The Pulse

Afghanistan’s War of Words

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The Pulse

Afghanistan’s War of Words

Tensions are rising over the use of Afghanistan’s two official languages.

Afghanistan’s War of Words
Credit: 1st Lt. Emily Chilson

Pohantun (Pashto) or daneshgah (Persian), which of the two should be used as the word for “university” in Afghanistan?

The Afghan constitution recognizes both Persian (Dari) and Pashto as the country’s official languages; in practice, however, there is less agreement on which of these two languages should be used on the signboards of public institutions. Recently, the Persian equivalent for “university” (daneshgah) on the new signboard for Herat University – which was written in three languages, Persian, Pashto and English – was defaced. A group of students went on strike and installed another signboard written in the three languages, but it was subsequently removed by the chief of the Provincial Council.

Commenting on the dispiriting incident, an MP from Ghazni province, Arif Rahmani reacted to this incident saying “burning the Herat University signboard is a political plot, a dangerous game to spread hatred among ethnic groups. The national Security Council should punish those who have committed this crime and prevent conflicts among university students.”

It is not uncommon for nationalist leaders to promote a specific language as the “national language” for their own political ends. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Afghan nationalists have seen Pashto as the unifying factor. Mahmud Tarzi and other Afghans considered Pashto to be a key feature that would distinguish the Afghan nation from its neighbor Iran. During the tenure of Prime Minister Hashim Khan (1929-1956), Pashto became the official language of Afghanistan.

The name of Afghanistan’s currency, today the afghani, was once the Kabuli rupee. It was issued during the reign of King Amanullah Khan in the second decade of twentieth century, and bore a description written in Persian. Around the four corners of the paper currency, the amount of the note was written in four languages: Persian, Pashto, Urdu and Uzbeki. However with the establishment of the central bank (Da Afghanistan Bank), the  Kabuli rupee was replaced with the afghani and the language used on the currency was changed to Pashto. The other three languages were erased from the corners of the currency. On the back of the note, the amount of the money along with the name of the bank was written in English; a tradition that continues today.

In the 1930s, choosing from among the diverse Persian dialects in Afghanistan, the state declared the Kabuli dialect (known as Dari) to be the standard dialect of Afghanistan Persian. In Afghanistan today, the academic, military and legal titles are in Pashto. In the post-2001 political scenario, the state has, however, acknowledged the multilinguistic nature of Afghan society. Article 16 of the new constitution recognized both Dari and Pashto as the official languages of Afghanistan. In areas where another language is spoken, it was mandated that the other language be made the “third official” language used for official duties.

However, the article then contradicts itself by mentioning “Academic and national administrative terminology and usage in the country shall be preserved.” This has led to conflicts among native speakers of Persian and Pashto. Upholding the usage of what is called “national terminology” that are in Pashto, the Supreme Court of Afghanistan issued a decree stipulating that Pashto terms such as pohantoon (university), pohanzai (department), pohanmal (research assistance), pohand (professor), and pohendyar (PhD), are “legal properties of official languages” and should be used in all languages. The decree emphasizes that using similar words in other languages will create confusion and is unnecessary.

Those officials who speak Pashto argue that the synonyms for these terms are in violation of the Constitution. Pashtun officials also claim that the translated word for Pashto terminologies are not Dari, but are Iranian words. Musa Khan Nasrat believes that using Persian synonyms for Pashto terminologies will cause Pashto to lose its value. On the other hand, Persian-speaking officials believe that Pashto words should be kept but that the Persian translation must be added as well. For nine years, disputes over using the Pashto or Persian synonyms for “university” have delayed the passing of higher education laws. In October 2008, in the Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, a dispute between two groups of students, one pro-Pashto and the other pro-Dari Persian, flared over the university signboard, devolving into a series of fights and protests.

Historically, almost all Afghan leaders have spoken both Persian and Pashto equally well. The current and more recent presidents have been heard using both languages, creating an amalgam of the two. However, there have been times when presidents have preferred one language over the other. For instance, Nur Mohammad Taraki (April 30, 1978 – September 14, 1979) and Hafizullah Amin (September 14 – December 27, 1979) tended to prefer Pashto. In contrast, Babrak Karmal (December 27, 1979 – June 11, 1981) is said to have preferred Persian, perhaps influenced by his urban intellectual background. The 2004 Constitution does not mandate that the president or other officials know both languages; however, for credibility, officials do need to know both Persian and Pashto, as access to both languages makes discharge of official obligations easier.

To attract the support of language communities, politicians and governments have tried to get their message across using the native languages of their targeted community. Very soon after the 1978 coup, the communist revolutionary administrations were sending message to key ethnic communities in weekly newspapers published in Uzbeki, Turkmen, and Baluchi. Articles consisted chiefly of government declarations, speeches, and decrees. In the 2014 presidential election, the Uzbek leader, General Abdur Rashid Dostum who was the running mate to the current President Ashraf Ghani, spent huge amounts printing posters, newspapers and other material in the Uzbeki language. In fact, with the intent of reaching the Uzbeki vote, Ghani in one of his TV statements during the campaign spoke some words in Uzbeki, a very rare occurrence in Afghanistan.

The homogenization of Afghanistan’s diverse linguistic culture, which began from the second decade of the twentieth century, kept Dari (Persian) underdeveloped and isolated it from its Farsi branch of Persian. However, despite it being kept out of power circles, it could not be eliminated entirely. Also, one cannot ignore the tremendous impact that state-aided linguistic discrimination has had on Pashto; elevating it from its position as a tribal and academically poor language to a well-organized linguistic system with a deeper vocabulary and a legal status on a par with the historically rich language of Persian.

In the past 15 years, the inflow of Persian academic and fiction books, magazines and literary texts from Iran, as well as the migration of more than two million Afghan citizens to that country have helped make Persian a popular language among students and authors. New means of communication have empowered Persian speakers; transnational Persian radio, TV, Internet and social media where the cultural exchanges between Persian speaking countries – Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan – have blurred the boundaries among the different accents of the Persian family of dialects. Recognizing this, the Afghanistan government needs to develop the right kind of policy to deal with evolving status and use of language in its country.

Rustam Ali Seerat is pursuing an MA in international relations at South Asian University in New Delhi.