A nation and its languages
Some 70 years after it came into existence, Pakistan still struggles with issues of identity and ethnicity. World Mother Language Day observed globally this Tuesday – on February 21 – indicated some of the problems with discussions and debates held from many platforms on what constituted a mother language and what place it had compared to a national language. Recently a Senate Standing Committee on Law, Human Rights and Justice met to discuss two separate bills moved by parliamentarians on giving other language the same status as Urdu and counting them as national language. One bill suggested that Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi and Balochi be given this status while the other recommended that Seraiki, Brahvi and Hindko also be included in this category. The issue of language is already being mentioned as one of the more sensitive issues that will come up during the census due to begin in a few weeks’ time. Indeed the problems of language have persisted almost throughout Pakistan’s history and contributed to the violent division of the nation in 1971. Many of the country’s regional languages and dialects have faced either neglect or ridicule.
The issue is clearly a controversial one. In a country where over 15 percent of people consider Pashto their first language, another 15 percent consider Sindhi in this category, over 10 percent describe Seraiki as their mother tongue and just under 4 percent speak Balochi as their first language it is important to gain a perspective on the matter of language. There are also at least 70 other language spoken across the country. We are in real danger of losing some of these languages, such as Yidgha, from the Chitral district now spoken by under 5,000 people, largely because we have failed to protect and cherish our tongues. This is tied in to our reluctance to accept the incredible diversity of our nation and instead attempt to impose upon it a stultifying uniformity. While Urdu is a beautiful language, it should not alone be given official recognition as the national language. All our languages deserve the same treatment. It is ironic that it is virtually impossible to pursue a course of study in any provincial language outside the province where it is spoken although courses in languages as diverse as Spanish, German or Mandarin are commonly available. Pakistan needs to gain confidence in itself as a nation and protect its unique heritage. It can succeed in doing so only by accepting all languages, big and small, as equal in standing – and support the culture from which they have emerged in most cases centuries ago.