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BY 8am a considerably large number of students have star­ted disembarking from point buses at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro, outside its arts faculty building. Many students are sitting in the Urdu department’s classes, awaiting their teacher. By 11am, the rush of students outside other departments is noticeable.

“Language is described as a ‘mother’ and the mother of everyone is respectable, so we need to avoid this discord and schism. It’s not in anyone’s interest,” says Dr Javed Iqbal, arts faculty’s dean and ex-Urdu department chairman.

“Do you think choosing Urdu or Sindhi is an issue?” I ask Hassaan and his friends, all Urdu-speaking Sindhis. The context is an April 17 notification by the university, calling for the writing all signage in Sindhi and English alone.

“No, it’s not,” says Hassaan. “Rather, the timely availability of point buses for students like us who get here from Hyderabad’s Pucca Qilla and Hyder Chowk areas is more important. That is a serious issue.” His friend, Mohammad Osama, chips in, saying: “We get lectures in Sindhi and English. Our Sindhi friends and teachers help us if we are unable to grasp the importance of a lecture delivered.”

The university’s notification — drafted in English and Sindhi — caused a furore. Urdu-language television channels went into overdrive, while politicians also added their comments. Mainstream media’s handling of the issue drew a harsh reaction on social media against TV reporters who broke the notification news. Social media observers compared it with the explanation sought from a female doctor of the Dow University of Health Sciences for speaking Sindhi.

The notification said: “For the general information of all that signboards and building titles in the University of Sindh, Jamshoro, and all its campuses shall be in bi-lingual format (Sindhi + English). All concerned heads are requested to take necessary action in this pursuit.” But soon a modified notification came which said that “in addition to the national language Urdu, a multi-lingual format will be used.”

SU Registrar Sajid Qayyum Memon, who signed the notification, concedes over the phone that the notice was misleading but hastens to add that, “our intention was not malafide. I grew up studying icons of Urdu literature such as Qurratulain Hyder, Nasim Hijazi, Manto and Mir Taqi Mir.” He explains that the notification was in line with a 1970s’ syndicate decision of Sindh University that Sindhi will be the official language of SU. “Certain elements tried to make a mountain out of a molehill. All non-Sindhi speaking students compulsorily read salees Sindhi in schools. So, they can read signboards written either in Sindhi and English,” he remarks.

Eminent writer and former teacher of the university’s international relations department, Inam Shaikh, doesn’t see things in isolation. “Sindh University has been facing an administrative mess for quite some time,” he says. “No teamwork is witnessed there and apparently the incumbent VC is dependent on the advice of some individuals of the teaching community.” He terms the text of the notification poorly drafted. “Didn’t you notice its language? It seems, while issuing the said notification, procedural formalities were not followed.”

Decision-making at the university has been questionable for the past few years. And perhaps that’s why Mr Shaikh can’t help saying that the language notification episode is an off-shoot of the institutional chaos. “The VC doesn’t take decisions on his own, his advisers thrust them upon him,” he observes. He seeks to contextualise the issue in the backdrop of ethnic undercurrents so that the actual point is not lost sight of. And he explains that directives for using certain language in signage are uncalled for, because English, Sindhi and Urdu are already being used as mediums of instruction.

It is a sensitive issue for which the people of Sindh have already paid a heavy price in the past. “Sindhi is the university’s official language,” says Mr Shaikh. “All signboards are already in Sindhi or English. Issuing a notification shows either incompetence or negligence on the administration’s part.”

Analyst Jami Chandio opines that given the constitutional and legal status of Urdu and Sindhi, there is no conflict at all. He refers to Article 251(1) of the Constitution which accords cover to Urdu. “Similarly, subclause-1 says that English may be used for official purposes and subclause-2 adds that ‘without prejudice to the status of the national language, a provincial assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in addition to the national language.’”

Mr Chandio remarks that it would have served the purpose had the notification been carefully drafted to say simply that in addition to Urdu, these two languages shall be used in SU. He is concerned about the way the media took up the issue. “Urdu per pabandi laga di gaee university mey [using Urdu has been restricted at the university]” is manifest of highly irresponsible reporting, he asserts: “There was no such ban.”

All signage on the roads are already in Sindhi or in Sindhi and English both. What prompted the university to create an issue out of a non-issue is anybody’s guess. VC Prof Fateh Mohammad Burfat chose not to respond to my messages.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2018