Beyond language

Beyond language


June 09, 2021

All nations suffer from a conundrum of identity. Political scientist Benedict Anderson in his seminal book, Imagined Communities, depicts them as socially constructed communities imagined by the people who perceive themselves to be part of those groups. Nation-building as such, at least in terms of identity articulation, becomes an exercise in coordinating public imagination. This is achieved through the use of language, selected cultural depictions and their propagation through media and officialdom.

Take the recent announcement by Prime Minister Imran Khan. By no means novel – and such moves have appeared every now and then under all regimes – the Prime Minister directed that all functions, official meetings and other programmes that are held for him be held in Urdu. This is, under the official stance, to give due honour to the national language and to give a ‘national touch’ to his official engagements.

The prime minister, we are told, is committed to promoting and giving due respect to the national language. The move, on the surface at least, also appears in line with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s populist vision. In theory, a national language should serve to open up official proceedings to the masses. To a certain extent – perhaps even a large one – it may do just that.

But one thing that has been missing in our country across all strata is just how pluralistic Pakistan as a whole is. This is true not just in terms of language as well. Pakistan’s borders straddle what has been one of history’s greatest crossroads. The result, like in our neighbouring nations, is that our country is populated by plethora of ethno-cultural and religious communities.

In our contemporary times, there is an alternative vision for nations – one that encourages us to embrace pluralism within and without, and appreciate and value both what make us different and similar. More importantly, it helps us foster an empathy and understanding for one another.

For many communities in Pakistan, the country remains a difficult place. But perhaps worse than the suffering itself is the feeling of being unheard. The prime minister’s initiative is a welcome one in many respects. But to strengthen the bonds of our nation, our leaders should also consider embarking on a project of empathy.

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