Pakistan should mind all of its languages!

Pakistan is an unfortunate country which, instead of actually celebrating the invaluable diversity of its ages-old cultures and languages itself, has been suppressing every voice raised in its favor.

Although it is a question of simple ‘recognition’ of cultures which actually form the ‘federation’, this issue has always been dealt with purely on political grounds, not knowing that this simple act of recognition (the government has nothing to show for actively promoting its cultures) will add to the strength of the country.

It’s not diversity but uniformity which has been propagated through the state or the so-called ‘national media’ – notion of being ‘one’ nationhood has been propagated so much so that the country has inappropriately been called a single nation. This concept has been propagated by the state and inculcated in the minds of the people to the extent that the real identities of the nations – Sindhi, Baloch, Pakhtoon, Seraiki, etc – have virtually evaporated, and the ones speaking for their separate identities are thought of as a threat to the country and, thus, should be ridded.

The problem is quite aggravated especially in the case of the languages spoken by the people for centuries now. The languages other than Urdu, and English, for that matter, have been taken to be something ‘alien’ for the country. Let alone promoting them at any level, these languages – Sindhi, Balochi, Pushto, Siraiki, Shina, etc. – have been associated with the term ‘regional languages’, as opposed to their historical status and importance, and the only language enjoys prestige is Urdu which, if we cast a quick glance at the history, is actually not a language belonging originally to any of the current geographical territories of Pakistan, i.e. Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Thus, Pakistan was made an exoglossic country.

Before the Partition, Sindhi, for example enjoyed the status of being lingua franca and official and educational language of its land. Dr. Tariq Rahman, the famous sociolinguist of Pakistan, supports this view and says, ‘Sindhi is probably the oldest written language of Pakistan. Even when Persian was the official language of the Muslim rulers of Sind, Sindhi was given more importance in the educational institutions of Sind than the other languages of Pakistan were in the areas where they were spoken. From the 17th century onwards a number of religious and other books were written in Sindhi and were probably part of the curricula of religious seminaries. It was the only indigenous Pakistani language which was taught officially by the British at various levels of education.’ (pdf)

Scanned image of the official letter signed by a British commissioner in Sindh on August 29, 1857 declaring Sindhi as ‘official language’. It states that applications written in Persian would not be accepted, and, if anybody wants to submit it in Persian, a word-by-word Sindhi translation must also be attached with that to make it acceptable.

After partition, Urdu, spoken by not more than 8% of the total population as mother tongue, was made the national language of the country ignoring all other languages which were of great historical, cultural, social and literary importance. For example, Sindhi has been “spoken in the region of Sindh at the time of compilation of the Vedas (1500–1200 bce) or perhaps some centuries before that. Glimpses of that dialect can be seen to some extent in the literary language of the hymns of the Rigveda.” – as-is from Encyclopedia Britannica).

This led to language riots across the country at different levels and at different times; the worst example is when the riots erupted in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in which the students of University of Dhaka participated more actively than the others, and demonstrated on the historical day of 21 February 1952. It was quite a tragic day in history when the police killed many of the student demonstrators which, later on, would be recognized as the International Mother Language Day by UNSECO.

The sad chapter of ‘language riots’ in Sindh is also a kind of a bad mark on the country’s history which took many precious lives over the issue.

However, in these times, when the situation is not that bad and when there are active segments of media covering every aspect of the governance and administration, the language issue can actually be discussed in the assemblies and necessary amendments made in the constitution’s article 251 National Language.

The article is as follows:

251. National language.

  1. The National language of Pakistan is Urdu, and arrangements shall be made for its being used for official and other purposes within fifteen years from the commencing day.
  2. Subject to clause (1), the English language may be used for official purposes until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu.
  3. Without prejudice to the status of the National language, a Provincial Assembly may by law prescribe measures for the leaching, promotion and use of a Provincial language in addition to the National language.

Linguists have always discussed the verbs used for the purpose which clearly show that it is only Urdu for which the ‘arrangements shall be made’. As far as other language are concerned, it has not been made kind of a duty of the provincial assemblies to take special efforts for the progress of languages – rather it has been stated that they may take measures.

Fortunately, such a move was seen on the 18th of this month when Marvi Memon, an MNA from Pakistan Muslim League (Q) presented a bill which sought status of national languages for 6 other languages – Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Shina and Seraiki – alongside Urdu. But, as people like me would expect from our policy makers in a political backdrop as of Pakistan, it was flatly rejected by the majority. Although it was a question of the national language status for 6 languages, only two persons from among the present supported the bill: Marvi Memon (PML-Q) and Syed Zafar Ali Shah (PPP). Not only the bill was rejected, it was called as an ‘anti-Pakistan bill’ – not surprising for the ones having an eye on the history of Pakistan’s politics and languages.

The Resolution for a separate country in 1940 was first presented in the Sindh Assembly by Sain GM Syed and it results in creation of the country; the same assembly, ironically enough, cannot pass the bill to make its language national.

The problem is that any move for any language issue is thought of being a threat to Urdu language, the only one to enjoy the status of national language, which is quite wrong. Awarding other languages the same status shall in no way risk Urdu – rather it would create a strong federation making the provinces trust each other which is lost, especially in the case of Punjab.

As a student of Linguistics and familiar with the background and importance of the languages spoken within the territories of Pakistan, I would highly recommend that the said languages be given the status of national languages: this will satisfy the people speaking them respectively as their mother tongue and ensure that no conflict arises over language issue in future – lest another serious mishap is witnessed out of this not-so-hot right now but an always simmering topic!

Let’s not harm Urdu, but benefit other languages. Treating languages equally is like treating people equally. The country should think. And the politicians should decide.. wisely!

Also appeared on Express Tribune blogs here.

Author: AamirRaz - عامر راز

Aamir Raz is a freelance writer and has been involved in consultancy for some national and international organizations working in the social development sector. He has also provided consultancy to different organizations and companies for their Social Media presence and campaigns. As a human rights activist, he has also been raising awareness and running online advocacy campaigns for various sociopolitical issues and human rights. Besides, he is also an Author at GlobalVoices Online.

4 thoughts on “Pakistan should mind all of its languages!”

  1. Sorry to see- after almost 60 years since 21 February 1952- not too much has changed in Pakistan. Happy to see- in spite of all limitations- the current generation in Pakistan is creating awareness. Language and cultures are sacred to its people. Pray for the people of Pakistan in their quest to establish/defend their Mother Language like the East Pakistanis (now Bangladesh) did almost 60 years ago

  2. Nice article but it was sad it see that you mentioned Sindhi, Balochi, Pushto, Shina and Seraiki but did not bother to include Punjabi (the language with the most speakers) while talking about national languages.

    I agree with you that “Pakistan is an unfortunate country which, instead of actually celebrating the invaluable diversity of its ages-old cultures and languages itself, has been suppressing every voice raised in its favor.”

    There is a Federal Urdu University in Islamabad, and no university dedicated to other “native” languages of Pakistan. How sad and racist is that?

    The Bangladeshi’s were lucky people in that they were successful to preserve their language, and language is the basis of culture and history of a country.

    I am a little hopeless with regards to saying that the damage done to the 1000s of years of native languages of Pakistan can be reversed ever!

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