The national language conundrum

Language was not the only issue leading to separation of East Pakistan. It was imperialist thesis of Pakistani leaders

Zubair Torwali July 23, 2014

According to a recent report, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice rejected with majority vote a bill seeking the status of national language for a number of regional languages. The said bill was moved by PML-N lawmaker Marvi Memon after long deliberations and consultations with the linguists and educationalists from several languages.

As the discussion ensued, some remarks were made by the special secretary of the law ministry, Justice (retd.) Raza Khan. Khan, while rejecting the bill, commented thus: “The country had already suffered the East Pakistan tragedy in 1971 as a result of the decision to declare both Urdu and Bengali as national languages.”

The idea that giving national status to Bengali led to the separation of East Pakistan is simplistic and uninformed. The honourable special secretary might be well aware that the Bengali Language Movement, or the Bhasha Ondolan as it called in Bengali, did not start after 1956 when Bengali was recognised as a state language. The movement has its roots in the colonial period alongside the campaign for the independence of India from British rule. Even during the All-India Muslim League’s struggle, the issue of a lingua franca for Muslims surfaced again and again. At the Lucknow session of the All-India Muslim League in 1937, delegates from Bengal had opposed a resolution recommending Urdu to be the lingua franca of Muslims all over India.

The argument by the special secretary is, however, not surprising. Every Pakistani has been taught lies and half-truths about history at school, college and university. Like many, the special secretary thinks that national harmony can be secured by coercive and suppressive measures. This official line, very often crafted by the civil and military bureaucracy, leads the country to the verge of failure. Whoever challenges this line is dubbed an ‘agent’, an ‘enemy’, a ‘traitor’ or an ‘infidel’ in Pakistan. This is not a new phenomenon. It is but a generations-old tradition.

Had the bureaucratic advisors of Jinnah not briefed the him saying that the people who demanded a state language status for Bengali were actually communists and Indian agents, Pakistan’s history would have been very different. When Jinnah reached the Dhaka airport on March 19, 1948 he found a less-than-enthusiastic crowd there. If his advisers had told him the truth he would not have spoken thus: “…..But let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language.”

Whether it is the state organs or the non-state actors in Pakistan, everyone has taken it up as his/her responsibility to discredit and decry every form of diversity or heterogeneity. The common narrative insists on a very unnatural kind of homogeneity which is backfiring in a hundred different ways before our very eyes today.

In order to hold together a diverse newborn country, Jinnah and his advisers applied an exclusive policy derived from the ‘one-religion-one-language theory’ to the entire country. Urdu, being a major bone of contention before the Partition, was made the only national language despite the fact that only a few fringes of the Pakistani population spoke and understood it. This consequently denied due rights to speakers of the majority language, Bengali. This, along with other factors, aggrieved the Bengalis, who used to be at the forefront of the movement for Pakistan.

It was not the acceptance of Bengali as ‘a state language alongside Urdu’ that caused the tragedy of 1971. Rather, it was the stubborn stance of the Pakistani nationalist leaders that transformed a just demand into a mass movement and eventually led to the separation of East Pakistan. The West Pakistanis recognised Bengali in the 1956 Constitution only after the overwhelming victory of the United (Jugto) Front which won 215 out of a total 237 Muslim seats in East Pakistan. But they bulldozed the majority status of East Pakistan with the insertion of the parity principle in the constitution.

Indeed, language was not the only issue that led to the separation of East Pakistan. It was the imperialist thesis of the leaders of Pakistan misguided by the then bureaucrats who actually made the making of Bangladesh possible. People with the just demand for the recognition and promotion of Bengali were dubbed as communists, Indian agents, enemies and traitors of Pakistan and Islam.

Heavens will not fall on Pakistan if the so-called ‘regional languages’ along with the  ‘other’ mother tongues are recognised as national languages. Rather, it would be a right move to address some of the grievances of the people who just are as Pakistani as the civil and military establishments are.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2014.

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