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Linguistic diversity

March 21, 2017

LANGUAGE is identity, and it is especially important to acknowledge that in a multi-ethnic society such as Pakistan: a failure to do so can have far-reaching consequences. So while it may have taken five years in coming, the KP government’s decision to at last implement the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Promotion of Regional Languages Authority Act, 2012, is a case of better late than never. Starting with the next academic year which commences in April, government primary and secondary schools will begin teaching regional languages as a compulsory subject in the areas where they are spoken. These languages include Pashto, Hindko, Seraiki and Khowar, while Kohistani, which is also among the five officially designated regional languages of the province, will not be part of the curriculum because of a dispute among its speakers over differences in dialect.

The history of this country illustrates how language is seen as a vehicle of political power, or the lack of it. The protests soon after Partition in what was then East Pakistan over the central government’s decision to declare Urdu the national language arguably sowed the seeds for the Bengali nationalist movement. In the early 1970s, Sindh saw language riots between Sindhi and Urdu speakers. In Balochistan today, neither Balochi nor Brahui are taught in government schools — even as an optional subject. It is telling, therefore, that at Turbat University, located in an area where the insurgency is the strongest, far more students opt for Balochi as their major than any other subject. Even aside from the obvious political connotations, to give regional languages — especially those spoken by smaller, less empowered groups — their due is to celebrate and preserve diversity in its most fundamental form. Language is after all the repository of a people’s collective memory, the heritage that makes each ethnic group so unique. The authorities at the federal and provincial levels have been apathetic in their duty on this score. A 2014 parliamentary paper on the subject pointed out that of 72 languages spoken in this country, 10 are either “in trouble” or “nearing extinction”. Meanwhile, as a conference in Peshawar earlier this year pointed out, the speakers of dozens of other languages are also dwindling rapidly. Among these is Hindko, which makes the KP government’s recent move very timely. For the federal government to declare the major regional languages as national languages would be even more appropriate, not to mention far-sighted.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2017