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Let languages live

Two bills proposing constitutional amendment to accord status of national languages to various languages of the country are gaining wider endorsement

Let languages live
Linguistic diversity is no more considered as a thorny divisive issue.

For the first time in our parliamentary history, the Senate committee on law and justice convened a public hearing to gather public opinion on the two bills proposing constitutional amendment to accord status of national languages to various languages of the country. These bills have been introduced by three senators from Sindh namely Senator Sassui Palijo, Senator Mukhtiar (aka Aajiz) Dhamrah and Senator Karim Khawaja.

The timely public hearing was organised on the eve of the international mother languages day to commemorate the tragic incident of February 21, 1952 when police opened fire in Dhaka (capital of the erstwhile east Pakistan) to disperse a rally demanding Bengali to be declared a national language alongside Urdu.

Participants of the public hearing overwhelmingly supported the proposed amendment to elevate the status of major languages of provinces as national languages of the country.

Only a day before the huddle, the second mother languages’ festival attracted a huge audience in Islamabad where more than 15 Pakistani languages were represented through literary sessions, poetry recitation, musical performance and book stalls. The festival resonated with a unanimous demand for official recognition of major languages and preservation and promotion of all languages in the country.

Although the blot is too dark to erase, a belated realisation has dawned upon some of the thinking minds and the impulsion for declaring all major languages as national languages is gaining wider endorsement. Repenting the mistake committed more than half a century ago, some of the government departments have also mustered courage to commemorate the day and candidly admit the blunder that culminated in the ignominious dismemberment of the country in 1971.

In a significantly pleasant departure from the past, the ruling party PML-N’s election manifesto 2013 also promised to set up a National Language Commission to develop the criteria for according the status of national language to all major languages.

The language conundrum has dominated the political landscape of the country since its inception. The status of languages in Pakistan entails political intricacies. A federation stitched together by the federating units having discrete cultural identities should have recognised and respected their languages long ago. The very demand, however, had been construed as an attempt to unravel the state, tightly glued with Islamic identity and Urdu.

The language conundrum has dominated the political landscape of the country since its inception. The status of languages in Pakistan entails political intricacies.

Similar bills were also moved in the past by several parliamentarians, including Yousif Talpur, Haji Adeel and Marvi Memon. Each time, the bills could not cross the first post of the standing committee to reach the House for any meaningful debate. This time, the committee took a step forward to seek public opinion on the issue that had long been demonised as treachery and subversion.

This shortsightedness of the rulers has diminished over the years, yet not vanished completely so far. It unnecessarily sparked a denunciation of Urdu by making it a centre of political controversy. Intertwining Urdu with Islam was a futile attempt to sanction it a frivolous sanctity.

Dhirendranath Datta, a Congress leader, claimed on February 25, 1948 that out of 69 million people, 44 million speak Bengali in the country. He proposed an amendment that Bengali, along with English and Urdu, should be accepted as a language of the assembly.

The then prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, flippantly retorted that “Pakistan has been created because of the demand of a hundred million Muslims in this sub-continent and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu. Pakistan is a Muslim state and its lingua franca is the language of the Muslim nation and that language can only be Urdu and no other language.” Regrettably, the prime minister did not attach any technical merits to favour Urdu and rather sanctified it as a touchstone of Islam and patriotism.

The debate could have been constructively centered around the rationale of making any language official medium of communication to eschew any political squabble. Eventually, Bengali became the state language at par with Urdu under the constitution of 1956. However, considerable damage had already been inflicted on the fragile harmony between the federating units and the federal government.

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The stereotype ‘threat to national unity’ lost its luster long ago. Elevating the status of all major languages to national languages and making them official languages in respective provinces will not undermine the illusive national unity. The debacle of the East Pakistan is a testimony to the fact that denying linguistic rights can aggravate political chasm and inculcate a profound sense of alienation among the federating units.

A number of countries are officially declared multilingual states. These countries have more than one official and/or national language and their unity has not been compromised. For example Cameroon (English and French), Central African Republic (French and Sango), Chad (Arabic and French), Burundi (Kirundi, English and French), Kenya and Uganda (English and Swahili), Djibouti (Arabic and French), Algeria (Arabic and Tamazight; both official and national language in the constitution) and Sudan (Arabic and English).

In Mali, eleven languages are used as mediums of instruction in primary schools. In Brazil, the use of indigenous languages in primary education is enshrined in the constitution. Canada is officially bilingual under the official Languages Act and the constitution of Canada that require the federal government to deliver services in both official languages. Switzerland has four national languages including German, French, Italian and Romansh. The last one is used by only half a per cent of the total population of the country. Article 5(2) of the Ethiopian constitution says that all Ethiopian languages shall enjoy equal state recognition. In Mexico, a law promulgated in 2003 requires the state to offer all of its services to its indigenous citizens in their mother tongues.

There are 23 official languages in the states and territories of India, including Hindi and English as official languages used in the whole federation. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil are official languages and English is referred to as the link language in the constitution. Belgium has three official languages; Dutch, French and German. The Netherlands has four official languages; Dutch, Frisian, Low Saxon and Limburgish.

The only national language of the United Kingdom is English, however there are several regional languages recognised. In Wales, both English and Welsh have equal official status. In Scotland, Gaelic is the official language, commanding equal respect along with English language.

The status of national/official language can be determined on scientific grounds in Pakistan. A national commission can develop scientific criteria to accord such status to any language in the country. For all other languages, Article 251(3) of the constitution amply empowers the provincial governments to promote all languages.

While the federal government had been skirting the issue of national/official languages, provincial governments cannot be exempted from their indifferent attitude by ignoring the aforementioned constitutional stipulation.

Languages of people in the country possess a cherished history of folklore, poetry and treasure trove of literature. Some of these languages such as Bengali and Sindhi were well developed languages with their script, grammar, dictionaries and a rich tradition of literary work.

After Sindh was occupied in 1843, the British rulers annexed it with Bombay. In 1848, governor of the Bombay, Sir George Clerk, ordered to make Sindhi the official language in the province. A circular issued in 1851 made it obligatory for all officers to be posted in Sindh to pass an examination of proficiency in Sindhi. It was declared official language for all official correspondence including education, judiciary and revenue.

It was shocking that the status of Sindhi language was downgraded after the country came into being. Sindh was the first province to adopt resolution to join Pakistan and it was denied official status of its language that enjoyed the same status during colonial rule spread over one century. Similarly, languages of other provinces also deserve a respectable status in the country.

Orthodoxy on the status of languages ought to be done away with. The edict to conduct CSS exams only in Urdu and enforcement of Urdu as official language will only intensify the linguistic divide in the federation. Since proficiency in Urdu is limited for many, specially where provincial language is the medium of instruction, candidates will be at comparative disadvantage.

In modern states, linguistic diversity is no more considered as a thorny divisive issue as cultural plurality is gaining wider appreciation. Respecting cultural diversity and plurality can forge a tenable bond among the people of Pakistan.

Naseer Memon

naseer memon
Naseer Memon is a human rights activist and civil society professional. He may be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • You missed the country that is most similar to Pakistan in its language policy: Indonesia. They chose a variant of Malay as their national language, rather than Javanese, the mother tongue of the majority (they have something like 700 languages).

    It seems that when a country has precisely two major languages, there is tension between the speakers of the two: examples are Canada, Belgium, Ukraine (?), and, worst of all, Sri Lanka. This statement also applies to some Indian states which are bilingual.
    If there are more than two, things may be better.

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