A new language policy
On July 10, the government informed the Supreme Court that it had issued an executive order for the replacement of English with Urdu as the country’s official language in stages. The decision had been taken, the court was told, in fulfilment of the government’s obligation under Article 251 of the constitution, which makes it mandatory that arrangements should be made for the use of Urdu for official and other purposes within fifteen years from 1973.
The 15-year grace period for English ended 27 years ago in 1988 but Pakistan is no nearer the goal of replacing it with Urdu as the official language. The truth is that none of the governments, whether civilian or military, which have been in power during this period, has shown any discard English in favour of Urdu. As a result, English has become further entrenched as official language, while the use of Urdu in government offices has been declining despite the fact that its nation-wide use as the language of communication between people speaking different mother tongues has been growing constantly and the language has gained acceptance even in the far-flung parts of the country as its lingua franca.
The Nawaz government’s announcement to make Urdu the official language was not made of its own accord but in response to strictures passed by a Supreme Court bench during the hearing of a case brought by a civic-minded citizen on the government’s failure to implement Article 251. It remains to be seen whether the government possesses the will to take the necessary policy steps to fulfil its commitment.
Scepticism about the government’s resolve has been heightened by the fact that it has still not officially published its new policy on Urdu, and neither the prime minister nor a government minister has cared to speak on the issue in public. Nevertheless, some of the initial steps announced by the government are highly welcome even when they might appear to be largely of symbolic importance. It is to be hoped that the spectacle of government ministers and senior officials speaking in English within the country even when their command of the language is very shaky will become a thing of the past.
But these early steps are the easy part. The real test is whether they will be followed up with the more difficult ones like translating laws, policies and documents into Urdu and training government personnel in the use of Urdu terminology and whether the government has the will to overcome determined resistance from the vested interests which favour the continuation of English as the official language. A lot of hard work and leadership from the top will be needed. The circular issued by the federal government directing the different ministries and departments to start using Urdu is a typical bureaucratic quick fix. Everyone expects that it will be largely ignored.
Opposition to the new policy is coming from the expected quarters: the tiny English-speaking ‘elite’ of the country which is a legacy of British colonial rule, and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. These are groups which owe their power and privileges largely to their knowledge of English. They have also become the backbone of the present unjust class structure. The government will have to show a lot of determination to break their resistance.
Most important, the introduction of Urdu as official language must be part of a broader language policy in which the use of regional languages is also promoted. In particular, every province should be free to adopt its own language for official purposes in addition to Urdu, and to promote the mother tongue as the language of instruction in the schools. The Supreme Court itself has underlined the importance of regional languages in its hearing of the case and pointed to clause (1) of Article 251 which says that “without prejudice to the status of the national language, a Provincial Assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in addition to the national language.”
But the promotion of regional languages should not be left to the provinces alone. Pakistan is a multi-lingual country and the languages spoken in its different parts are a national treasure. They all go to enrich the cultural mosaic of the country. Their preservation, development and promotion should therefore be made a priority at the federal level as well. In fact, it must go hand in hand with the promotion of Urdu.
In its manifesto for the parliamentary elections of 2013, the PML-N had promised the setting up of a National Language Commission to develop criteria for giving the status of national language to all major languages of the country. Two years into its tenure, the government has done nothing so far to fulfil this promise. In fact, it opposed a private bill introduced by a member of its own party in July last year for an amendment in the constitution to declare the major regional languages as national languages in addition to Urdu.
The PMLN-led government should not delay any further the fulfilment of its pre-election pledge to give the status of national language to the major languages of the country. This would require a constitutional amendment and this step should be taken in parallel with moves to make Urdu the official language. The setting up of a commission for this purpose, as proposed in the PML-N manifesto, would not be advisable as the matter is essentially political. The task of recommending which languages are to be given national status should instead be left to a parliamentary committee which should give a hearing to experts and to civil society representatives.
Once the constitution grants the status of national language to the major regional languages of the country, it follows logically that their promotion should also be a federal responsibility, but without restricting the authority of the respective provincial government for their advancement. At the federal level, this task should be given to the National Language Promotion Board (NLPB), which has replaced the National Language Authority.
In keeping with its enhanced responsibilities, the NLPB should be renamed the National Languages Promotion Board and its governing body should be expanded to include representatives of provincial governments. It would also help if the composition and mandate of the NLPB are specified in the constitution to rescue it from its present position in the backwater of the federal bureaucracy.
The resources and the capacity of the NLPB would also need to be enhanced to make it better equipped to carry out its added responsibilities, especially to translate words and expressions from foreign languages into Urdu and to coin new Urdu terms in the realms of government and administration, law, science and technology, and business and commerce.
It is a shame that we have no Urdu words for even such high constitutional institutions and offices as Senate, Assembly (as in National Assembly), Governor, Supreme Court and the Election Commission and still use the English words transcribed phonetically into Urdu. We should of course be ready to borrow words from Arabic and Persian and exceptionally even from English. To assist the NLPB in coining new words or adopting foreign words, the government should also hire the services of people from the academia, the civil society and the practitioners of various specialised professions.
In promoting Urdu, the main focus in the Supreme Court hearings and in the government’s executive order has been on its use as official language. But the government’s constitutional responsibility is not confined to that. Article 251 states that arrangements must be made also for its use for “other purposes” within 15 years from 1973. Regrettably, our governments have also failed completely in implementing this provision of the article and no serious effort has been made to promote the use of Urdu as a language of education and learning, of science and technology and of business and commerce. To give just one example, no bank in the country issues a cheque book in Urdu. It is hoped that the Supreme Court orders in the ongoing case on Article 251 will address this aspect of the matter as well.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
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