Two bills seeking to elevate regional languages to the status of national languages have been struck down by the National Assembly within the month of July. Five of the suggested languages are spoken across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B); the rejection of bills is a cause for concern for local proponents of the legislation.
The National Assembly (NA) Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights rejected Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) MNA Marvi Memon’s bill on July 16. Memon’s bill had recommended the substitution of Article 251 of the Constitution, which at present acknowledges only Urdu as the national language. Instead of just Urdu, Memon’s bill had asked that Balochi, Balti, Barahvi, Punjabi, Pashto, Shina, Sindhi, Seraiki and Hindko also be included.
Earlier on July 1, the NA rejected Senator Haji Adeel’s amendments for Article 251 of the Constitution.
The Awami National Party leader’s bill had asked to change the word ‘language’ in the heading to the plural, ‘languages’. Haji Adeel had said the article should mention the national languages of Pakistan as Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi and Seraiki. “Arrangements shall be made for their being used for official and other purposes within fifteen years from the commencement of the Act,” his bill had stated.
Balti, Pashto, Shina, Hindko are native to K-P and G-B, while Seraiki is spoken by a large number of people in the southern districts of K-P.
While both Memon and Haji Adeel’s bills differed on how many regional languages should be made national languages of Pakistan for the purpose of education and official use, there was one commonality between both efforts. Both had pushed for a more pluralistic approach for the most obvious dividing lines of ethnicity in the country. Though the practicality of having multiple languages in official use has to be questioned and needs close scrutiny, the idea of enforcing one language has caused problems. Non-Urdu speaking Pakistanis have many a times expressed feelings of exclusion as well as hostility about the recognition of their native tongues or lack thereof.
Memon and Haji Adeel are not the only two to recommend this pluralistic approach; the NA Standing Committee on Information, Broadcasting and Heritage had recommended in March that the seven languages spoken across K-P and G-B should be declared ‘national’. This recommendation was welcomed by regional language activists and communities across K-P.
Back to East-West Pakistan
“It is pathetic,” Zubair Torwali, a Torwali language activist from Bahrain, Swat said about the NA committee’s rejection of Memon’s proposed bill. “The committee’s comments against the recognition of regional languages were simplistic and uninformed.”
“Law Ministry’s Special Secretary Justice (retd) Raza Khan’s remarks that giving national language status to Bengali led to the East Pakistan tragedy are not valid and just annoying,” said Torwali. “It was actually the other way about,” he said. Torwali contended that not recognizing the importance of Bengali or the majority status of East Pakistan by West Pakistan led to the separation movement.
The head of the Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI), Fakhruddin Akhundzada, expressed his regrets about the regional languages bills rejection. “It is denying the identity of the people,” said Akhunzada. “It seems the officialdom thinks recognising regional languages will threaten the country.”
Spoiling the Bill
Mover of the bill, PML-N’s Memon told The Express Tribune some officials of the law ministry and some Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) lawmakers acted as “spoilers against this bill”.
This was a private member bill which was later meant to be clubbed with a government bill to be brought on this subject, said Memon. “This [regional language bill] was something PPP did not allow during its own tenure; now its members are creating hurdles for the PML-N government.” A similar bill moved by Memon was rejected by the committee back in 2011.
The lawmaker said this bill was the most pro-integration bill seen by the NA in sometime. Nonetheless, the government is making legislation on this issue “that will sail through the house, giving the languages their due status,” said the PML-N lawmaker.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2014.