Recently at a public rally, Prime Minister Imran Khan, taking a dig at Bilawal Bhutto, remarked about his frequent lapses into English while speaking to a Pakistani audience. He attributed Bilawal’s motive for speaking in English to convey a message to his foreign benefactors. As essence of my article is to address the challenges that Pakistan faces in navigating the struggle of adopting Urdu as the official language, I will refrain from getting diverted to point-scoring. In all fairness to Bilawal, it would be highly uncharitable not to remind the reader of the forced exile of his parents and his early upbringing and education abroad. It also goes to his credit that in the last one year, his spoken Urdu and accent have made definite strides, but a sustained effort is still required to acquire the desired level of skill.
Let us also remind ourselves that the Founding Father of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was not fluent in Urdu and this did not prevent him from creating history. I am witness to having heard him speak from close quarters at a huge rally in erstwhile Hyderabad Deccan a few months prior to the partition. And yet he commanded rapt attention of the audience. Although at the same gathering, the leader of the Ittehad-e-Muslimeen, the late Bahadur Yar Jang, who was a brilliant orator and had full command of the language, had also spoken. What matters the most is the content of the message and the respect the speaker commands.
The late Benazir Bhutto had lived in exile for a long duration and her foreign schooling initially caused considerable difficulty for her while communicating in Urdu. She, however, soon picked up and made remarkably-impassioned speeches. Her tragic last public address in Rawalpindi is a testimony to that resolve. Another aspect that cannot be ignored either is that Urdu is the mother tongue of only 11 to 12 per cent of Pakistan’s population mainly of those whose ancestors migrated from India and are residing in Karachi and Hyderabad or in pockets of major cities. The rest have their own languages or dialects — Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Seraiki, etcetera. People from Punjab have an advantage to some extent over those from Sindh and Balochistan in acquiring fluency in Urdu. Interestingly, due to the presence of expatriates, Urdu is spoken or at least understood by a significant percentage of population in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other parts of the Middle East.
There can, however, be no two opinions that promotion of Urdu should be a national endeavour and the present government’s resolve to promote it should be lauded.
The challenges that successive governments have faced in implementing the constitutional requirement and political and moral obligation of adopting Urdu have been several. These certainly can be overcome provided there is a systematic and sustained effort towards implementation.
After all there are several countries that are highly-advanced technologically and yet rely entirely on their national languages. The European Union, including the Scandinavian countries, as well as Russia, China, Japan and Korea are to quote a few. Among the Muslim countries, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and all other Gulf states, very few speak any other language but their own.
In Pakistan, it was decided as far back as 1973 that a decade from then on, Urdu would be declared the official language of Pakistan. Compliance with the constitutional requirement has been delayed as no serious effort has been made to implement it by successive governments. Even the Supreme Court verdict of September 2015, directing the federal and provincial governments to make Urdu the official language within three months, had to be reversed by a subsequent verdict of the same court due to the hurdles and genuine challenges facing its implementation.
The essence of it is that successive governments have realised that English in the modern world is an administrative, economic and political necessity that cannot be ignored. With the expansion of social media, its acceptance in developing countries including Pakistan has further increased. Wide use of mobile phones, proliferation of social networks and increasing use of technical discourse have given English a dominant position in Pakistan.
The armed forces’ professional imperatives demand a fair command of English and other foreign languages. Most of the latest weapons, equipment and technology are originating from the United States, Russia, China and European countries. The operating and service manuals are generally in English even if the product is from other countries. Manufactures realise that to increase sales, English and other major languages play a major role. In medicine, engineering and other disciplines, having sufficient fluency in English or a major foreign language is a professional requirement. Similar incentives in other professions perpetuate English.
Among the major impediments to the development and spread of Urdu is the prevalence of different educational systems in Pakistan. The rapid increase of English-medium schools in the private sector is symbolic of an elitist status. These are preferred also for imparting relatively better quality of education as their students have a higher market value.
These conflicting demands pose a serious challenge for Pakistan’s policymakers. India, having faced similar challenges, decided to opt for Hindi, and the language is also used by the central government when communicating with states in the Hindi belt with English as the associate official language to be used while communicating with the states. It is important to note here that India provides the flexibility of Hindi and 21 regional languages for official work in various states.
In Pakistan, there is no clarity as to when will the government be in a position to fully introduce Urdu in official communications and office work. It would require a higher level of commitment and a more systematic and sustained approach. The Supreme Court too after giving specific dates for offices to adopt Urdu has reversed its decision due to the difficulties explained by the government. Meanwhile, the global dominance of English, pervasive influence of technology, vested interests of the elitist lobby in Pakistan coupled with the hierarchical schooling system are compelling factors for having both Urdu and English as official languages at least for the short to medium term.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 10th, 2019.