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January 11, 2017

Counting the ‘others’


January 11, 2017

Ours has unfortunately become a terribly exclusionist society. But it is extremely abhorrent when the state applies this doctrine either out of sheer inefficiency or through an agenda.

While reading the Handbook of Housing and Population Census Pakistan 1998, I found a large number of Pakistanis had been categorised as the ‘others’. In the 1998 census, only six languages had been listed as the country’s native languages while those who spoke the remaining 67 languages were declared the ‘others’. These six languages were Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi and Seraiki.

According to the 1998 census, the ‘others’ constituted 4.7 percent of the population in Pakistan. They constituted 0.9 percent of the population of Punjab, 20.4 percent in NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), 4.2 percent in Balochistan, 4.9 percent in Sindh, 0.5 percent in Fata and 7 percent in Islamabad. Interestingly, the figures for those who fell under the ‘others’ category in the 1981 census were 8.5 percent in Pakistan, 0.6 percent in Punjab, 25.7 percent in NWFP, 23.6 percent in Balochistan, 7.4 percent in Sindh, 0.1 percent in Fata and 2.4 percent in Islamabad. Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir are missing in this database. 

If we compare the two sets of figures, one can easily assert that cultural diversity in Pakistan shrunk in a period of 17 years from 1981 to 1998. A decrease was witnessed in all territories, except Islamabad and Fata. Does the increase in people who belong to the ‘others’ category in Islamabad imply that they are ruling Pakistan? Given the tough and competitive nature of life in Islamabad, the ‘others’ can never be powerful enough to establish permanent settlements in the city. This trend indicates that there must have been flaws in the data collection process of the previous censuses.

Though linguistic diversity in Pakistan faces challenges in terms of documentation, revitalisation and institutionalisation, it has not disappeared as rapidly as the data from the past two censuses suggests.

According to the world’s only authentic language online database, Ethnologue, Pakistan has 73 living languages. Of them, 65 are indigenous whereas the remaining eight are non-indigenous. Ethnologue further categorises these languages according to their usage.

Out of the 73 languages, six are institutional – that is, they are used in education and the media to some degree – 18 are developing and 39 are vigorous (they strongly resist extinction). The online database lists eight languages that are under threat of extinction and two that are slowly becoming extinct. This implies that, although Pakistan has no institutional arrangement to encourage people to write in these 65 languages, their native speakers continue to speak them.

Whenever researchers attempt an ethnographic or anthropological study of the indigenous communities in Pakistan, they are always left clueless about the exact number of people who speak these languages. As a result, determining the exact number of people who fall under the ‘others’ category involves guesswork. This has, on the one hand, created hurdles for the researchers while, on the other, it has raised the chances of conflicts between the dominant and non-dominant communities. For instance, many of my friends in Swat will get annoyed if I say that my research shows that the non-Pakhtun population of Swat is more than 25 percent. They can easily assert that it is merely 6.5 percent because the census suggests this.

Another example is of the Chitral district. In the district report of Chitral, it states that by the 1998 census, the proportion of the population speaking Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi and Seraiki was small. It reads: “Only 3.8 percent population speaks Pashto as their mother tongue. The 96.2 percent of the total population of the district probably speaks Chitrali or other local languages grouped with the ‘others’ languages in the census questionnaire”.

There is no language by the name of Chitrali spoken in the district. The major language in Chitral is Khowar with eleven other languages – including the language of the Kalash community, the Kalasha.

The census questionnaire lacks a specific column for languages, except the six major ones. The inclusion of these six languages to the exclusion of others also implies that in Pakistan only those people are accounted for who have a greater political say. The rest are virtually held as second-class citizens who are labelling as ‘others’. This otherisation needs to end.

In the next census, scheduled for the spring of 2017, this must be addressed by determining the exact number of speakers of all languages included in the questionnaires.

This is not as difficult a task as the concerned departments have made us believe. More often than not, all languages are not included because the task of collecting data is too difficult, timely, costly and demanding.

Some of the native speakers of these ‘other’ languages reside in a scattered manner in some cities. However, most of these indigenous communities usually live in specified territories. In the big cities, too, the communities usually live in clearly defined and named colonies or slums. This makes it easier to collect data about the languages they speak.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics needs to take notice of a few points before going into the field to conduct surveys. It should hire the services of researchers to understand where these languages are spoken and under what names. Researchers should also be hired to train those who conduct surveys and are involved in the process of data collection – who are usually teachers and government employees.

Ethnologue could be a source of reference to prepare questionnaires for the survey on languages. The questionnaires need to vary according to different areas.

This time, the census must be different and the ‘others’ category should not be included in the questionnaire for languages. Linguistic diversity needs to be properly documented for any measures adopted in the future to ensure these languages are used as mediums of instruction in the early years of a child’s education. 


The writer heads an independent
organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.

Email: [email protected]



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