In March 2014, a parliamentary committee held an extensive session in Islamabad to determine why some regional and small languages in the country were facing decline and what measures could be adopted to protect and preserve them.

One major objective of the huddle was to discuss ‘the role of mother languages in the country towards creating inter-provincial and inter-communal harmony’.

Over 35 experts and linguistics provided input at the high-level meeting and apprised the lawmakers that out of the 72 languages spoken in different regions, at least 10 were “under pressure” and in different phases of decline (two facing extinction and eight in trouble.)

The committee, chaired by Marvi Memon, a PML-N MNA, resolved that it would “not allow the ‘linguicide’ in Pakistan of its rich mother tongues”.

It also committed to “protecting the endangered mother tongues of Pakistan”.

The grading of all national and regional languages was done in the light of international standards and the last census held in the country way back in 1998.

But the committee seems to have forgotten the resolve it made as no meaningful step has been taken since then to protect or promote any of the languages confronted with the threat of extinction or deterioration.

As the country braces itself for the sixth census, starting in March this year, a fresh opportunity has arisen to assess the status of various national and regional languages by counting the number of their speakers and asking people to register in the census form their mother tongue or the language they speak at home.

This exercise would not only help the authorities to determine the exact number of various ethnicities, but would also enable them to chalk out a strategy for the protection and preservation of deserving dialects.

But unfortunately, the government has failed to devise a formula to get exact data of every spoken language in Pakistan. It could include only nine languages ---Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Brahvi, Kashmiri, Seraiki and Hindko--- in the census form. They have decided to include all other languages in the 10th category of the languages column in the form, i.e. ‘other languages’.

“This formula will not serve the purpose of a census,” said Dr Atish Durrani, a former head of the National Language Authority’s translation bureau and professor of Pakistani languages at the Allama Iqbal Open University.

“Instead of providing codes for some languages in the census form and ignoring many others, they should have simply asked a citizen which language he or she speaks at home and thus counted population of each language in the country,” he said.

Atish Durrani, who developed Urdu language software for computers and cell phones, said this decision of the census authorities was against democratic norms.

“With this formula of census, our national language Urdu will appear as a minority language because it’s not the mother tongue of the vast majority of the population. This will also deprive many other major languages of representation.”

Dr Durrani names nine languages which should be identified at the national level. “There are several key regional languages which should be identified at the national level, such as Jatki in central Punjab and Balochistan, Riasti in Bahawalnagar, Paharri and Gojri in Abbottabad, Shina and Balti in Gilgit-Baltistan, Gujarati and Kachi in Sindh and Makrani in Balochistan.

“A reasonable number of Pakistanis also speak Chinese in Khunjrab, so why don’t you count them? Aren’t they Pakistanis?”

Representatives of many languages are already sceptical of the authorities’ intentions and criticise preference of some languages over others.

“This strategy of treating only a few languages eligible for inclusion in the census hurt us badly during the 1998 census,” said Dr Ziauddin, Chief Executive of Gandhara Hindko Board Committee in Peshawar.

”Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has 40 per cent Hindko-speakers, but the government says we are only 18 per cent. They are mistaken and their assessments are wrong because the 1998 census form did not have a separate code for Hindko language,” he said, recalling that Hindko was added in the census form only after the Peshawar High Court’s ruling in its favour.

But officials at the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) argue a count for every language in the country was not possible.

“This census form is pre-coded and can’t be altered at this stage. It’s administratively not possible to include every single language in this form,” Habibullah Khattak, a spokesman for PBS, said.

“This form was finalised six or seven years ago and can’t be amended now as the census is around the corner,” Khattak said.

But Dr Durrani believes government officials were avoiding the hard work needed for a proper count.

“They should simply leave the language column vacant and fill it with the mother tongue of every citizen, but it will make them work more for a proper count and they don’t want to do that,” he said.

Abid Qaiyum Suleri, Executive Director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), thinks this anomaly has a potential to trigger another national controversy.

“If the number of people speaking other languages emerges much higher in the census, it will set off a fresh controversy because the census will impact the ethnic composition, curriculum, mode of education and medium of instruction.”

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2017

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