The Supreme Court recently directed the federal government to enforce the national language, Urdu, as the country’s official language as required under Article 251 of the Constitution, within a given time line. What makes this judgment distinct is its binding nature on an issue of public importance. A general impression has been created that it is time now for the foreclosure of English when it comes to its use in official business. A plain reading of the Article, however, suggests that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and “arrangements” were to be made to enable it to be used as official language within 15 years from the commencement of the Constitution. This commitment did not exclude the use of English in the public domain. In all certainty, this was never the intent of the Constitution’s framers. The moot point at this stage is whether arrangements on the ground are sufficient enough for this initiative to be implemented. So far, there seems to be a reliance on a circular issued by the cabinet division, obligating all ministries, attached departments and state-owned organisations to enforce Urdu as the official language within 90 days. This will involve a massive exercise of translation of enactments, rules, policies and official documents. Other than the volume, it is the quality of translation which would also be of critical importance. Knowing the working of the government, the cabinet division circular seems to be more of a knee-jerk reaction to the Court order. What could not be materialised in the last 40 years is expected to be done in just 12 weeks’ time.
The recent developments, at the same time, have created some unease in certain provinces in view of strong regional proclivities. There may not be a problem in Punjab when it comes to implementing the Court decision, but what about Sindh, with its politics and social life revolving around a bilingual axis of Urdu and Sindhi? The order appreciates efforts made in the past in Balochistan and in the erstwhile NWFP for the promotion of Urdu. There is no reference to Sindh however, where in 1972, the language issue led to a formal urban-rural divide. Sindhi had been declared the official language replacing Persian, way back in 1857 by the then commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere. In the public-sector school system, two distinct streams of Urdu and Sindhi mediums exist with a convergence into English when it comes to university and professional education. There are going to be problems when it comes to taking steps and making arrangements for the use of Urdu or for that matter of any regional language in official transactions.
Language is a fairly sensitive issue in Pakistan and far beyond the purview of a literalist interpretation.
Given our fractious history, I cannot help but drift towards the fading years of united Pakistan when I was studying in Dhaka. The language controversy involving Urdu and Bengali in the early years of the country’s existence had not only created a deep wedge between the two wings, but also sowed the seeds of disintegration. It all started with a plea to make Bengali a state language along with Urdu. The centrist leadership of the early years was not prepared to yield. The demand to accept Bengali as a state language was conceded only after a sustained movement resulting in many deaths. From there onwards, Pakistan was never the same again.
The framers of the Constitution, with the core leadership coming from the province of Sindh, were not naive enough to put the case of regional languages, especially Sindhi, on the back burner. Adequate provision in this regard was made in a sub-section of Article 251. The second part of the Article deals with regional languages and efforts to promote them. There is a need to foresee consequential effects of the Supreme Court’s order on the linguistic dynamics of Sindh. The Court’s key focus on the details of the first part of Article 251 is understandable since the main concern of the petitioner who had invoked Article 184 of the Constitution was about the enforcement of Urdu as the official language.
The judgment, while dealing with the use of English in the public domain, draws an analogy with Latin, Sanskrit and Persian, the lingua franca of elitist Catholic clerics, of pandits and Brahmins, and of courts and nobility, respectively. The first two are now virtually extinct languages, and as rightly observed, these could not become languages of the populace. The analogy, therefore, may not entirely fit the bill. English, as of today, is not the language of the elite. It has emerged as a functional language providing connectivity the world over. It is the vehicle of trade, transactions, business and finance, and of information and communication technology, throwing up jobs for millions around the world.
Dilating on the governance of the federation and provinces, a conclusion has been reached that there isn’t any necessity of using a “colonial language”. English, today, is no longer just a colonial language. It is widely accepted as the lingua franca of the 21st century, an abiding link with the knowledge-based global economy. Some of the best creative literature in English, imbibing local nuance, is springing up from South Asia, the Caribbean and from Africa. In any case, what isn’t colonial in this country? Starting from the Westminster-style democracy, procedures and practices, these are all legacies of the colonial era that we so readily follow.
In Pakistan over the years, more than the state, it is the media that has served the cause of Urdu as the national language. It has permeated the most complex societal layers in all regional domains. In this novel venture, great reliance has been placed on imbibing local and regional diction and vocabulary, creating more space and ready acceptability for Urdu. State-run organisations entrusted with the promotion of Urdu as official language, in their pursuit, tend to create a sense of alienation by introducing inscrutable terms in official parlance. The word ‘authority’, for instance, is now a naturalised word, but academics insist on using the term ‘muqtadra’.
The federal government has taken on a huge responsibility on its shoulders in implementing the Court order within the given timeline. This requires a good understanding of the working of the government machinery and its capacity to achieve desired outcomes. This has been a leftover task for some 40-odd years. It remains to be seen whether we can reach the finish line in three months’ time.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2015.
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