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The language of identity

“One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language.” —Emil Cioran

A day before the International Mother Language Day (IMLD) on February 21, the Senate Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights held a public meeting at the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Studies in Islamabad. The drafts of two bills of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2016 were discussed at the meeting.

One of the bills was introduced by Senator Sassui Palijo along with Senator Mukhtiar Ahmed Dhamrah. The other was introduced by Senator Karim Ahmed Khawaja on behalf of over 30 other senators.

Both bills demanded a “national status” for a few languages spoken by Pakistani citizens. They suggested an amendment to Article 251 in the constitution. One of the bills – which was presented by Sassui Palijo – recommends that Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Brahvi, Hindko and Seraiki should be declared national languages alongside Urdu, which is currently the only language which holds this status. The second bill, however, suggests that only four languages – Balochi, Pashto, Punjabi and Sindhi – in addition to Urdu should be accorded the status of national languages.

Determining the status of a language is among the stages of language planning and is based on the model proposed by the German linguist Heinz Kloss. It usually refers to a change in the social role of a language – particularly with respect to the state or government.

Status planning for a language involves the external or functional development of a language within society. It is not an internal process which involves corpus planning where the reading materials for a language are documented and developed.

In Pakistan, the nine policy documents issued on education and choice of languages indicate that since the inception of the country, policy planners have always been at odds with the status planning for the languages spoken in Pakistan. The confusion still haunts decision-makers – as is evident from the two bills presented at the meeting.

In 2014, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Law and Justice rejected a similar bill moved by Marvi Memon wherein the national status for 10 languages – including Urdu – was sought. Later, in 2016, this same committee of the Senate deferred a bill moved by the Senator Karim Ahmed Khawaja. This bill brought eight languages – Balochi, Balti, Brahvi, Punjabi, Pashto, Shina, Sindhi and Seraiki – within its ambit. The current bills – on which the opinion of linguists and activists was sought – are actually the modified forms of the bill that was ‘deferred’ last year.

Although the current drafts of the bills reflect the continued commitment made by lawmakers over the status of the languages spoken by Pakistanis – and are, indeed, laudable – they also indicate some critical problems within our society.

Both drafts of the same bill clearly suggest how languages are dealt with in Pakistan. The status accorded to the four widely spoken languages in both bills – which are billed as ‘provincial’ languages – implies that, in Pakistan, only those whose voices can be heard enjoy political clout. A majority of our lawmakers on the federal and provincial levels are native speakers of Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Balochi and can actively influence decisions taken about the status accorded to languages.

Palijo’s draft of the bill, on the other hand, suggests that a ‘nationality unit’ can politically assert itself by aggressively demanding a new province on ethnic grounds. However, this will only become evident if a national status is accorded to Seraiki and Hindko.

In such a milieu, the speakers of the remaining 60 or more languages have rightly found themselves in a marginalised position. Both bills do not mention any of these languages. They also overlook the languages spoken in two other federating units – Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

While these bills should be welcomed, it is difficult to accept the idea they implicitly propagate that only the ‘core’ elements should matter politically, economically and socially. The failure to accord a national status to a majority of languages spoken by Pakistanis undermines the underlying objective of the bills. These bills seek “to recognise all the languages [within] constitution and set an example [by accepting] all people of Pakistan [who speak] any language [that belongs] to any corner of the country”. This approach will ensure “equality among the citizens of the country”.

However, it is unlikely that the languages mentioned in the bills are spoken in every corner of Pakistan. How can the citizens of our country be equal when only a handful of the languages they speak are recognised as ‘national languages’?

The speakers of the remaining indigenous languages can be found all over the country – from the deep south to the extreme north. They cannot wait for another seven decades for the day when their languages will be recognised within the mainstream and they would be able to call themselves equal citizens of Pakistan in the truest sense. The bills should also declare all these languages as national languages. Concrete measures should be taken to promote these languages and educate people in them. Most of these languages need to be preserved from becoming extinct. Each word and syllable of these languages is dear to their native speakers. The emotional connection they feel towards their native languages has been beautifully expressed by Alitet Nemtushkin, an Evenki poet, in the following stanza:

If I forget my native speech/And the songs that my people sing/What use are my eyes and ears?/What use is my mouth?/If I forget the smell of the earth/And do not serve it well/

What use are my hands?/Why am I living in the world?/How can I believe the foolish idea/That my language is weak and poor/If my mother’s last words/were in Evenki?

The writer heads an independent
organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.

Email: ztorwali@gmail.com

Zubair Torwali, "The language of identity," The News. 2017-02-22.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political clout , National languages , National Assembly , Economy , Education , Parliament , Karim Ahmed Khawaja , Mukhtiar Ahmed Dhamrah , Punjabi , Sindhi , IMLD