A PPP poster supporting Seraikistan is placed outside a shop in Jalalpur. Photo: Dawn.com
A PPP poster supporting Seraikistan is placed outside a shop in Jalalpur. Photo: Dawn.com

The language question has always spawned activism and antagonism in Pakistan in, perhaps, equal measures. On one end of the spectrum, there are parties which accord primary importance to ethnic identity and language as building blocks for political representation. Parties on the other end have tenaciously held on to the ‘one country, one nation, one language’ mantra. Those who place ethnic and linguistic identity above any other marker of identity are usually, but not exclusively, known as nationalists. Those in the opposite camp, generally right-wing Islamist parties and religious groups, see Pakistan as a religious state with no room for the recognition and promotion of ethnic and linguistic diversity.

This division seems to have blurred a bit in recent months. Early last year, 10 members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), a right-wing entity, tabled a bill in the National Assembly, seeking national language status for the 10 most widely-spoken languages in Pakistan — Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Seraiki, Hindko and Urdu among others. When the bill was first presented, Zahid Hamid, the minister in charge of law and parliamentary affairs, vehemently opposed it. He, however, did not object when the speaker sent it for further deliberations to the National Assembly’s committee on law and parliamentary affairs. After thorough discussions, though, the committee turned down the bill.

Marvi Memon, a PMLN legislator considered close to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is the bill’s lead mover. She insists she will continue striving to have it discussed and passed as long as she is a member of the National Assembly. To put her efforts in perspective, there have been at least two other similar bills doing the rounds since 2008 without being taken up for discussion. Here, the Herald looks at various facets of the language question, in order to highlight reasons for the legislative rejection of these bills.


Language has always been a divisive issue in Pakistan. Yes, without a doubt.


It all started in Dhaka in 1948 when Mohammad Ali Jinnah made a speech there, declaring that Pakistan would have only one national language — Urdu. He said the same language will also be the official language of the country, meaning that all business of the state and government would be conducted in Urdu. By 1952, the intelligentsia in East Pakistan – mainly university students and teachers – were agitating to get the same status for Bengali. The response by the Pakistani authorities was brutal. On February 21, 1952, many agitating students were shot dead by the police in Dhaka. In recognition of those who lost their lives for their mother language that day, the United Nations adopted February 21 as International Mother Language Day, celebrated the world over since 2000.

By 1972, it was the turn of Urdu-speakers in Karachi to rise up in protest when the Sindh government declared Sindhi the official language of the province — mandating that the business of the provincial government must be conducted in it. This led to rioting, arson and killing in Karachi at a large scale. The riots were so severe that Begum Qadeeruddin Ahmed, the wife of a Supreme Court judge and belonging to a prominent Urdu-speaking family, told the Herald, at the time, that the tragedy of secession of East Pakistan might be repeated “here in Sind if the language controversy continues.” Sibte Hasan, a prominent Karachi-based, Urdu-speaking Marxist ideologue and writer, believed the riots symbolised much more than just love and hatred for one language or the other. Writing in the Herald’s August 1972 issue, he said the controversy over the language was “the symptom of a deeper malady and part of a large socio-economic conflict which has arisen on account of the new ethnological pattern of Sind. Unless serious efforts are made to resolve the basic conflict it might endanger the unity and solidarity of the entire country.”

These dire warnings have not materialised even when Pakistan in general, and Sindh and Karachi in particular, have suffered serious conflagrations among communities opposing each other on the basis of ethnicity and language, among other things. The brutal suppression of Sindhis by a Punjab-dominated martial law regime in the 1980s, tit-for-tat ethnic cleansing in parts of Karachi in the mid-1980s carried out by Pukhtuns and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs, killing and eviction of Punjabi settlers in rural Sindh in the late 1980s, the 1988 massacre of Urdu-speakers in Hyderabad — here are just a few examples of language and identity converging into a deadly mix. In a less deadly vein, a movement for the creation of a separate province for Seraiki speakers, followed by a similar demand by Hindko speakers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has been creating political ripples since 2008.

The question of language, identity and politics, however, is not unique to Pakistan. In India, for example, efforts to make Hindi the national language met stiff resistance from southern states which saw it as a threat to their own indigenous languages. India ended up having no national language — it instead declared Hindi an official language, along with English.

Dr Tariq Rehman, the author of Language and Politics in Pakistan, observes language has always been centre stage in the subcontinent’s complex centre-periphery politics. “Languages become the symbol of grievances of a community alienated from the centre primarily on the basis of some political and economic causes.” When the Muslims in India were fighting for their political rights, he says, “they invented two symbols. One was religion and the other was language — Urdu.” In post-independence Pakistan, according to Rehman, “the economic deprivation that East Pakistanis faced forced the Bengalis to adopt language as a symbol of resistance.” In other words, language is not a divisive factor. It only symbolises existing divisions.

Marvi Memon chairing a meeting of the Standing Committee on Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage at the Parliament House. Photo: AFP
Marvi Memon chairing a meeting of the Standing Committee on Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage at the Parliament House. Photo: AFP

Political parties exploit the language question for electoral mileage.

Only to a certain extent.


Activists from Seraiki-speaking areas have long demanded a separate province, citing neglect by the Lahore-based Punjabi establishment. When Yousuf Raza Gilani, then prime minister, announced in March 2011 that his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will include the formation of a Seraiki province in its election manifesto, many Seraiki activists were elated. Non-Seraiki analysts, however, saw it just as a PPP gimmick to inflate its vote bank. In the end, the announcement did not gain the party much electoral traction.

The PPP is also accused of fanning ethnic and linguistic differences between the residents of urban and rural Sindh, in order to have the rural Sindh vote bank in its thrall. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is said to be doing the same in urban Sindh.

Seen in this context, Memon’s bill can be termed an attempt by the Punjab-dominated PMLN to encroach on the political space so far solely occupied by parties from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh. She, however, tells the Herald that she is acting in line with her party’s election manifesto which had promised to give national status to 10 languages mentioned in her bill. Other sponsors of the bill may just be responding to pressure from their electorate. Their own ethnic origins are significantly relevant. Apart from Memon who belongs to Karachi, three of her co-sponsors come from Seraiki-speaking areas, two from Balochistan, one from Sindh and one from the Hazara region.

Dr Ibadullah, who represents Mansehra in the National Assembly, and is a signatory to the bill, tells the Herald that the basic idea behind the bill is to ensure state protection and support for the country’s major languages. “In context of the rampant terrorism in Pakistan, there are people who say this country does not belong to them. This bill should give some of them a sense that they belong to Pakistan,” he says.

His colleague Makhdoom Syed Ali Hassan Gillani, who comes from the Seraiki-speaking area, is similarly motivated by the political relevance of language to his constituency. He believes language is a very important issue for his voters and, therefore, promises to continue “campaigning for making Seraiki a national language.”

The front page of Dawn newspaper on December 17, 1971, declaring the end of the war.
The front page of Dawn newspaper on December 17, 1971, declaring the end of the war.

There is little chance for the bill’s approval. Yes, it is an uphill task.


Memon insists it is a PMLN bill “for all practical purposes”, because signatories to it all come from that party. Enjoying a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, the PMLN should face no problem in passing the bill into a law — that is, if it so desires. “The fact that the bill is introduced by PMLN members in a private capacity is a clear indication that the ruling party has refused to sponsor it,” says a constitutional expert based in Islamabad. Private bills, he points out, are seldom taken seriously in legislative business.

Another obstacle is the fact that the legislature remains completely divided on the language issue, and not just along party or ethnic lines. In 2008, Yousaf Talpur, a PPP lawmaker, introduced a similar bill in the National Assembly. His own party, which was also in power in Islamabad at the time, opposed his move. In 2010, during deliberations over the 18th Amendment, members of the Awami National Party (ANP) continued raising the language question; insisting that according national status to major languages spoken in Pakistan should be part of the amendment. The PPP kept shooting these suggestions down. Frustrated, ANP Senator Haji Adeel later submitted a private bill in the Senate, which again faced stiff opposition from the PPP.

The party insists it does not oppose giving people their language rights, but deems the according of an official status to a language is the prerogative of the province where it is spoken. “Our party policy is that the promotion of regional languages is a provincial subject. By bringing this subject into the federal parliament, we will be negating the constitutional arrangement,” says Naveed Qamar, a former minister who represents PPP in the National Assembly’s standing committee on law and parliamentary affairs.

The PMLN’s opposition to Memon’s bill originates from a different source. “From time to time, the party has debated the issue and a majority of its members strongly believe that Urdu should remain the only national language of Pakistan,” says a senior PMLN legislator.

The only way that the bill can possibly get through the National Assembly is if a large number of legislators from both PPP and PMLN, who in their private capacity support the proposed legislation, join hands with nationalist parties. This does not seem to be happening, mainly because of a lack of trust between the two sides. “I don’t expect anything good from the ruling party on this issue,” is how Adeel reacts when asked about the fate of Memon’s bill.

Sponsors of the bill are not giving up, though. “We will discuss it with the party leadership as soon as possible and re-table it,” says Makhdoon Ali Hassan Gillani.

File photo
File photo

An ethnically diverse country like Pakistan needs a lingua franca. Yes, but choosing one will always be difficult.


“There is a need for a main language [in Pakistan],” argues Dr Zafar Iqbal, the vice chancellor of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology, Karachi, in a report from Dawn newspaper dated August 10, 2014. When the National Assembly’s standing committee on law and parliamentary affairs sought his advice on the issue, he told the legislators: “One of the basis of a country’s creation or, for that matter, its disintegration is language — as witnessed in the case of East Pakistan.” He was clearly suggesting that the language question was a Pandora’s Box which once opened could have many untoward consequences.

Mehmood Bashir Virk, the chairman of the committee, takes the same line of argument when he says Pakistan is one nation and, therefore, should have only one national language. “The committee’s majority view was that Urdu is spoken in every nook and corner of Pakistan. It is already our lingua franca,” he tells the Herald.

The extent of Urdu’s outreach as Pakistan’s lingua franca, however, is debatable. According to the 2001 census, only 7.57 per cent Pakistanis regard Urdu as their mother language; in 2008, this figure was estimated to be 7.59 per cent. By this measure, it is only the fifth major language of Pakistan. Does this qualify it to be the country’s lingua franca? Perhaps not at a public level — at least not so far.

An article published in the Herald in 1972 theorised about this failure. Quoting a Sindhi research scholar, Dr Faiz Husain Shah, the article argued that Urdu was linked to an Islamic ideology which was supposed to keep the different provinces of Pakistan together, irrespective of their ethnic and linguistic differences. That ideology failed with East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. “So there is no question of Urdu integrating us once again,” Shah was quoted as saying.

At the official level, however, Urdu has been successfully adopted as the language of priority in all federal and provincial chambers of the legislature. It is also the main language of political interaction among the leaders and activists of political parties of different ideological persuasions and ethnic origins. As Rahman puts it in his 2003 paper titled, Language Policy, Multilingualism and Language Vitality in Pakistan, “even ethnic activists agree that it [Urdu] could be a useful link language between different ethnic groups.

The problem is that Urdu has been tainted by association. “...It has been resisted because it has been patronised, often in insensitive ways, by the ruling elite at the centre,” writes Rahman.