Farsi to "Dahri". The hidden bit of information implies that a new identity for the Persian language of Afghanistan would confine it within the country by cutting off its ties with the Persian of Iran. "Purification" and "fortification" have been secured solely for the Pashto language.

Abdul Zaher was a passionate supporter of Pashtuns and "Pashtunistan". In 1972 Abdul Zaher as the Prime Minister of the country "signed an order giving instructions to beef up and provide more money for Department of Pashtunistan Affairs. He had ordered the department to launch a propaganda campaign calling for establishment of Pashtunistan." ( http://www.icdc.com/~paulwolf/pakistan/sober15mar1972.jpg )

Another thing that catches the eye in Ashford’s airgram is the misspelling of the word "Dari". One can suggest that the word was too unfamiliar to Americans to spell it correctly. The term doesn’t exist in the Embassy’s previous reports. Herbert B. Leggett, Ashford’s predecessor in July 1963, mentions neither "Dahri" nor "Dari" in his report to the US Department of State.

"The Kabul press on June, 30, 1963, reported that four hospitals, all associated with Kabul University, received Pushtu names in place of their former Farsi and Arabic names", he informs.

Then Shafakhanaye Aliabad and Shafakhanaye Markazi, Dar-ol-majanin, Shafakhanaye Khanom or Naswan were renamed to Nadir Shah Roghtoon, Markazi Katanzay, Sanaye Roghtoon and D’Nirmuno Roghtoon. However, they are better known by their previous names till now.

Siddiqullah Rishteen, the President of the Pushtu Academy in 1963 believed that the name changes were a part of the continuing government policy "of regarding Pushtu as the unique official language of Afghanistan." Rishteen did not agree with the reporting officer that Farsi was the lingua franca of Afghanistan and that large numbers of Afghans in important governmental positions knew no Pashto. "Rishteen said that this was an overstatement and that in any case there is only one true "Afghan" culture and it is Pushtun", reads the report.

Rishteen was right in defining the meaning of ‘Afghan’ which is a self-designation of Pashtuns. Ethnologically, Afgh ān is the term by which Pashtuns are designated by Persian-speakers. Below is a definition of the term by the Encyclopaedia Iranica:

"The term "Afgh ān" has probably designated the Paštūn since ancient times. Under the form Avag ānā , this ethnic group is first mentioned by the Indian astronomer Var āha Mihira in the beginning of the 6 th century A.D. in his Brahat-samahita. The Sanscrit mention the people of Ashvakan and later it turns into Upa-Gun and Âpa-Gân."

The same is stated by the 17 th century Pashto poet Khushal Khan Khattak:

Pull out your sword and slay any one,
That says Pashtun and Afghan are not one!
Arabs know this and so do Romans:
Afghans are Pashtuns, Pashtuns are Afghans!

But what is alarming in Rishteen’s point of view is the degree of his chauvinistic negligence towards other ethnicities of the country. Even now, 45 years later, only 35% of the nation speak Pashto, while native Persian-speakers of Afghanistan constitute 50% of the population, according to the latest CIA figures.

It should be mentioned that "Afghanistan" as the name of the country was confirmed in King Amanullah Khan’s constitution only in 1923. The first Constitution does not include the word "Afghan" in its ethno-national sense. In an attempt to weaken Persian cultural influence in the country an ethno-centric Pashtun King Zaher Shah applied the word to every citizen of Afghanistan, woman and man, in his 1964 Constitution. But even now among most of Persian-speakers of Afghanistan the word ‘Afghan’ means ‘Pashtun’ only.

Even Zaher Shah himself, who enforced anti-Persian policies and renamed the language to Dari preferred to speak in Persian. In his report to Washington Counsellor of the American Embassy in Kabul H.B. Leggett writes: "The reporting officer refrained from stating an even more embarrassing fact that the Royal Family (Zaher Shah’s court – twc) contains very few persons who can speak adequate Pushtu, especially among the younger generation."

Leggett underlines another important etymological fact that the word ‘Parsiwan’ in Pushtu applies to "any Afghan whose mother tongue is Farsi. Also spelled Farsiban, the more literary, and hence less common, form". Thus, Pushtuns admit that the native language of Tajiks is Parsi – Persian, rather than Dari. The latter is believed to be merely an attribute or adjective for "Farsi" and is supposed to follow the noun: Parsi (Farsi)-ye Dari (literally: Court Persian).

Throughout H. Leggett’s diplomatic dispatch ("Indications that RGA May Place More Emphasis on Pashtu"; July 13, 1963) the language is still called "Farsi". "Dari" is not mentioned even once. Only a year later the American Embassy gets acquainted with the new term (Dari) endorsed by King Zaher Shah and consequently inserted in his Constitution.

Zaher Shah’s Constitution was clearly designed to create a monolithic state that could lead the country to a monoethnic society. Perhaps he was inspired by the Soviet Union’s methods of artificial unification of hundreds of ethnic groups as a "Soviet nation". Those methods fired back with catastrophic consequences that ended the super power.

But in 1960s Soviet ethnic unification was bearing fruits and ethnic languages like Uzbek, Azeri, Moldovan, Turkmen, Persian (Tajik), Kyrgyz and Kazakh and dozens of smaller languages were successfully distorted and largely Russified. Zaher Shah tried hard to apply the same methods for Pashtunization of Afghanistan by renaming the strongest language of the country and isolating it from its speakers abroad and replacing its words with their Pashto equivalents. In Tajikistan, for instance, the nation was ordered to use the Russian word "Universitet" in the place of "Dar-ol-fonun" or "Daneshgah", whereas their fellow Tajiks in Afghanistan were forced to accept a freshly-minted Pashto term "Pohantoon" with the same meaning.

Despite the fact that 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan (Article 3) declares Pashtu and "Dari" as the official languages of the country, further down the text, in Article 35 it doesn’t hide the Pashtun King’s inclination towards only one of these two languages:

"It is the duty of the state to prepare and implement an effective program for the development and strengthening of the national language, Pashtu."

The term "national language" appears in the Constitution incoherently. It is not mentioned in previous articles. But this article gives Pashto – a language spoken by a minority of people – a special status. Bear in mind that Persian (Dari) is the native language of at least 50% of Afghanistan’s population, according to latest CIA figures, whereas Pashto is spoken by only 35%.

The American reporting officer in July 1963 sensed the forthcoming battle against the Persian language in Afghanistan. He was aware of a royal decree promulgated in 1932 or 1933, "which announced that Pushtu would be the sole official language within three years." A task that proved too hard to be put into action.

Herbert Leggett, the Counsellor of the American Embassy in Kabul for Political Affairs believed that Kabul University might be the first institution to be Pashtunized. In his July 1963 report to the US Department of State he states:

"For nearly two years he (the reporting officer - twc) has used the Farsi term for University, i.e. Daneshgah, and until his recent visit at the University this term has not been challenged. However, University officials politely but firmly pointed out that the official Afghan name for University is Pohantoon, a Pushtu word. While it is understood that this term has been in use for many years it may be significant that Afghans, including people from the University, have only recently taken open exception to the Farsi term. Incidentally, University officials also suggested the use of other Pushtu terms in the place of two or three Farsi words which the reporting officer used in the conversation."

Actually the American reporting officer was giving an account of the dawn of Afghan linguistic purge that was not restricted to Afghan (Pashto) language only. Pashtuns renamed Farsi to Dari and Pashtuns were about to compile its vocabulary to make it as Afghan as possible. The American declassified document indicates that the term "Daneshgah" had been in use before 1963 and was prohibited only later.

Leggett concludes that "the possibility of a really serious RGA (Zaher Shah’s establishment) effort to develop Pushtu as the most important language of Afghanistan does not appear very real. The handicap which such a move would place on Afghan education would be very great, and it would undoubtedly hinder the RGA’s long-range economic development plans." There is no need to question if the conclusion was sound enough.

According to the document, the reporting officer had been criticized for having bothered at all to learn Persian. "This attitude is especially noticeable in the Eastern border areas (Pushtu speaking) of Afghanistan. On occasion some Pushtuns have referred scornfully to Farsi as a "woman’s" language, although they themselves speak it." This paragraph indicates the level of Pushtun antipathy against the Persian language and the fact that Persian was spoken by Pushtuns in remote areas of the country as well.

A new Constitution was adopted in 2003 that has chosen a milder and less ethnocentric tone. Its preamble refers to citizens of the country as "people of Afghanistan" and article 4, Chapter 1, reads:

"The nation of Afghanistan is comprised of the following ethnic groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbak, Turkman, Baluch, Pashai, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, Brahwui and others."

Article 16, Chapter 1, elaborates:

"From among the languages of Pashto, Dari, Uzbaki, Turkmani, Baluchi, Pashai, Nuristani, Pamiri (languages), Arab and other languages spoken in the country, Pashto and Dari are the official languages of the state."

The questionable Article 35 of 1964 Constitution has been omitted. Nevertheless, as a Pashtun Zaher Shah sympathizer, Hamid Karzai has kept the clause that applies the word "Afghan" to every citizen of Afghanistan.

We can allow ourselves to be more pedantic about the order of the languages in the Constitution. Why should Pashto be the first one in the list, while it’s a well-known fact that Persian-speakers outnumber Pashto-speakers? Even the alphabetical order cannot justify this approach.

However, it could be firmly stated that according to Article 16 of the new Constitution, the Afghan Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khorram has breached the law by reprimanding journalists for using Persian words in their reporting:

"The state adopts and implements effective plans for strengthening, and developing all languages of Afghanistan. Publications and radio and television broadcasting are allowed in all languages spoken in the country."

Mr. Khurram could have a walk around the capital and beyond to ask people what language they speak. Most of them presumably would reply: Farsi (Persian). At least it would be better if the Pashtun government attended to its "badly faltering Pushtu language" (as put by Herbert B. Leggett) and left Persian-speakers with their language alone.

In August 2006 Abdul Karim Khurram, then a newly appointed Minister of Culture and Youth Affairs, stated that he was against separating Pashto and "Dari" languages. It is true that Afghan (Pashto) and Persian languages linguistically belong to the same Iranian group of languages. But their separation has not occurred yesterday. They have taken each its own path centuries ago. It is not clear what Khurram meant by keeping the two languages together. Certainly, by liquidating Persian words and implanting Pashto ones in their place his goal could not be achieved. It will just inflame tensions in an ethnically charged atmosphere of Afghanistan.

 

 
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