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The bill must be passed by two-thirds majorities in both the National Assembly and the Senate to become part of the Constitution.—APP/File photo

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will have up to eight national languages — not just Urdu — if a private bill introduced in the National Assembly on Tuesday without any government objection is passed by parliament as a constitutional amendment.

The introduction of the long-pending and potentially divisive bill came after the government said it had no objection to the process, but there was no immediate indication if the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) would actually back the draft, most of whose 22 authors are its members, with Nawab Mohammad Yusuf Talpur on the top of the list, along with some well-known members of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

It was one of two private bills introduced on the first private members' day of the new session that began on Monday, before Deputy Speaker Faisal Karim Kundi adjourned the house until 4pm on Wednesday amid a shouting match between members of the opposition PML-N and government-allied Mutahida Qaumi Movement which was sparked by angry exchanges over a demand made by MQM chief Altaf Hussain in a speech on the previous day for the imposition of martial law in Punjab to check crime rate.

The other bill, tabled earlier by 22 PML-N members, sought to abolish discretionary quotas in housing schemes in the public sector to avoid its misuse and require that allotments be made in a fair, equitable and transparent manner.

What is called the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2011 -- a nomenclature that could be changed by the house standing committee on law and justice during its scrutiny -- seeks to replace the Article 251 of the constitution that specifies only Urdu as the national language with a new one that says: “The national languages of Pakistan are Balochi, Punjabi, Pushto, Shina/Balti, Sindhi, Saraiki and Urdu.”

The inclusion of 'Shina/Balti' -- actually two languages cited in one entry -- in the list was a surprise oddity as they are among some five major dialects spoken in the Gilgit-Baltistan region which has not been cited in the Constitution as a part of Pakistan, and there are several other dialects spoken by even larger populations such as Hindku in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Brahvi in Balochistan and Gujrati in Sindh.

The bill must be passed by two-thirds majorities in both the National Assembly and the Senate to become part of the Constitution, which underwent two landmark changes -- Eighteenth and Nineteenth amendments drafted by an all-party parliamentary committee -- last year with consensus in both houses.

But it seems doubtful if the amendment proposed now through a private bill can muster the required two-thirds majority because language has been a sensitive issue from the early days of Pakistan when Urdu was chosen as the only national language to the exclusion of Bengali spoken by the majority of the population living in former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

And any talk of giving national status to some major languages spoken in the country's four provinces has been viewed with suspicion because of its perceived link with the concept of different nationalities propounded mainly by nationalist parties and demands for the creation of new provinces like one in the Saraiki-speaking south of Punjab or in Pushto-speaking north of Balochistan.

The new bill also provides for continuing English as Pakistan's official language “until arrangements are made for the national languages to come at par with it” while the original Article 251 says that “arrangements shall be made” for Urdu “being made for official and other purposes within 15 years from the commencing day” and that “the English language may be used for official purposes until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu”.

Another addition to the article requires the federal government to establish a fund for the development and promotion of national languages “as well as to ensure teaching of Arabic as a compulsory subject at school level” for what an accompanying statement called a better understanding of Islam by the country's population and Persian as an optional subject “so that regionally we remain connected to our age-old literary traditions of Persian”.