It is unfortunate that the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice recently rejected a bill seeking the status of national language for ‘regional languages’. Linguists across the world point out that referring to native tongues as ‘regional or local languages’ is derogatory. In this context, the bill would have been a welcome deviation from the state narrative of homogeneity and monolithic tradition. A major step towards accepting diversity, leading to more democratic behaviour, could have resulted with its passage.
Homogeneity lies at the core of the militant discourse that has permeated the thinking patterns of both state and society. It is a discourse that deprives people of a chance to understand the voices that emanate from different cultures, faiths and opinions. Homogeneity decries everything that is different, unknown or unfamiliar. Its promotion in society leads to the suppression of indigenous voices, often through force. In the political domain, it leads to the centralisation of power and resources.
With the state increasingly supporting the discourse of homogeneity, we have seen political marginalisation that, in turn, has created deep fault lines in society. This approach is reinforced by a religious discourse which supports a single interpretation of faith, and is often accompanied by force.
Emphasis on English and Urdu has been at the cost of linguistic diversity.
How is the language issue linked to the militant discourse? The fact is that, in contrast to the latter, indigenous languages represent a number of social and cultural narratives that must be clearly understood by our bureaucracy and lawmakers.
The significance of native tongues goes beyond cultural aspects. Language is not only an identity marker, it is also closely related to the empowerment of a community. A community’s goal of sustainable development can only be achieved when indigenous knowledge is tapped and applied to local problems for local solutions.
Loss of a language thus also signifies the loss of indigenous wisdom, authentic cultures, a different worldview and of historical continuity. The promotion of several languages in the national narrative not only strengthens an alternative, more inclusive discourse, it also adds to the cumulative wisdom of society and state.
Unfortunately, linguists fear that almost half of an estimated 7,000 languages around the world may disappear by the end of the next century. Joshua M. Fishman, who has worked extensively on linguistic issues in the subcontinent, has suggested: “To abandon the language may be viewed as abandonment not only of the traditional doings and knowing but an abandonment of personal ancestral kin and cultural ancestral heroes per se.”
Two factors have contributed to the poor understanding of the link between linguistic diversity and pluralism in Pakistan. First, our universities hardly offer courses or encourage research in linguistic analysis. Second, little constitutional protection is offered to indigenous languages, as a result of which they are hardly promoted at the national level. This has also led to indigenous languages being stigmatised, causing their speakers to drift towards languages endorsed by the state.
There has been a strong emphasis on the promotion of Urdu and English in Pakistan since the country’s inception. This has been at the cost of linguistic diversity and to the disadvantage of state and society. While nobody denies the importance of English and Urdu, the exclusion of indigenous languages has paved the way for a narrow discourse besides lack of original research.
Moreover, education in one’s mother tongue in Pakistan is a rare phenomenon. It is erroneously assumed that being educated in one’s native language will lead to schisms and polarisation. Academic research, Pakistan’s political history and the experiences of several multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic states bear witness that the introduction of indigenous languages in several spheres of national life, including officialdom, leads to stronger institutions.
Linguists like Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine in their seminal work The Vanishing Voices have found a close relationship between biodiversity and linguistic diversity. It is one that seems to be as true for Pakistan as it is for Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Australia and India. Pakistan’s north, with its abundant biodiversity, is linguistically diverse as well. In fact, many of the languages spoken in this part of the country have scarcely been documented, and are under pressure from the competition they face from the more widely spoken languages.
It is becoming increasingly clear that socio-cultural and socio-political diversity depends on linguistic diversity. Acceptance of this diversity boosts a pluralist, democratic narrative and can help debunk a militant discourse that is increasingly becoming more dangerous as various groups compete to impose their particular worldview on society.
The writer is a political analyst based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, Aug 5th, 2014