In September 2015, the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked the government to implement the use of Urdu in all official business. In February 2017, the Lahore High Court also instructed the government to conduct the civil services examinations (CSS) in the Urdu language. These judgments were taken keeping the 1973 constitution in mind.
When Urdu was declared the national language in the initial years of Pakistan, riots against the decision broke out in Dhaka. This was the beginning of the end of a united Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan broke away. When Islam could not keep the country united, Urdu definitely could not. While there is a myth that Urdu is essential for the nationhood of Pakistan, it is untrue. A large number of countries in the world have more than one official language. These include Canada, Switzerland and Afghanistan. Therefore, the prevalence of a single language does not guarantee a united country.
Pakistan is a multi-lingual, multicultural and multi-ethnic country where 72 different languages are spoken. While Urdu is understood and spoken across the country, it is the mother tongue of only the Urdu-speaking Mohajir community in Pakistan. When Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Seraiki, Hindko, Balochi and Barahvi are highly important languages in the country, how can Urdu be considered the mother tongue of the nation?
Moreover, the perception that only those countries that use their mother tongue in their educational systems progress, is incorrect. Currently, all Arab countries use Arabic, Latin American countries use Spanish, Iran uses Persian and Afghanistan uses Pashto in their educational systems but these countries are semi- or under-developed.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, various types of schools – English medium, Urdu medium school and Pashto medium – are functioning. In a class-based society, language and power are interrelated. Therefore, students of English-medium schools are rated at the top, Urdu-medium ones in the middle and Pashto-medium students at the bottom.
Pakhtun nationalist leaders are advocating for the use of Pashto as the medium of instruction in KP even though they send their own children to English-medium schools and then later, abroad for higher studies. Although students learn quickly in their mother language, the quality of education in English-medium schools when compared to Pashto-medium ones is much higher. This is due to well-developed curriculum, trained teachers and a good school environment in English-medium schools. In KP, students are taught in Pashto at the primary level, in Urdu at the secondary level and in English at the higher level. The lack of consistency affects them negatively.
English is an international language. According to Jinnah, “English must for considerable time to come retain its pride of place both in the system of university education and as a means of international communication”. In India, English is taught and used extensively. Indians are employed in a lot of places that require proficiency in English: half a million Indians work at call centres. India is able to progress because it promotes English and focuses on the development of science and technology institutions.
Some people suggest that English books should be translated into Urdu and other local languages. This is a gigantic task because thousands of new books in many disciplines are published each year. Translation requires expertise in not only the languages but also in the subjects. An excellent translation is actually a recreation. While the government has established institutions like the Urdu Science Board and Maqtadara Qaumi Zuban for this purpose, their translated books are more difficult to understand than the original English books. Many developed countries have given up on translations and instead emphasise on learning English.
Charles Darwin’s famous phrase, “Survival of the fittest” applies to languages as well. Persian was the official language of the Mughal era in an undivided India for centuries. However, it has now disappeared from the Subcontinent. Many languages are becoming extinct and English appears to be dominating the world.
While it is good to promote all local languages and a country’s national language, it is essential to promote English so that development – particularly in the fields of science and technology – can take place in Pakistan.
The writer is a Peshawar-based academic.