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Language change

Following the Supreme Court’s recent query about measures taken for adopting Urdu as an official language, as mandated by Article 251 of the Constitution, the center embarked on a flurry of frantic efforts: the information ministry issued directions to all other departments to switch over immediately to the national language. The change should have been effected within 15 years of the promulgation of the Constitution, but nothing could awaken the government from its deep 30 years’ slumber on this requirement until now.

The way in which the measure is being implemented is both unprecedented and unwarranted. Summaries and minutes of meetings and communications between the ministries are to be made, and tests for induction in government service are to be conducted in Urdu. No homework has been done and no training given to public officials. The result will be a disaster; the further lowering of standards and deterioration of service quality. This is not in line with the dictates of the Constitution.

Article 251(1) stipulates that “arrangements shall be made” for using Urdu as an official language, which means a lot of homework including translation of laws, rules, regulations and training, etc., before embarking on the venture. Further, the said article provides for “the teaching, promotion and use of provincial language”, which requirement does not find mention in the government directions.

Language, anywhere in the world — more so in Pakistan — is a sensitive, indeed, divisive issue, and must be handled with due care. We cannot shut our eyes to our bad experience when the people of former East Pakistan revolted against the suggestion of no less a personality than the Quaid for adopting Urdu as an official language. The response was harsh, resulting in a popular movement, led and sustained by intellectuals, especially the academic faculty and students of Dhaka University, who argued for Bengali as their national and official language.

Let us not ditch English with the stroke of a pen. The argument was acceded to only after prolonged civil unrest, riots and bloodshed on Feb 21, 1952 (a day later designated by Unesco as International Mother Language Day). It was the beginning of the process of dismemberment of united Pakistan. The language riots in 1971-72 in Sindh are also still fresh in the memories of people, especially its destructive effects on ethnic and racial harmony in Karachi and Hyderabad.

We must not lose sight of the practical realities: Pakistan is a multiracial/multilingual nation, with six major and some 50 minor languages spoken by diverse ethnic communities and nationalities. The number of Urdu speaking people is reportedly barely 7pc, compared to 44pc Punjabi, 15pc Pakhtuns, 14pc Sindhi, 10pc Seraiki and 5pc Baloch.

Sindhi and Pashto are relatively developed languages, used as medium of education at the elementary level and medium of instruction for higher learning in certain disciplines. They are strong candidates for being adopted as provincial languages. Urdu, though spoken by a minuscule segment, is, however, making gains and increasingly being used as the lingua franca in the urban belts of the country; with the rural areas as alien to it, as they are to Greek.

To do business in Urdu, the non-Urdu speaking population will have to make as much effort as they need to do in learning any foreign language. It is therefore unfair to ask them to switch over to Urdu for use as an official language and/or taking tests for appointments to government posts. They will clearly be at a disadvantage, as they are not being given an even playing field.

This is unfair, and violates Articles 25 and 27, which prohibit discrimination and provide for equality of rights, of opportunities and before law. This will also be a violation of Article 28, providing for the “preservation of language, script and culture”. It is impermissible to establish a system of governance, based on discrimination and racial or linguistic hegemony or dom­i­­n­­ation.

Let Urdu continue its slow and gradual march of gaining popularity and attaining its rightful place as the lingua franca in the country, both in urban and rural regions. Let the government facilitate the process through translation of laws and other material in Urdu and the training of public officials and others.

Let us not ditch English with the stroke of a pen. It is the language of advanced civilisation and the medium of instruction for higher research and studies. With globalisation, the modern age of computer and IT, it offers the key to the future. Countries in a much advanced stage of economic development and technological advancement, like China, are introducing English in their teaching institutions, because it is beneficial for accelerated growth and development.

It will be a tragedy, if we in Pakistan squander this important resource due to the myopic vision and rash decisions of our leaders.

The writer has served as secretary, Law & Justice Commission of Pakistan, DG Federal Judicial Academy, and registrar, Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Faqir Hussain, "Language change," Dawn. 2015-07-14.
Keywords: Languages , Provincial language , Multilingual nation-Pakistan , Supreme court , Economic development , Official language-Urdu , Language-Urdu , Sindhi , Pashto , Pakistan , Karachi , China , UNESCO