MARVI Memon and nine other members of the National Assembly have introduced a bill to “further amend the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”. The proposed bill is titled “Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2014”.

The bill says that “in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, for Article 251, the following shall be substituted”, and what follows is reproduced here verbatim:

“(1) The National Languages of Pakistan are Balochi, Balti, Brahvi, Punjabi, Pushto, Shina, Sindhi, Siraiki, Hindko, Urdu and all those mother tongues as deemed to be major mother tongues of Pakistan by the National Language Commission. The said the commission which will comprise of experts and linguists will be set up with the prime objective to develop criteria for giving the status of national languages to major mother tongues of Pakistan.

“(2) The official language of Pakistan shall be English until arrangements are made for its replacement with Urdu within 15 years from the commencement day.

“(3) The Federal Government will establish a fund for the development and promotion of national languages as well as ensure that Arabic and Persian are taught as subjects at school level.

“(4) Without prejudice to the status of the national languages, a provincial assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in addition to the national language”.

To discuss different aspects of Pakistan’s linguistic issues against the backdrop of mother languages and national language/s of Pakistan, the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) organised a two-day symposium at its Islamabad office last week. At the symposium, researchers, academics, writers, linguists and language activists spoke their minds and on certain issues heated debates took place.

The symposium coincided with the International Mother Language Day and it discussed, among other issues, the proposed constitutional amendment bill. Miss Marvi Memon, too, attended the concluding session and she discussed with the participants some of the suggestions offered and answered the questions raised at the symposium.

But Miss Memon missed some of the points raised during the heated debates that had taken place in the earlier sessions. While most of the participants agreed that all Pakistani languages (‘regional languages’ or ‘provincial languages’ is a misnomer) should be protected and promoted and that the basic education should be imparted in mother tongue, some took exception to certain aspects of the bill.

For instance, a scholar rightly pointed out that since the 1973 constitution says that Urdu shall be the official language within 15 years (i.e., till 1988) and the Supreme Court has recently directed to implement it, now going back to English as official language for further 15 years means we are back to square one.

Another point of view was that if “each mother tongue of Pakistan is equal to other in terms of status”, as the “statement of objects” of the bill says, why not declare all 76 Pakistani languages the national languages of Pakistan? But the question is: does any country in the world have so many languages as national languages? The document says that “all major languages of sizeable population may be considered as national languages”. But it does not define the “sizeable”. This, as put by a participant, is definitely going to spark a new debate because the speakers of almost every language spoken in Pakistan claim to be a “sizeable population”.

Our nationalist friends and language activists were vociferous and emotional. They insisted that their languages should be declared national languages and not accepting it would remind one of the similar situation in the early days of Pakistan when Bengalis demanded that their language too should be declared national language of Pakistan along with Urdu and the denial, as they put it, resulted in the tragedy that took place in 1971 when Pakistan’s eastern province became Bangladesh. This was indeed a thinly veiled threat.

It was decided at the symposium that some recommendations should be sent to the federal government. The participants felt that the proposed Language Commission of Pakistan should be a permanent body with members from different quarters and the commission should submit its final recommendations on the issue of declaring other Pakistani languages the national languages of Pakistan alongside Urdu. It also recommended that the pro forma document to be used in the 2017 census should be amended and instead of offering eight or nine columns for declaring ‘mother tongue’ or ‘other language’, it should have one column and people should be allowed to mention their mother tongue in that one column. This linguistic information can be used to determine the actual number of speakers of a specific language. This will also correctly tell how many languages are spoken in Pakistan and with this information the linguistic atlas of Pakistan can also be developed.

A matter of concern in the bill is saying that “the official language of Pakistan shall be English until arrangements are made for its replacement with Urdu within fifteen years”. Urdu is already ready to replace English. All arrangements have been made and the National Language Authority, established in 1979 for the very same purpose, has taken all the required measures and prepared Urdu to replace English. This dragging of feet is unexplained and perplexing. Also, English is spoken by five per cent of the population and Urdu is understood by 95 per cent of Pakistanis. So at least at the federal level, Urdu should be the official language and provincial assemblies may adopt any language/s they deem fit as official language/s.

In a multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic country like ours, language can become an emotional issue. The government should tread carefully on this touchy matter.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2017