Getting Killed in Urdu in Pakistan

Urdu speakers take much pride in their language. They particularly flaunt Urdu’s allegedly unique ability to put into resounding words whatever spasm of politesse grabs them at any time. It’s often edifying to see the results, particularly when the politesse is mixed comes packaged with an intense desire to be “religiously correct”.

Consider talking of death. Urdu has one perfectly good, all-purpose word: marnā (to die). We also have, for the purpose of being more specific in a certain “technical” sense, qatl honā (to be murdered) and halāk honā (to die a violent death of some other kind, say, in an epidemic or a train crash). We also have generally applicable euphemistic expressions, such as uTh jānā and guzar jānā (to be lifted from the world; to pass on). Then there are the more “formal” or “dignified” expressions for a general use, like wafāt pānā and intiqāl honā (to die). I may write, Pandit Nehru kā intiqāl 1949 men huā, or Qaid Azam ne 1950 men wafāt pāī, and in both cases my Urdu would be considered quite correct. I would, in fact, get an A for not using marnā with reference to the two statesmen. On facts alone would I be denounced, and rightly so.

Now consider the situations that the editors of some Urdu newspaper in Pakistan recently faced, and the decisions they made regarding the word “killed.”

In December 2014 there was a horrifying attack on the students of the Army Public School at Peshawar. The headline of the report in the Jang read:

In the terrorist attack on the Army Public School, 137 persons, including children, were killed (shahīd) and more than 245 injured.

The report then used the word shahīd (martyr) several times with reference to the victims, in general, and the children, in particular. I was not able to access the report in the Express, but one can be sure that it too did exactly the same.

A month later, there was an equally dastardly attack on a Shi’ah mosque in Shikarpur, in which 58 persons, including many children, lost their lives, and many more were injured. This is how the Jang headlined its report on January 30, 2015:

Fifty-eight persons, including children, who had come to offer Friday prayers were killed (jān ba-haq) when an explosion occurred inside the Imambargah at Lakhi Dar in Shikarpur.

Jān ba-haq is an abbreviation of the euphemistic expression jān ba-haq taslīm karnā, i.e. “to submit one’s life to God.” The report used that expression throughout. In this case, I was able to check the report in the Express—they too had done exactly the same.

On May 7, 2015, there was a tragic accident in Gilgit in which an army helicopter carrying various foreign diplomats crashed while landing. The Jang reported it with the headline:

Due to some technical problem, a Pakistani army helicopter crashed near Gilgit, and seven persons were killed (jān ba-haq).

However, as the report progressed, the paper used (jān ba-Haq) with reference to the ambassadors and their wives, and consistently used shahīd when it referred to the two Army pilots and one Army technician. The Express, in this case, consistently used the common expression halāk hona (to be killed) with reference to both groups. Two other papers that I looked into, Dunya and Nai Bat, followed the Jang’s example, and used jān ba-Haq with reference to the foreigners and shahīd concerning the Pakistani army personnel. Apparently, in the opinion of the Jang, Dunya, and Nai Bat, even the Muslim wives of the Ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia were not considered fit to be designates as martyrs.

A few days later there was a horrible attack on a private bus in Karachi. The Jang reported it in this manner:

Terrorists forced their way into a bus of the Isma’ili community and blindly opened fire on innocent passengers, as a result 45 persons, including women, were killed (jān ba-Haq).

The same expression was used in the three other newspapers that I checked that day: Dunya, Express, and Nai Bat.

Earlier this year, on Sunday, March 15, two separate suicide bombers attacked two churches in Lahore. As a result 15 Christian worshippers died, while 79 were severely injured. Both the Jang and Express reported the tragedy in bold letters on their front pages, but both used the expression halāk honā to refer to the Christian victims of the attack. Mercifully, the suicide bombers, both Muslims, were not called either shahīd or jān ba-haq. In fact, they were not much mentioned at all.

Five years back, on May 28, 2010, Lahore witnessed another ghastly carnage, when two Ahmadi mosques were similarly attacked during the Friday congregational prayers. As a result 88 worshippers, including women and children, instantly lost their lives, and more than 200 worshippers were badly injured. Urdu newspapers rigorously referred to them as mahlukīn (the killed). And, of course, as required by law in Pakistan, they referred to the Ahmadi mosques as ahmadī ‘ibādatgāh.

The headline in the Express next day read:

Firing in Ahmadi Worship-places in Garhi Shahu and Model Town; Suicide bombings; 88 killed (halāk), 200 wounded.

In the body of the full report, the Express used the expressions halāk honā and marnā when referring to the victims, except near the very end when it said: “It is feared that the number of people killed (jān ba-haq) in this terrorist attack could exceed 100.” Earlier the report mentioned that one of the victims was Major General (retd.) Nasir Ahmad—a cousin of Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister—but both times used the verb marnā. The report in the next day’s paper used marnā and halāk honā exclusively. I was not able to access the issues of the Jang—their Internet archive does not go that far back—but I am confident that they did exactly the same, and used only the expressions marnā and halāk honā with reference to the Ahmadi victims of a well-coordinated attack by “mainline” Muslim fanatics.

So, what do we learn from this little exercise?

At least in these two Urdu newspapers, the attackers are always only dahshatgard (terrorists). They either blow themselves up to smithereens or are killed (māre gaye). Their religious/sectarian affiliations are not mentioned; they may, however, be identified as belonging to some organization, particularly if that organization immediate takes “credit” for the carnage.

As for the victims, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims only die or get killed (marnā; halāk honā). Shi’ahs and Ismailis get to “submit their lives to the Truth” (jān ba-Haq), and foreign dignitaries—Muslim and non-Muslim, alike—may get that privilege too. Only the non-Ahmadi Army personnel and students at Army schools are unequivocally recognized as worthy of being designated as “martyrs” (shahīd).

Both the Jang and the Express have sister publications—The News and the Express Tribune, respectively— in English. In them, people “die” or get “killed”, but the news-writers remain respectfully silent about the deceased person’s relationship with his Maker.

Verbal religious finesse has not yet reached such dubious heights in the Urdu press in India, but the potential is very much there. I well recall the time, decades ago, when Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi raised a ruckus in his popular and influential weekly, Sidq-e Jadīd (Lucknow), over someone’s use of the word marhūm with reference to either Jawaharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri. The word is commonly used in Urdu the way the expression, “the late….” is used in English, its more literal meaning being, “One who has received God’s Mercy.” The Maulana insisted that it was not correct to use marhūm with reference to non-Muslims, and that instead everyone should use ān-jahānī (Belonging to the Other World). As I remember, the Maulana very much prevailed over the few who had opposed his assertion. Even now one hardly ever sees marhūm after a non-Muslim name in Indian Urdu newspapers. It is always ān-jahānī, placed before or after the deceased’s name. Incidentally, if memory still serves me right, the old Arya Samajist Urdu journals, used marhūm with Muslim names, granting them the mercy of Allah, and svargīya or svargbāshī (Residing in Paradise) with Hindu names. What they did with Christian and Sikh names escapes my memory.


*Published in on June 27, 2015.

English/Urdu Bipolarity Syndrome in Pakistan


An editorial—‘Into the Open’—in the Express-Tribune of December 16, 2014, begins: ‘There has been much speculation, frequently alarmist or simply ill-informed, as to the extent or otherwise that the Islamic State (IS) has a presence in Pakistan. Government ministers have gone on-the-record to say that there is no IS presence, but there are reports of supportive wall-chalking and the circulation of literature that supports the IS from several parts of the country.’ It then goes on to allow that ‘there are parts of the country where the extremist mindset has been fostered and grown over many years, and the ideology of the IS may find fertile ground to root itself in,’ and offers two examples. One is of Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the infamous Lal Masjid in Islamabad—the paper charges: ‘[Aziz] is happy to declare that he holds the group in high regard’—and the other is the case of some ‘female students of Jamia Hafsa [a part of the same institution] who have prepared and circulated a video extolling the IS.’

The naming of names is commendable even if it amounts to only one institution, for the practice is rather rare in Pakistani editorials and columns. But I wonder why the editors of the Express-Tribune had go to the trouble of finding just one example so far away from their comfortable offices when they could have easily found an equally redoubtable supporter of IS in their own sister Urdu journal, the Daily Express. I, of course, mean the one and only Orya Maqbul Jan, the self-proclaimed expert on International Finance, Muslim Political History, and the Doomsday. Consider his column of November 17, 2014—titled Taqsim Wazih Ho Rahi Hai’ (‘Lines are now clearly drawn’). In it he ever so blithely argued that Syria was the place where lines had been clearly drawn between Islam and non-Islam, and where would likely be, in his view, ‘the headquarters of [the promised] Imam Mehdi and the capital of his Caliphate.’ He then expanded his argument by quoting two alleged hadith. According to one, the Prophet allegedly prophesied that before the end of the world there would be a decisive battle between Muslims and Christians near Aleppo, and that, according to the second alleged hadith, the best among the Muslims at that time would be those who would do the hijrat to Syria—in other words those who would leave their lands to join the Mehdi’s army.

A few days later, on December 5, 2014, Mr. Jan shifted from Doomsday forecasts to Political History and questioned the sincerity of any Muslim who accused Amirul Mominin Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his IS crowd of wanton killing. I cannot reproduce here his long and a bit convoluted argument—it should be read in Urdu to get its full flavour—but this is how he closed: ‘According to all the principles of Political Science the Daulat-e Islamiya [i.e. IS] is a state; it is also a state according to those who champion the cause of a Muslim Social/Political Contract (musalmanon ka nazm-e ijtima’i).” He then proceeded to argue that in 1988 the revolutionaries in Iran were fully justified in declaring Iranian Communists and Liberals to be mulhid (heretics) and munafiq (dissembling enemies) and therefore fully deserving execution as enemies of the Revolutionary Islamic State. If that was right in 1988, he asked his co-religionists, why should it be wrong and un-Islamic now?

Then, only a day before the Express-Tribune published its editorial, Mr. Jan published the second part of a long essay against contemporary democracies, arguing in favor of a system where only certain ‘worthy’ individuals should have the right to choose the ruler of a Muslim state, and that once a Caliph had been chosen in that manner it was incumbent on all Muslims to obey him. No one must challenge a ‘chosen Caliph,’ he wrote, and then, expectedly, quoted another alleged hadith in which the Prophet allegedly ordered that in situations where two persons claimed the title and obtained allegiances (bai’at) from different supporters, ‘the person to make the second claim must be executed.’

Now it is quite possible that the common owner of the two journals has issued strict orders that the people of one journal should never question or even read what the other publishes. That would make good business sense. Each journal then meets the expectations of the audience the owner and his advisors imagine for it, and does nothing to rock the boat of commerce.

The same business acumen might be seen in two other sets of twin publications that I am slightly familiar with: the hellfire and brimstone in some of the columns of Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt do not find their way into the columns of The News and The Nation, just as the moderate and rational mode of thought in most columns of the latter two does not seep into the la-la musings that the former two mainly peddle. Most instructional in that regard are the English and Urdu versions of the column that the ‘Father of Islamic Bomb’ Dr. A. Q. Khan writes in The News and Jang. When writing on some political issue he always appears more subdued in English, but lets loose in Urdu. In the same two newspapers, Ansar Abbasi, another popular columnist, takes an easier way out by writing on certain subjects only in Urdu, avoiding them in English and in general dampening down his rhetorical flourishes.

Not quite coincidental to the above is the fact that these same conglomerates make piles of money presenting endless talk shows in Urdu on the channels they own, but have not done much to provide anything on the same channels that could possibly reflect the moderate posture of their English publications. They know what sells, and in what language.

But perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree. It may be more accurate to assert that the ‘Anglophone’ population in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad prefers it that way. Who are these ‘Anglophones?’ The people who quickly switch to English when after starting a serious conversation in Urdu, seldom buy and then read an Urdu newspaper, and prefer to look with disdain at what they may perchance see in Urdu—’Just some more backward thinking.’—rather than take it as seriously as any scribbling from the English language sister journals of the same Urdu dailies. As I wrote I tried to recall some serious engagement with Urdu columnists in any English newspaper of Pakistan, but nothing came to mind. I hope I am wrong.

On the other hand, to see how juvenile a view ‘Anglophone’ Pakistanis take of what is published in Urdu newspapers just check the section, ‘Nuggets from the Urdu Press,’ in any issue of The Friday Times. This week’s (Dec. 19, 2014) issue contains a dozen or so such ‘nuggets.’ The shortest is titled, ‘Widower runs away on the day of second marriage,’ and reads: ‘According to Nai Baat (November 26, 2014), a widower and father of three ran away from his home in Narang Mandi on the day of his second marriage. He was caught from Lahore, where he said he was joking about wanting to get married again, only to see if someone would give him their daughter. A panchayat seized his tractor and trolley when he failed to pay a Rs. 1 million fine.’ Giggle, giggle!

Never mind that Nai Baat is generally considered to be the paper of preference for the ‘enlightened’ and ‘liberal’ supporters of the Jama’at-e Islami, and should be taken as seriously as The Friday Times, if not more so, where the political, intellectual and cultural future of the country is on the table.