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Sunday, February 27, 2011

National Language Bill: A Viewpoint

By Zulfiqar Halepoto 
The issue of the recognition of various languages as national languages in Pakistan cannot be seen in isolation. It has a direct link with the politics of ethnicity in Pakistan and fraction of the overall socio-political crisis of the state, which in fact was the outcome of the politics of communism, the genesis of the freedom and independence. Imposition of Urdu on Bengali and other centuries’ old languages by the founder of Pakistan, Mr. Jinnah was the first outcome of the politics of communalism, which pushed Bengalis to the wall and finally they seceded.

To correct the situation with regards to the national languages issue, 22 legislators (MNAs) from PPP and PMLQ have presented national language bill 2010 in the National Assembly, demanding to declare Balochi, Punjabi, Pushto, Shina/Balti, Sindhi, Siraiki and Urdu as national languages. The bill was presented on a private member’s day by Nawab Yousuf Talpur of PPP with the signatures of 15 PPP legislators followed by 7 PML-Q MNAs. 

The bill seeks to replace Article 251 of the constitution that specifies Urdu as the only national language of the country. The proposed replacement reads: “The national languages of Pakistan are Balochi, Punjabi, Pushto, Shina/ Balti, Sindhi, Siraiki and Urdu.”
Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the civic ceremony at Race Course Maidan (currently Suhrawardy Udyan) in 1948, from where he stated about the language crisis of East Bengal. During the meeting he declared, Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan and no other language. (Photo courtesy Ahmed, Monwar). He made similar remarks at Dhaka University Karjon Hall, March 4, 1948
The bill is referred to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice, which has already rejected another bill by a majority vote, presented by MNA Marvi Memon, to declare eight provincial and regional languages as national languages. The committee under the chairpersonship of Begum Nasim Akhtar Chaudhry voted against the bill by saying that these were mere dialects and not languages.

Status of bill presented in the National Assembly of Pakistan:

The recent effort by some legislators is `full of contradictions that could cause fissures too difficult to heal`, as quoted by Dawn editorial `Speaking in tongues` (January 27th, 2011). The members have failed to understand political dynamics and the historical perspective of the language crisis in Pakistan. They have unnecessarily included the issue of Persian and Arabic languages in the bill, as the ill-drafted bill can weaken the historical case of the national languages of the four constituent units.
National Assembly, Pakistan
Mother tongues are not national languages:

There may be many languages spoken in a province and there may be many dialects of the same language. But the language of that province or area will be the one spoken by the majority. In Punjab, many dialects are spoken like Majhi dialect is spoken in Lahore, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, etc., in upper Punjab.

Rachnavi is spoken in Khanewal, Faislabad, Chinniot, Okara, Sargodha, etc. Doabi is spoken by the people in the area between Bias and Sutlej basin (Rachna Doaab). Malavi is spoken by those who migrated from Anbala, Ludhiana, Hisar, and Haryana. Hindko/Pothohari is spoken in different areas of Punjab and Pakhtunkhwa, including Attock, Chakwal, Murree, Rawalpindi, Naushera, etc., but the language of Punjab is, and will always be, called Punjabi, which encompasses all dialects.

The same is the case with Sindh where Brahivi, Siraiki, Dhatiki, Gujarati, Marwaree, Urdu, Balochi and many dialects of the Sindhi language itself are spoken. But the majority language shall remain Sindhi. The same is the case of Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan where people speak various mother tongues and local dialects. All these languages should be given a proper status but all the mother tongues cannot be declared national languages.

The recent movement in Sindh:

Interestingly Sindh has already raised united voice for granting Sindhi, status of national language as it was centuries’ old and a forceful medium of expression. Sindh is speaking in one voice on the demand and all the stakeholders including the government, the Culture Department, Sindhi Adabi Sangat, Sindh Democratic Forum and almost all political parties especially nationalist groups are united on the issue.

A high level committee comprised of leading intellectuals, writers, political scientists, linguists, and academia is formed to lobby with mainstream political and parliamentary groups including PPP, PML-N, PML-F, PML-Q and MQM and to urge them to evolve a joint strategy on the language issue.

These forces have started mass-mobilization and awareness campaign to sensitize public opinion for grant of national status to Sindhi language. Renowned scholars are active in dialogue with the leadership of political parties, social welfare organisations, representatives of civil society, journalists, writers, and media to play an important role in this campaign.

Though Sindh hailed members of the National Assembly of Pakistan for presenting a bill in the National Assemble for granting Sindhi and seven other languages national status but the bill was critically reviewed by think tanks and linguists and asked the members to remove the weaknesses in the bill, first. The bill proposes giving national language status to all mother tongues was ill-drafted, which, if implemented, would create problems as languages, other than Sindhi, were also being spoken in Sindh. This move would also adversely affect the actual demand of making Sindhi, the national language.

A high profile committee was formed under the lead of Muhammad Ibrahim Joyo to lead mass-mobilization campaign and lobbying with the government and parliamentarians for a politically correct legislation and implementation of demands. Committee is planning to convene a national conference of linguists, parliamentarians and writers for evolving a joint strategy.

Zulfiqar Halepoto is political analyst and development practitioner and can be reached at:

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