TIME India

India, Pakistan to Proceed With Border Talks Despite Breakdown of Dialogue, Officials Say

SCO Summit in Ufa
Anadolu Agency—Getty Images Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif (L) and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) meet during Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Ufa on July 10, 2015.

A meeting between the National Security Advisors of both countries was nixed over a disagreement on the agenda

India and Pakistan will proceed with bilateral border talks as scheduled despite the latter calling off a meeting between the two countries’ National Security Advisors over the weekend, official sources said Monday.

The meeting between the head of India’s Border Security Force and his Pakistani counterpart of the Rangers paramilitary force in order to discuss the international boundary between the two countries could take place as early as Sept. 6, the Indian Express newspaper reported.

A scheduled meeting between the adversarial neighbors broke down on Sunday after an impasse over the agenda of the talks, with India saying that cross-border terrorism should be the only item included and Pakistan insisting that the fate of the disputed Kashmir region, which is claimed by both countries, would have to be included.

Pakistani officials had also expressed an intention of meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders in the Indian capital New Delhi, prompting India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to serve an ultimatum saying the talks would not proceed if separatist groups were involved. A separatist leader who landed in New Delhi to meet Pakistan’s NSA Sartaj Aziz was detained at the airport.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to Swaraj’s ultimatum by calling off the talks, saying the “preconditions” set by India were not acceptable and the meeting between the officials “would not serve any purpose,” the New York Times reported.

This is the second time since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power last year that scheduled dialogue has been derailed between the two countries, which have fought three wars since they were first formed in 1947 — two of them over the Kashmir dispute. Modi’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the SCO Summit in Ufa, Russia, last month, where Sunday’s scheduled talks were decided, was hailed as a success but soon came under pressure due to an escalation in the perennial cross-border skirmishes that each country accuses the other of initiating.

The separatist leaders, meanwhile, blamed India for the breakdown of the talks and said no dialogue could proceed without taking into account the viewpoint of the people of Kashmir.

“A message has gone to the world that Kashmir issue is not a bilateral territorial dispute between India and Pakistan and that people of Jammu & Kashmir are the principal party to it,” Ayaz Akbar, the spokesman for the hardline Hurriyat Conference separatist group, told the Times of India newspaper. “The fanatic approach adopted by government is not practicable. How long will New Delhi pursue this policy?”

India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, however, pointed out that it was Pakistan and not India that had canceled the talks.

“Pakistan should not have deviated from the agenda decided during the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif [in Ufa in July],” he said.

TIME Pakistan

A Pakistani Terrorist Got a Bollywood Film Banned for Showing Him in a Bad Light

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, chief of the Jamat-ud-Dawa religious party, addresses the Harmain Sharifain Conference in support of the Saudi Arabian government in Peshawar
Fayaz Aziz—Reuters Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, chief of the Jamat-ud-Dawa religious party, addresses the Harmain Sharifain Conference in support of the Saudi Arabian government in Peshawar April 19, 2015.

The film will "poison the minds" of his fellow Pakistanis, Hafiz Saeed insists

An Indian movie set to be released next week was banned in Pakistan on Thursday at the behest of wanted terrorist Hafiz Saeed, who filed a plea in court saying the film contains “filthy propaganda” against him and his organization.

The order to ban the film was issued by a judge at the Lahore High Court, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Saeed is the head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa — the political wing of militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Both organizations are blacklisted by the U.S., which has a $10 million bounty on Saeed. The U.N. declared Lashkar-e-Taiba a terrorist group in 2005.

The movie, titled Phantom, features Bollywood superstars Saif Ali Khan and Katrina Kaif and is set in the aftermath of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that Saeed is said to have been the driving force behind. The attacks killed more than 150 people.

“There is a direct threat to the life of the petitioner and his associates emanating from the content of the trailer of the film,” Saeed’s lawyer said in an Aug. 8 petition. “It is obvious that dialogues coming out of the lips of the different Indian actors and actresses will poison the minds of Pakistani public and will portray Hafiz Saeed as terrorist even though JuD has not been declared as a proscribed organization,” he added.

The ban comes at a tense time for the adversarial South Asian neighbors, with an upcoming meeting between the Indian and Pakistani National Security Advisers clouded by Pakistan’s invitation to three separatist leaders from the long-disputed border region of Kashmir.

Indian films seen as anti-Pakistan have been banned in the past, but pirated versions are often easily available on DVD.

Read next: YouTube Opens Studio In Bollywood

Listen to the most important stories of the day

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Spymaster Hamid Gul, Supporter of Militant Islamist Groups, Dies Aged 78

Hameed Gul
B.K. Bangash—AP In this Feb. 5, 2015 file photo, former chief of Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Hameed Gul attends a rally to mark Kashmir Day in Islamabad, Pakistan

Gul was controversial for his outspoken backing of key figures in al-Qaida and the Taliban

(ISLAMABAD) — Hamid Gul, who led Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency as it funneled U.S. and Saudi cash and weapons to Afghan jihadis fighting against the Soviets and later publicly supported Islamic militants, died late Saturday of a brain hemorrhage. He was 78.

Gul’s tenure at the ISI and his outspoken backing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other extremists highlighted the murky loyalties at play years later when the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath tested the U.S.-Pakistani alliance.

Gul came to be seen as an increasingly out-of-touch braggart later in life, as he appeared on countless Pakistani television programs warning of conspiracies and demanding his country militarily confront its nuclear-armed neighbor India.

“The unruly mujahedeen commanders obeyed and respected him like no one else,” Gul’s online autobiography reads. “Later on with the advent of the Taliban’s rise he was equally admired and respected.”

Gul died late Saturday night at the hill resort of Murree near the capital, Islamabad, his daughter, UzmaGul, told The Associated Press. She said Gul suffered a brain hemorrhage.

Funeral prayers were offered at an army base in the garrison city of Rawalpindi near the capital, Islamabad. Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif attended alongside other serving and retired military officers.

Born Nov. 20, 1936, near Sargodha in eastern Pakistan, Gul served in the army and fought in two wars against India. He viewed India with suspicion for the rest of his life, claiming it wanted to seize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Many believe he helped shape Pakistan’s policy of funding Islamic militant groups to attack India’s interests in the disputed Kashmir region.

Gul became the chief of the ISI in 1987, at a time when the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were using the spy agency to funnel billions of dollars to militants fighting the Soviets during their occupation of neighboring Afghanistan.

Those militants later became the backbone of the Taliban and included a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.

The government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto forced Gul out in 1989. He later acknowledged having forged an alliance of Islamist political parties to challenge Bhutto in the 1988 elections that brought her to power.

Despite being stripped of his office, Gul remained influential. Though unnamed in the Sept. 11 commission report, U.S. officials at the time said they suspected Gul tipped bin Laden off to a failed 1998 cruise missile attack targeting him in Afghanistan. The operation came in response to al-Qaida attacks on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. The officials said he contacted Taliban leaders and assured them that he would provide three or four hours of warning before any U.S. missile launch.

Gul also was a close ally of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received U.S. assistance during the Soviet occupation and was a bitter rival of Taliban figurehead Mullah Mohammad Omar. The U.S. declared Hekmatyar a “global terrorist” in 2003 because of alleged links to al-Qaida and froze all assets he may have had in the United States.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Gul became an outspoken opponent to the U.S. while cheering the Taliban in public and media appearances. There were allegations, however, that Gul had a more hands-on approach. U.S. intelligence reports later released by WikiLeaks allege he dispatched three men in December 2006 to carry out attacks in Afghanistan’s capital.

“Reportedly Gul’s final comment to the three individuals was to make the snow warm in Kabul, basically telling them to set Kabul aflame,” the report said.

Gul at the time described the documents as “fiction and nothing else.” Some of the reports, generated by junior intelligence officers, did include far-fetched claims, including an allegation in 2007 that militants teamed up with the ISI to kill Afghan and NATO forces with poisoned alcohol bought in Pakistan.

But Gul’s anti-Americanism was by then well-known. At one point in 2003, Gul boasted that Pakistani officials would “turn a blind eye” to any Taliban or al-Qaida fighters who escaped Afghanistan.

“The intelligence and security agencies are a part of the ethos of the country and the national ethos today is a hatred of America,” he said.

When U.S. special forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Gul helped spread a rumor that U.S. forces actually killed the al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan and brought his body to Pakistan to humiliate the country.

“My feeling is that it was all a hoax, a drama which has been crafted, and badly scripted I would say,” he said.

In conspiracy-minded Pakistan, many believed him. As the last line of his online autobiography reads: “People wait to listen to his direction before forming their own opinions.”


Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Cairo and Kathy Gannon contributed to this report.

TIME Pakistan

Six Militants Linked to Peshawar School Massacre Have Been Sentenced to Death

A MAJEED—AFP/Getty Images A Pakistani army soldier stands guard at the site of the militants' attack on the army-run school in Peshawar on December 18, 2014.

More than 140 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed in the savage attack

Six Taliban militants linked to last year’s attack on a school in Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar were sentenced to death on Thursday, for their role in the December 2014 massacre that claimed the lives of more than 140 people, most of them children.

The accused were tried in military courts, where the army said they “were given a fair trial”, the BBC reported. A seventh militant was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School, where a majority of the victims were under the age of 16, prompted a wave of anger across the country against the Taliban and resulted in Pakistan lifting a seven-year moratorium on executions.

These are the first death sentences to be handed down for the horrific attack, according to the BBC. None of the six sentenced to death this week were among the attackers, all of whom were killed by Pakistani security forces during the attack itself.

Read next: The Fear That Haunts Peshawar

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Horrified by Alleged Child Sex Abuse Blackmail Ring

Pakistan Child Abuse
Anjum Naveed—AP Latif Sarra, center, lawyer for victims of a child sex abuse scandal, is surrounded by villagers while talking to media outside a local court on Aug. 10, 2015 in Kasur near Lahore, Pakistan.

Locals believe a blackmail gang filmed some 270 children being sexually abused

(HUSSAIN KHAN WALA, Pakistan) — In this dusty town near Pakistan’s border with India, families kept quiet for years about the blackmail gang that locals believe filmed some 270 children being sexually abused, fearful the videos could appear online or sold in markets for as little as 50 cents.

Those living in Hussain Khan Wala say the gang forced children at gunpoint to be abused or drugged them into submission. It was only after one family spoke up that others rose against the gang, with police later arresting 11 suspects.

But as Pakistan recoils in horror at the scope of the abuse, the case shows the dangers here facing poor children, many of whom work as domestic servants and face abuse at the hands of their employers. It also raises questions about how such a gang could operate for years, with some questioning Pakistan’s police and political elite.

“They destroyed me,” one victim said. “They destroyed my family. They just killed me”

The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

The gang likely began targeting its victims years earlier, Kasur district police chief Rai Babar Saeed told the AP. Saeed said police already confiscated some 30 videos, nearly all of which included sexual abuse of children as young as 12. The gang then used the videos to extort money from families, threatening to release them publicly and shame their children and their relatives, Saeed said.

If a family couldn’t pay, there were some cases in which a victim would be forced to find another child to be filmed being abused, said Latif Sarra, a lawyer representing some victims. He, as well as other town residents interviewed by the AP, said the gang filmed at least 270 children being abused. Saeed said he didn’t know of that many children being involved.

“It was a gang that has 15 to 21 members. These people have been … raping boys and girls under the age of 15 and then filming them since 2009,” Sarra said. “It is a case of extortion. It is their business.”

Saeed said authorities began investigating the case in June after receiving a complaint, but many families declined to press charges, even after officers drove through the town of Hussain Khan Wala, asking over loudspeakers for victims to come forward. But on Aug. 4, Pakistani media reported that hundreds of protesters descended on a Kusar police station and briefly fought with officers, demanding investigators take action.

On Monday, a court in Kasur ordered five suspects in the case held without bail. Six others also have been arrested in connection to the case.

Haseem Amir, accused by police of being one of the ringleaders in the gang, shouted to journalists from lockup: “We have got nothing to do with it!”

“We have been trapped!” Amir yelled. A lawyer for him and the others arrested could not be immediately reached.

The allegations have dominated Pakistani newspapers and television stations. Many compared it to the case of Javed Iqbal, a man in Punjab’s provincial capital, Lahore, who one day in 1999 confessed to kidnapping, sexually abusing and dissolving the bodies of some 100 children in acid. Families identified their children from scraps of clothing left behind or by the snapshots he took of each of them before their death. Later sentenced to death, Iqbal killed himself in prison in October 2001.

Such horrors, while sickening to this Muslim-majority country of 180 million, happen as children remain vulnerable. Child labor is common in Pakistan, and children as young as 5 are “bought, sold, rented or kidnapped and placed in organized begging rings, domestic servitude, small shops, brick kilns and prostitution,” the U.S. State Department said last year. Pakistan also has a huge population of at-risk Afghan refugees, though those involved in this blackmail ring appear all to be from Pakistan, officials said.

The abuse allegations also carry political implications in Pakistan, whose young democracy remains challenged by Islamic extremists and a history of military coups. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz, is Punjab province’s chief minister and rumors already have circulated linking police and politicians to the blackmail ring.

On Monday, opposition politician and former cricket star Imran Khan accused Punjab officials of “politicizing the police.”

“That is why the force is unable to check criminal activities and a tragedy like Kasur,” Khan told supporters at a rally in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. “We will force the government through the independent media to chase the real culprits and punish them in an exemplary manner.”

Saeed, the police chief, said he hadn’t seen any signs of political interference in the case and denied any impropriety by police. However, Sarra, the victims’ lawyer, said he believed police were downplaying the case and that at least one local politician could be involved.

“The police are conniving with the accused,” Saraa said.

Pakistan’s parliament also discussed the abuse allegations, unanimously passing a resolution calling on authorities to bring all those accountable to justice. Protesters angered by the abuse also demonstrated in Islamabad, while the Lahore High Court ruled against starting a separate judicial inquiry into the case, saying police already were investigating.

For now, those living in Hussain Khan Wala, a poor farming community, are trying to come to terms with what has happened. Another victim who spoke to the AP said the gang extorted some $7,000 from him over five years while threatening to release a video, forcing him to steal jewelry from his own family.

“It shattered me so badly that I would often walk out of my school. I would miss my classes,” the victim said. “I had no idea how to handle all this.”

The gang ultimately released the video and his mother saw it. It caused her to finally confide a secret to her son she’d never told anyone: The same gang had raped her years earlier.

“They are beasts,” she said.


Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Cairo and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

TIME natural disaster

Millions Affected as Widespread Flooding Inundates Swaths of Southern Asia

Millions of people have been affected, hundreds are dead and thousands of have lost their homes and land

Flooding brought on by torrential monsoon rains has left large swaths of land across parts of southern Asia underwater, and has affected an estimated 10 million people in India alone.

The usual monsoon rains have been made worse this year by Cyclone Komen, which made landfall in Bangladesh last Friday.

In India, 200 people have died and more than 1 million have been moved to relief camps in West Bengal, which has taken the brunt of the damage, reports Agence France-Presse. Flash floods and landslides have swept away homes, farmlands and livelihoods in Manipur, Gujarat and Rajasthan states as well.

On Tuesday, two passenger trains derailed off a bridge into a river in Madhya Pradesh. It is believed the heavy rain had caused the river levels to rise and partially submerged the track, reports the BBC.

Meanwhile, flooding in neighboring Burma has caused widespread devastation in several western states, prompting the government to appeal for international assistance on Tuesday.

More than 200,000 people have been affected and at least 47 people have died.

Burma’s President Thein Sein has declared four areas in the country, formally known as Myanmar, as disaster zones and many remote areas are still cut off by floodwaters, landslides or damaged roads, leaving thousands of people without aid.

Aid agencies are particularly concerned with the 140,000 people already living in displacement camps in the country’s western Rakhine state.

“The floods are hitting children and families who are already very vulnerable, including those living in camps in Rakhine state,” said Shalini Bahuguna, from the U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF.

Flooding has claimed 150 lives and affected 800,000 people across several Pakistan provinces including Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and the disputed region of Kashmir.

In northern Vietnam, flooding has left more than 12,000 people without electricity for days and record rainfall has affected the power supply to 27 cities and provinces nationwide. Since July 26, Quang Ninh province saw a total rainfall of 1,500 mm, considered to be the worst in 40 years.

Heavy rains and flooding have damaged 10,000 houses and ruined 4,000 hectares of rice and other crops in the province. Seventeen people have died.

And in disaster-hit Nepal, at least 90 people have died in the past two months as a result of floods and landslides.

TIME Afghanistan

The Afghan Taliban Has Elected a New Leader After Mullah Omar’s Death

A long-time deputy of the Taliban co-founder and leader was elevated to the top position

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour has been chosen as the head of the Afghan Taliban, according to two commanders of the Islamic militant organization.

The commanders said the long-time deputy of the deceased Mullah Omar was elected at a shura or meeting of top Taliban representatives just outside the Pakistani city of Quetta where many of them are based, Reuters reports.

Siraj Haqqani, who leads the Haqqani militant faction within the Taliban, has been selected as Mansour’s deputy. Mansour is only the Taliban’s second-ever leader, with Omar having been at the helm since founding the Afghanistan-based militant organization in the 1990s.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed reports of Omar’s death, although he said it occurred more recently than April 2013—the date given by the Afghanistan government earlier this week.

“For some time, (Omar) has been suffering a kind of sickness and over the last two weeks it became more serious, and due to that illness he passed away,” Mujahid said. The Taliban founder has not been seen in public since 2001, leading to widespread speculation of his whereabouts and multiple reports of his death over the last decade.

Peace talks between the Taliban and the current Afghanistan government, due to be held in and mediated by neighboring Pakistan, have been postponed indefinitely in the meantime. Pakistan cited the reports of Omar’s death as the reason for delaying the talks, because of concerns that a battle for succession could further deepen discord between the Taliban’s numerous factions.

TIME Afghanistan

How the Death of Mullah Omar Could Disrupt Progress in Afghanistan

The one-eyed leader died two years ago, it has emerged. The news could impact hopes for peace with the Taliban

Only two weeks ago, Mullah Omar’s name surfaced on a website linked to the Afghan Taliban in a message approving of the insurgents’ peace talks with Afghan government officials. There was no video or audio, just a short statement purportedly from the one-eyed leader of the militants who ruled Afghanistan before fleeing into hiding amid U.S. air strikes in late 2001. And there he stayed, appearing only as the shadowy signatory of occasional messages such as the one that appeared in mid-July.

But on Wednesday morning, days before the second round of peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban are due to get under way, the Afghan government said it believed that Omar had in fact died as far back as 2013. “The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan,” a statement issued by the office of the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, said.

Earlier, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s national intelligence agency said Omar, who carried a $10 million U.S. State Department bounty on his head, was believed to have died at a hospital in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. “He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there,” Abdul Hassib Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, told the Associated Press.

Omar’s whereabouts have been the subject of speculation for years, with the Taliban repeatedly denying periodic reports and rumors about incapacitating illness or death. But this time, with the Afghan government confirming the news, “we can now finally be comfortable in our long-held assumptions that he’s been dead,” says Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Questions, however, remain about how the announcement might impact the talks, which were due to resume this week with a second round of meetings between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives. Islamabad hosted the first set of meetings as Ghani seeks to broker a settlement with the insurgents, who stepped up violent attacks as most NATO forces left the country at the end of 2014. With over 10,000 civilian casualties — up 22% on 2013 — last year was the conflict-ridden country’s deadliest since the U.N. began keeping records in 2007.

Afghanistan’s government said it believes that confirmation of Omar’s death means that the “grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before” and called on “all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

But it is possible that the opposite might happen, as news of a leadership vacuum fuels Taliban infighting and different factions openly jostle for position. “The talks are by no means dead, but the momentum has been lost. I think the Taliban will now be consumed by this crisis — and it is a crisis,” Kugelman says. “It is going to be very difficult for the Taliban to think about peace talks. I don’t see how they’ll be able to focus on talks anytime soon.”

The fear that their organization is going to be “torn asunder” by the public announcement of their leader’s death might also explain why some Taliban militants had earlier on Wednesday put out the claim that Omar was still alive. “It could really tear the organization apart,” says Kugelman, who adds that the denials might be an attempt by certain groups to maintain unity.

Already, various Taliban factions are said to be making a push for power, with recent Pakistani press reports highlighting opposition within the militant group’s ranks to the leadership of its acting chief, Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor.

The announcement of Omar’s death by Afghanistan’s government, Kugelman adds, could also prove to be a “big-time victory” for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has expanded beyond its home ground in Syria and Iraq into Afghanistan in recent months. “You could argue announcing Mullah Omar’s death amounts to a recruiting tool for [ISIS],” he says, with the confirmed exit of Omar allowing ISIS to lure disaffected Taliban militants who were already concerned about his absentee leadership as foreign troops exited Afghanistan.

“I think you could have large numbers of these militants moving over to ISIS,” he says.


TIME Bangladesh

Bangladeshi Opposition Leader’s Death Sentence Upheld

Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a senior opposition leader waves to the media after he arrives to the war crime tribunal in Dhaka.
Khurshed Rinku —REUTERS Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a senior opposition leader, waves to the media after he arrives to the war crime tribunal in Dhaka October 1, 2013

Critics believe the case was politically motivated

Bangladeshi opposition leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury has had his appeal against his death sentence rejected by a Supreme Court judge.

Chowdhury, 66, a standing committee member for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) whose father was formerly an acting President of Pakistan, was sentenced to death two years ago by a controversial domestic war crimes tribunal. He was convicted of nine different crimes, including rape, torture and genocide, allegedly carried out during the South Asian nation’s 1971 independence struggle, the AFP reports.

During that conflict, East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known, seceded from Islamabad’s control. Chowdhury’s subsequent conviction was the first time an opposition politician had been tried for related crimes and critics maintain the case was politically motivated.

Chowdhury’s BNP clashes regularly with the country’s ruling Bangladesh Awami League. The BNP has been significantly weakened in recent months after carrying out a three-month nationwide traffic blockade in an attempt to overthrow current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Similar verdicts against Islamist politicians have previously sparked violence throughout the country. Security has now been increased in both the capital Dhaka and in Chowdhury’s hometown of Chittagong, police officials told the AFP.


TIME Pakistan

Why Pakistan Is Replacing English With Urdu

Pakistan is dropping English as its official language and switching to Urdu, a popular language in the Indian subcontinent.

The long-rumored change was confirmed by Pakistani Minister of Planning, National Reforms, and Development Ahsan Iqbal in an exclusive interview with TIME.

Iqbal said the change was being made because of a court directive. The Pakistani constitution, which was passed in 1973, included a clause specifying that the government must make Urdu the national language within 15 years, but it had not been enforced.

Still, Iqbal said the country is not entirely abandoning English, which will still be taught alongside Urdu in schools.

“It means Urdu will be a second medium of language and all official business will be bilingual,” he said.

Some Pakistanis fear that the move is part of an official backlash against the younger generation, which has been more open to Western culture.

But Iqbal argued that the move would help make Pakistan more democratic, since it will “help provide greater participation to people who don’t know English, hence making the government more inclusive.”

Urdu is just one of a number of languages spoken in Pakistan, but it retains a cultural cachet as the language of movies and music as well as the Islamic religion, while English has been more popular among elites and government ministries.

According to the CIA Factbook, nearly half of Pakistanis speak Punjabi, the language of the Punjab region, while only 8% speak Urdu. Several other languages are spoken by a fraction of the population.

The decision to break away from English creates a stark contrast with Pakistan’s neighbor and longtime rival India. English was the official language of the area that now comprises both countries under British rule, which ended in 1947.

Despite a similar language clause in its constitution, India continues to use both English and Hindi as its official languages.

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