Originally posted on the now defunct Tajikestan.com  


Pashtunisation, a Stalinist method

As mentioned earlier, Pashtunisation in Afghanistan is a mirror image of Uzbekisation in vast areas of Central Asia with a mere difference in subjects involved in the two processes. Uzbekisation accompanied by a strong element of Russification had been designed to weaken the Persian language of Central Asia and alienate it from other Persian-speakers on the other side of the border. Whereas Pashtunisation is led by speakers of another less developed eastern Iranian language (Pashto) at the expense of other languages spoken in Afghanistan, primarily Persian that has remained as the lingua franca of the country, spoken and understood in all but the remotest settlements.

According to I.M. Oranski (1977), Persian was the only official language of Afghanistan until 1933, “but during the 1930s, a movement for promoting the status of Pashto to the official level began to take hold.” (Ulrich Ammon, Sociolinguistics).

Musahiban pioneers of Pashtunisation have sought to elevate their vernacular Pashto to the status of a vehicular language by downgrading the main language of the country – Persian. Their far-fledged ideas have been hindered by impossibility of developing Pashto into a comprehensive self-sufficient language in short term. But they have to some extent succeeded in damaging and mutilating some Persian linguistic norms in Afghanistan. Tajikistanweb has provided the details of the process earlier based on declassified American documents. Here some more details and observations will be added to complete the picture by drawing parallels between the two anti-Persian movements on both sides of the Oxus.

The Pashtun King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (1933-1973) had similar concerns as the Soviets in 1920s. He was anxious about the rise of Iranian cultural and political influence in the region as well what prompted him to rename Persian to Dari (a medieval literary synonym for Persian meaning ‘the language of Court’) in 1964. The process of segregation was finally accomplished to bring about the most contradictory linguistic fact of the modern world: three nations speak three ‘languages’ under different names (Persian, Tajiki, Dari) but nevertheless comprehend each other perfectly. In the same spirit administrative measures were put in place with the target of publishing 50 % of written material in Pashto.

As in the Tajikistani case, the process of linguistic alienation in Afghanistan is being nourished by non-Tajik elements. Even the latest incident of punishing journalists for using Persian words brought a Pashtun minister (Abdul Karim Khurram) into the limelight. Khurram was nervous about the ‘un-Islamic’ influence of Persian over ‘Dari’, while authentic speakers of Persian in Afghanistan raised their voices to emphasize the oneness of ‘Dari’ and the Persian of Iran. Thus, non-Persians, namely Pashtuns, renamed a language that does not natively belong to them and are still trying to enforce their own version of Persian in the country. The picture is reminiscent of what had happened in Soviet Central Asia.

Pashto ‘Universal’ Terms

Going back to 1960s, Mehdi Marashi writes in his “Persian Studies in North America”:

“Although literacy in Pashto was still negligible at the time and still lags behind Persian within Afghanistan, a number of institutions were given Pashto names to be used irrespective of language, such as “pohantun” for university, making official dari immediately divergent from farsi.”

‘Universal’ Pashto terms like pohantun, pohanzay (faculty), saranwali (prosecutor-general’s office), roghtun (hospital) and others had been coined by an institution called Pashto Tulana (the Pashto Academy). The Academy established in 1936 wielded an exceptional power in imposing words and terms on all languages spoken in Afghanistan, while their equivalents already existed in languages like Persian. One of its main tasks was to artificially distinguish ‘Dari’ from the Persian of Iran. In the same year Pashto was imposed as the language of education with a little success.

“A further problem was that the intelligentsia and the court spoke and wrote in Persian, the traditional language of culture. King Zahir himself had only rudimentary Pushtu” (Gilles Dorronsoro, Afghanistan: Revolution Unending, 1979-2002).

According to Amin Saikal, “in the mid 1960s, feverish attempts were made to hammer out a literary Pashtu based on its southern (Paktiya) dialect. A flurry of publications in the influential journal of the Afghan Academy, Kabul, authored mainly by an inveterate Pashtun chauvinist Rishtin (the head of Pashto Tulana – twc), extolled Pashtu as the language that had matured on the territory of Afghanistan long before the advent of Islam, but was subsequently suppressed by various conquerors and despots” (Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival). Similar allegations have been made in Central Asia against the Persian.

The apartheid Pashtunisation policy had a far-stretching agenda. During 1950s and 1960s the Afghan army recruited mainly Ghilzai and eastern Pashtuns into the military colleges as the government wished to use it as a tool for the Pashtunisation of the country. By 1970s the overwhelming majority of young officers were Pashtun. Hazaras and Uzbeks were actually excluded from military.

During a more aggressive phase of the process in 1970s radio broadcasts in many vernacular languages were cancelled.

By the mid 1970s, 70 percent of top and middle-level positions in Afghanistan’s civil and military hierarchies were occupied by Pashtuns (Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival).

In a multiethnic country like Afghanistan the chauvinistic policy of Pashtunisation certainly contributed to the exacerbation of ethnic tensions. As put by a Soviet writer, “The policy of Pashtunisation… gave definite advantages first of all to Pashtuns, and then to those who had mastered the language.”

Seemingly, the process has revived under the Karzai administration and the Afghan Culture Ministry has replaced Pashto Tulana as a vehicle of further Pashtunisation in the country.

Persian, Still Persian

However, enormous efforts by colonial and chauvinistic forces have failed to practically divide the Persian language into three separate linguistic branches. Persian remains the main language for all public purposes in all three Persian-speaking countries. Native speakers pay a little significance to the idea of a separate identity in “Dari” and “Tajiki”. The world media refers to the three countries as the ‘Persian-speaking community’. Persian continues to be a community language for millions more in other parts of Central Asia, South-West Asia and the Persian Gulf. And it is one of the main sources of word-building in other languages of the area.

Mehdi Marashi believes that the language is still known mostly as ‘Persian’ (farsi, parsi). But now as Tajikistani Persians “become aware of the significance of their unexpected independence and renew relations with their Persophone neighbours, they are faced with a new dilemma. Should they keep the Cyrillic alphabet, in which they were educated (either in tojiki or, in the case of many of the intelligentsia, in Russian), or switch back to the Perso-Arabic alphabet? To stay with Cyrillic would defeat their purpose of rejoining their historical community, the only community fully open to them. But if they switch and the neighbouring republics do not, they will have cut themselves off from the tojiki-speakers of Samarqand, Bokhara, and the rest of Central Asia. There are no reliable census figures for these other Central Asian Persian-speakers, but they could easily equal the Persian-speakers of Tajikistan in number!” (Mehdi Marashi, “Persian Studies in North America”).

 Within Tajikistan itself academics have called for return to Perso-Arabic script blaming the cultural crisis of the country on the Cyrillic alphabet that has restricted Tajiks’ access to Persian writings published abroad. It seems as the only feasible and inevitable way to protect and develop the Persian of Central Asia by bringing it out of prolonged isolation.

The recent Persophone foreign ministers’ meeting in Dushanbe and their plans to establish a union of Persian-speaking countries have triggered some concern in Russia. “Iran considers Tajikistan a part of ‘the Greater Iran’, writes Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “Dushanbe’s aspiration toward Tehran could be explained by the geopolitical law of the weaker’s inclination to the stronger. Furthermore, they are kinfolks with a common language, shared culture and history.”

As Lena Jonson suggests in her book Vladimir Putin and Central Asia (2004), Tajikistan’s reorientation towards its ethnic kinfolk in future seems completely logical:

“Nonetheless, with a Persian language, in contrast to the other Turkic-speaking Central Asian states, and with a large group of ethnic kinfolk in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan also seemed to have the potential for a future foreign policy reorientation away from Russia.”