Do you die? Or are you martyred? For Pakistan's Urdu press, it depends on your Muslimness

A linguistic survey of death in newspapers across the border.

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 comes packaged with an intense desire to be “religiously correct”.

Consider death. Urdu has one perfectly good, all-purpose word: marnaa (to die). We also have, for the purpose of being more specific in a certain “technical” sense, qatl honaa (to be murdered) and halaak honaa (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 jaanaa and guzar jaanaa (to be lifted from the world; to pass on). Then there are the more “formal” or “dignified” expressions for a general use, like wafaat paanaa and intiqaal honaa (to die). I may write, Pandit Nehru kaa intiqaal 1949 men huaa, or Qaid Azam ne 1950 men wafaat paaii, and in both cases my Urdu would be considered quite correct. I would, in fact, get an A for not using marnaa with reference to the two statesmen. On facts alone would I be denounced, and rightly so.

Different deaths

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 (shahiid) and more than 245 injured.” The report then used the word shahiid (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 (jaan ba-haq) when an explosion occurred inside the Imambargah at Lakhi Dar in Shikarpur.” Jaan ba-haq is an abbreviation of the euphemistic expression jaan ba-haq tasliim karnaa, that is “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 (jaan ba-Haq)”. However, as the report progressed, the paper used (jaan ba-Haq) with reference to the ambassadors and their wives, and consistently used shahiid when it referred to the two Army pilots and one Army technician. The Express, in this case, consistently used the common expression halaak 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 jaan 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 (jaan 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 halaak honā to refer to the Christian victims of the attack. Mercifully, the suicide bombers, both Muslims, were not called either shahīd or jaan 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 mahlukiin (the killed). And, of course, as required by law in Pakistan, they referred to the Ahmadi mosques as ahmadii ‘ibaadatgaah.).

The headline in the Express next day read: “Firing in Ahmadi Worship-places in Garhi Shahu and Model Town; Suicide bombings; 88 killed (halaak), 200 wounded.” In the body of the full report, the Express used the expressions halaak honaa and marnaa when referring to the victims, except near the very end when it said: “It is feared that the number of people killed (jaan 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 marnaa. The report in the next day’s paper used marnaa and halaak honaa 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 marnaa and halaak honaa with reference to the Ahmadi victims of a well-coordinated attack by “mainline” Muslim fanatics.

Beyond language

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 (maare gaye). Their religious/sectarian affiliations are not mentioned; they may, however, be identified as belonging to some organisation, particularly if that organisation immediately takes “credit” for the carnage.

As for the victims, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims only die or get killed (marnaa; halaak honaa). Shi’ahs and Ismailis get to “submit their lives to the Truth” (jaan 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 recognised as worthy of being designated as “martyrs” (shahiid).

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 dead persons' relationship with their Maker.

Verbal religious finesse has not yet reached such “heights” in the Urdu press in India, but the potential is there. I well recall the time, decades ago, when Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi raised a ruckus in his popular and influential weekly, Sidq-e Jadiid (Lucknow), over someone’s use of the word marhuum 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 marhuum with reference to non-Muslims, and that instead everyone should use aan-jahaanii (“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 marhuum after a non-Muslim name in Indian Urdu newspapers. Incidentally, if memory still serves me right, the old Arya Samajist Urdu journals used marhuum with Muslim names, granting them the mercy of Allah, and svargiiya or svargvaasii (Residing in Paradise) with Hindu names. What they did with Christian and Sikh names escapes my memory. 


CM Naim is Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago.

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