This is the story of a young Pakistani man, let’s call him Reza. Reza spent his early years in what was then East-Pakistan and what is today a different country, Bangladesh. Reza’s family were Muslims from Bihar, who at the time of Indian partition in 1947 had to leave their ancestral home in Bihar and moved to neighboring East-Pakistan. In contrast to the majority of East-Pakistanis who spoke Bangla, Reza’s family were, like most Biharis, Urdu speakers. Consequently, in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War the Biharis sided with West-Pakistan. However, when (West-)Pakistan lost the war and had to withdraw from East-Pakistan, now Bangladesh, they abandoned the Biharis, and to this day an estimated number of 250,000 Biharis live as stateless persons without citizenship rights in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Reza’s family, too, got caught up in the turmoil. When he was four, Reza witnessed his uncle being killed for being a Bihari – in the eyes of many Bangladeshis, an exponent of Pakistani domination. However, unlike other Biharis, who have come to be known as “stranded Pakistanis,” Reza’s family managed to flee to Pakistan in 1971.

In Bangladesh, Urdu-speakers such as the Biharis were living symbols of Pakistani domination. In Pakistan, their Bihari-accented Urdu marked them as unwelcome refugees from the East. One of Reza’s earliest memories is of his family being outsiders because they were Urdu speakers in East-Pakistan. However, his outsider status did not change after their move to West-Pakistan.When he started school in Karachi, his peers would often make fun of him and his Bihari accent. To be called a “Bihari” became a daily insult. To this day, Reza remembers running home crying after being teased as “Bihari.” This linguistic bullying had a devastating effect on Reza. He began to avoid socializing and internalized the belief that he and his family were inferior while the speakers of “good” or “unaccented” Urdu were superior. As a Bihari it seemed there was no place to be – unwelcome and abused both in the East and the West.

Soon, Reza transformed himself into a speaker of “unaccented” Urdu, who spoke the same as everyone else in Karachi. As a matter of fact, this dominant accent of Urdu is a mix of the accents of Punjabi, Pashto, Balochi and Sindhi. It was a different story with Reza’s parents. They never quite managed to acquire this new accent, which was far removed from the Urdu spoken in India, where they had grown up. In order to hide his Bihari identity, Reza avoided introducing his parents to others and started to keep a distance from his family.

Reza soon learnt that an even more effective way to gain respect was to transform himself not only into a Karachi-accented speaker of Urdu but an English speaker. He went to an English-medium school and Reza idolized his teachers, who seemed to speak English fluently. Reza, like everyone else, thought those English speakers were educated, enlightened and modern. They were real human beings, and those who could not speak English somehow seemed less than human. Eventually, Reza completed a Bachelor’s degree in English followed by a Master’s degree in English Literature and English Linguistics. By now he had thoroughly escaped his Bihari identity and was “making it” in the world. He pretended to be so in love with English that he spoke it all the time, and he finally got the respect that he had been denied in his childhood.

Even so, and despite all his qualifications, achievements and upward social mobility, he is haunted by the fear that a trace of that Bihari accent might suddenly surface in his speech and expose him as a fraud. He never tells anyone that he was born in East-Pakistan and he makes every effort to keep his children away from the Bihari community. He has deliberately left many good people behind only because of the fact that his association with them would expose him as a Bihari. Above all, he cannot afford to lose any more family members by becoming a member of minority speakers in Pakistan. Despite the massive bloodshed stemming initially from the partition of India and later the creation of Bangladesh, the state of Pakistan still promotes monolingualism in multilingual Pakistan.

Reza’s linguistic trajectory is deeply enmeshed with the upheavals of the 20th century. A question that bothers him most often is this: Can people do nothing more than strive to escape the prison of their language or is there a way to tear down the prison walls?

Author Muhammad Ali Khan

More posts by Muhammad Ali Khan
  • Thanks, Khan – it is a privilege to be able to read a story like this. Through this, we learn yet another way in which language ideologies, linguistic practices and nation states so poignantly intersect with one’s life trajectory.

    The question posed is indeed a challenging one and is something for which I have no immediate answers, except to say that informing the world by telling stories is one, very powerful way forward.

    And welcome to our Language on the Move blog team.

  • Alifar

    A lucid read, Khan. Good work. I have, however, a few things to say.
    The story of Reza might be the story of many individuals who speak- and are troubled by their- accented Urdu. However, in modern day Karachi, people from various ethnico-linguistic backgrounds speak Urdu in the accent of their mother tongue. Sindhis speak Urdu in Sindhi accent, Punjabis in Punjabi accent, and Pathans in Pushto accent. Most of them do not seem to be perturbed by their accents and make little, if any, effort to adopt the Lucknowi (so-called standard) accent. Changing their accent, I believe, is the last of their worries.
    Sensitive people like Reza, who want to get rid of their linguistic past, are, in my opinion, quite few. The major reason for them to get rid of their linguistic past is for their upward social mobility and appears to be a reflection of their slavish mentality.
    In my opinion, the main purpose of any language is effective communication and transmission of knowledge. Language is a form of representation and should be, thus, considered only for its utility. Unfortunately, in this not so ideal world, accent- which is a cosmetic part of language- takes precedence.
    Your question, thus, can be reposed as:

    Is it absolutely necessary for one to escape from the prison of one’s childhood accent? If yes, why? If no, why not?

    Answering these questions would lead one into a socio-ecnomico-cultural analysis of accents and, subsequently, of a comprehensive understanding of the issue.

  • Ingrid Piller

    Thank you for your comment, Alifar. The way I understand language and accent, particularly in the context of migration, “a comprehensive understanding of the issue” is impossible because different accents work in different ways in different contexts.

    I don’t know much about the linguistic landscape of Pakistan but I would imagine that Sindhi and Punjabi accents are less stigmatized than the Bihari accent. I’m grateful that Khan gave us the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the experience of what it means to sound Bihari in different times and places.

    As long as we haven’t walked in Reza’s shoes, I don’t think any of us is in a position to judge him as having a slavish mentality or being overly sensitive …

  • Alifar

    Thank you for your comment, Ingrid. I really appreciate it. A comprehensive understanding of the issue is a very arduous task. However, I do not think it is totally impossible, unless we refer to the shortcomings and limitations of language itself, which serves as a medium of analysis.
    Secondly, being a Pakistani, I do not believe that Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushto, Balochi, Saraiki, Hindko, Bihari, Brauhi- to name a few- accents are stigmatized in any way. Every accent has its own peculiarity and is made fun off in more or less the same way. Mostly people do not make fun of the accents with ill-will and malice and generally people are tolerant of the fun made of accents, at least, in the urban setting of Karachi (where Reza has been a dweller).
    Thirdly, I never claimed Reza to be “overly” sensitive. However, the fact that Reza was sensitive can be little doubted. To quote Khan:

    “…Reza remembers running home crying after being teased as “Bihari.” …He began to avoid socializing and internalized the belief that he and his family were inferior while the speakers of “good” or “unaccented” Urdu were superior.”

    This kind of reaction (and behaviour) can only be of a sensitive person.
    And, finally, I agree that I should not have used the word slavish to describe Reza’s mentality. Reza, as inferred from Khan’s write up, can be seen as suffering from a deep-rooted insecurity and inferiority complex, which may or may not have resulted in slavish mentality.

  • khan

    Thanks for your interesting comments, Alifar. I think on a macro level the piece shows how linguistics can intersect with discrimination, migration and identity issues. At micro level especially seen from Critical Linguistics or Critical Discourse Analysis perspective the story of Reza will show to all discerning readers the power relations/ power inequality between speakers of different languages in Karachi in the context of migration as Professor Ingrid rightly hinted at in her reply. Reza was not accorded the social status of’ son of soil’ by his fellows primarily because of the fact that his accent deviated from the norm of the majority accent. So, he was made to belief by speakers of dominant languages that he was an outsider and that he had no claim to his country.

    I agree with your comment to the extent that people speak Urdu with different accents in Karachi but they do not acccept/accomodate the variations that exist in them. However, sociolinguistically these variations enjoy varying prestige depending upon number of factors.

    Urdu is primarily associated with people who migrated to Pakistan after its creation in 1947 and with Biharis who came to West Pakistan from east-Pakistan (present day Banglades)

    I wish Karachi’s linguistic landscape had existed as peacefully as your comment shows. Contrary, its present and past is replete with bloodshed, tension, discrimination based on what language one speaks and how one speaks. Reza’s story brings out discrimination, tension, and identity issues in present day Karachi, I suppose.

    If you notice the city is divided (not by administration) along the language line, there are areas for Pushton speakers, Sindhi speaker, Urdu speaker (mohajirs) and Punjabi speakers etc. Similarly educational institutions, pubic and private sector institutions are strong holds of different ethnic groups. They all speak Urdu but they construct themselves and other differently. Punjabi speakers of Urdu exert/constructed themselves as Punjabi primarily. Likewise Pushton, Sindhi and others link their identity to the indigenous languages they speak . Urdu speakers, mohajirs as they are called ( translation: migrants) are still constructed as outsiders by the speakers of dominant languages and in areas in Karachi where mohagirs (migrants) outnumber others, they stigmatize Puston, Sindhi and Punjabi accents of Urdu etc . Violence erupts every second day in the streets of Karachi and one of the central issue at the bottom of such incidents is of non acceptance of other languages.

    The stranded ‘Biharis’ in Bangladesh are still living in camps hoping to come back to their homeland ‘Pakistan’ but they are opposed by speakers of dominant languages. The slogan in Sindhi Language still reverberates in the streets of Karachi: Bihari na Khappey( translation: Biharis are not accepted).

    Please find attached a recent speech made by a Pushton leader in Karachi.

    My translation of urdu-bits of the public speech recently delivered by a political leader of Pustoon as I don’t understand Pushto:

    Leader: When Pakistan got independence, these people ‘Bhayya’ (migrants) came over to Pakistan to seek shelter in this country. Clapping……. .We call them in our Pushto Language ‘ Panna Guzir’( displaced people who take temporary residence in other country). In India they were beaten up and expelled……. Claps….. When these people could not settle down there, they came to us. Now the same migrants call their benefactors that they are outsiders. It is sin to think that Pushton speakers will ever go out of the Karachi. Those who think like that are all mad and mad people should either be sent to lunatic houses or be slapped in their faces. Claps……

    (Code switches to Pushton)

    Lady: I want to warn the residents of Karachi that it will take no time that the city will turn into a valley of death.

    (Public display of arms carried by unknown people)


  • Gladys

    Thanks Khan for sharing this. The piece clearly illustrtrates the deep interconnections between ethnicity, language and identity on the one hand, i.e. how we or others construct identities for ourselves based on our ethnic origins or the language we speak, including how we speak it. On the other hand, it also shows how ethnic identity/linguitic identity is often employed in politics to include and/or exclude others. On a less serious note, it is amazing how Rezel thought he could completely hide his Bihari identity. Can the leopard change his skin? Food for thought!

  • stef

    Thanks Khan for this post. As an Italian, I have never been aware of such cruel and violent ideological implications linked to language and its accent. Something similar occurred in Italy in the post-war period, but never reached, I think, the violent tones you have just described
    We as linguists are called to carry out investigations that can reveal such ideologism and help people to understand the dangers of discrimination.
    So, Kahn, go ahead!

  • Akram Sultani

    Thanks Khan and all others who commented on Khan’s article on accent and its implications in the specific regions he has mentioned. Let me share one of my own personal experiences which I came across during my school and college life where I met some Bihari students who used to speak Urdu language in typical Bihari accent which resulted them being humiliated by those who were supposedly the speakers of accepted and appreciated accent of Karachitis. Once there was a Bihari student in my class said the word “Moja” means socks which was mispronounced for the accepted accent of the urdu word of “Jurab”… The student’s bihari accent was caught by his peers and they kept on deriding his bihari tone. they even teased him by repeating the word “moja” with elongated tone making him feel disgusted and isolated.

  • saleem islam

    The fact of the matter is quite simply that every case cannot be painted with the same brush.
    In Reza’s case, he, at a very young age was hounded out of one part of what had hitherto been his country.
    At the time that happened, he knew that his mother tongue was different to the one spoken by the majority in his particular environment.
    I assume he had no problem living with that, consciously or sub-consciously.
    However, on coming this part of his country he would likely have absorbed from his elders and others that once in Karachi, he’d be speaking in his mother tongue. As I understand from Khan’s post, the ‘linguistic’ problem started to occur precisely because whereas he now spoke ‘in his mother tongue’ (rather than the majority’s language in his erstwhile home) … it just wasn’t the RIGHT kind of ‘mother tongue’. That must have been devastating for a four-year old child.
    Let’s keep in mind that (Ingrid here) .
    Karachiites of whatever hue, then (as now?) simply did not speak in a ‘Bihari’ style. Nor are people here (perhaps all over the country?) known for an ‘enlightened’ acceptance of something different in their midst.
    I think that’s pretty universal – children CAN be cruel (I guess they don’t realize what they’re doing). At University in the US I recall Upstate New Yorkers talk denigratingly among themselves about New Jersey, Georgian and NYC/ Long Island accents. In boarding school up in the Murree Hills (Pakistan), the Paharias’ (mountain folk) accent was an object of derision by the boys from the plains.
    Now, I’d say Reza was not from ‘sensitive people’ as commented above … rather from sensitive children … which children CAN be. I’d say the psycho-dynamics are different. ANY child can come home crying for whatever reason. In fact school bullying is a major issue in England, from whatever I’ve read about it. That’s one thing. Another is that whereas there has been comment on various ethno-groups speaking their accented Urdu language without any qualms about it, the fact of the matter is that none of those referred groups are generally taken as having been HOUNDED out of their homesteads as such. They’ve simply come to Karachi having planned to do so, or maybe ended up just drifting here. But they weren’t HOUNDED out.
    Perhaps one ‘equivalent’ example might be that of Afghan refugees, or those of the displaced persons from Pakistan’s Swat region (a ‘war zone’ for quite some time). In the case of the former, the Government AND international agencies of all kinds provided for them. In time, the original refugees also became de facto and effective support groups for new arrivals, as it were. In the case of the second, again the government provided for them (I think even transport in many cases) – as it was already known on account of planned military action in their areas. So one would guard against putting the Rezas in the same boat as many of the other refugee/ displaced children.

  • saleem islam

    Hi, missed out a line above:
    “Let’s keep in mind that (Ingrid here)” is to be followed by .

  • Sea of Poppies

    This captures very neatly one side of the dilemma. What about those who could not go over to (West) Pakistan? I know the trauma of those Biharis who were left behind and who are/were really caught between Urdu and Bangla. Someday I hope to tell their stories. I would be very happy if you could manage to read Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. It is full of people from Bihar and their special dialect called Bhojepuri. The Indian media still use the speakers of this dialect as a rich source of fun. But Ghosh has made a case in his book for which every Bihari should feel pround. Once more my sincerest homage to literature – it sets you free from claustrophobia!

  • Salman

    Being the decendant of a Biahri Muslim Parents and growing up in Karachi ,my family had to go through the same toment as have been mentioned .

    Some of you calling Reza sensitive doesnot camouflage the fact that he alone didnot face themockery by his peers , we all did and acted naturally ,as Reza did .

    We shall never be able to quantify the pain and agony we had face , but there had been a very positive outcome of these teasings , in my family ,we all ( and many of the Biharis ) had to be introvert and we found solace in studying keeping ourselves aloof from the surrounding .

    Caomparing to the Muhajirs ( the teasers ) the Biharis are much much more literate in Karachi and Paksitan ,dominating in almost all spheres of the Professional echelon in percentag vis a vis their population .

    And last but not least , guess what ,when the Pushtoon druglords beat the hell up off the Muhajirs they literally came begging on their knees to the Biharis in Orangi town to help save them from Marauding Pathans . And Biharis did made the eqilibrium on the fighting turf to save the ass of the Muhajirs .

    So , after all the disparaging cackophony , humiliation to our liguistic accent , guess who had the last laugh .

    All my well wishes to the commentors who sympathsized with Reza .

    We Biharis have forgotten and forgiven , but in some remote corner of our heart ,we still feel the pang .

    Peace and love to all . Live and Let live .

  • Usama Riaz

    Great article. As an overseas Pakistani, I thought these kind of things only happen in namely European countries, where many Asians have abandoned their own heritage just to appear to be integrating. It was a shock to read how much discrimination there is in our own country.

    Another point your article highlight however, is the presumed superiority of English speakers. This inferiority complex in unaccented Urdu, but Non-English speakers is also worrying.

    We are happy to fight for and defend our Muslim brothers and sisters in foreign countries (only for political gains) but ironically we are oblivious of the discrimination other Muslims face within our own country. The only solution is to go back to Quaid-e-Azams Pakistan with a vision of no discrimination on the basis of religion, language, ethnicity etc etc.

  • a great article , it was a trouble time for South Asia when Pakistan and india become to Separate Countries, but it was more trouble for those whose family are living in both side, i think this article reveals that picture , and its great, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us