Writers, scholars call on govt to promote, protect mother languages
ISLAMABAD: Ali Ahmed Qamar is a writer from Gilgit-Baltistan, who has written two books in the Balti and Potohari languages. In 2010, he submitted both to the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) to be considered for the Kamal-e-Fun award.
However, PAL said neither of the languages was being considered for the award, and suggested he write in one of the languages that are being considered instead. Since then, Mr Qamar has been engaged in efforts to have both Balti and Potohari recognised, because they are the mother tongues of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis.
Mr Qamar raised the issue once more on Sunday, at an event marking International Mother Language Day at PAL, saying all the languages of Pakistan should get recognition.
Historically, Pakistan’s history with mother languages is not a positive one. On Feb 21, 1952, students at Dhaka University in what was then East Pakistan protested, calling for Bangla to be made Pakistan’s national language because 56pc of the population was Bangla-speaking. In response, police opened fire on the demonstrators, resulting in the death of five students.
Talking to Dawn, Mr Qamar said: “After [I was told] that both languages were not considered for the award, I submitted a case to the Federal Ombudsman. In 2011, PAL assured the Federal Ombudsman that approval will be sought from the prime minister and soon both languages would be considered for the award.”
“Although my books cannot be considered for the award now, I have been working to get recognition for both languages, but even in 2016 I only get assurances that the issue will be addressed soon.”
Many other poets and writers at the event demanded that regional languages be given more significance, and endangered languages in particular should receive special attention.
As many as 72 languages are spoken in Pakistan, of which 27 are currently considered ‘endangered’ or ‘near extinction’.
Inayatullah Faizi, from Chitral, said a bill was drafted that would have categorised 22 languages as ‘national languages’ but could not be tabled in the National Assembly.
Dr Fayaz Khateeb, from Sindh, said it was unfortunate that parents were not speaking to their children in their mother tongues. He also said that books written in regional languages should be translated to Urdu so they may reach more readers.
In response, National Book Foundation managing director Inamul Haq Javed offered the organisation’s services to translate such texts to Urdu.
The adviser to the prime minister on national history and literary heritage, Irfan Siddiqui, said the government should work to promote mother languages across the country.
He said the government is planning to organise conferences across the country at regional levels, including in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. Mr Siddiqui said the National History and Literary Heritage Division would be the first to implement Urdu as the country’s official language.
The first ever Mother Languages Literature Festival concluded on Sunday, with a sense of achievement and hope for a better future. Over 150 writers from more than 15 Pakistani languages, and a number of visitors, made the initiative a great success.
The festival was organised by Lok Virsa, the Indus Cultural Forum (ICF), Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO) and USAID in order to promote Pakistan’s linguistic diversity and encourage interest in other languages.
Speakers called for policy-level measures to promote and preserve mother languages.
Speaking at the festival, Information Minister Pervez Rasheed said the government was in the process of broad consultations to devise a policy by March, to promote and protect various cultures.
Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said: “This is the first time people gathered and talked about the promotion and preservation of mother languages, which is a tremendous initiative. These local languages contain beautiful literature that is veiled due to the language barriers.”
The festival also featured mobile libraries by the National Book Foundation and the USAID-funded Pakistan Reading Programme. The USAID mobile library engaged children in various activities that also promoted local languages and screened a documentary highlighting the importance of mother tongues.
Amir Khan, the pre-service manager of the programme, told Dawn: “It is a very alarming situation that fifth grade students can’t read third grade level Urdu books. If this is the situation of our national language, you can imagine what the situation of local or mother languages will be.”
He said USAID initiated the five-year project to support Pakistan’s provincial and regional education departments in improving children’s reading skills. He said that parents prefer teaching their children English due to socioeconomic pressures, which is eroding native languages.
Humaira Waseem, a teacher, said events like these promote reading, which she added was losing its popularity amongst the youth in favour of ‘digital activities’. She said that the festival would also help people find texts in their native languages, adding that she had found poetry and novels written in Punjabi.