Goodbye English, Hello Urdu?

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has ordered the government to implement Urdu as the official language, and say goodbye English within a period of three months. It has also reportedly asked the government to form a review committee which should periodically review progress of this change of official language.

The decision of the court demanding this change, which was long rumoured, is in line with Article 251 of the constitution of Pakistan. The said article, written in 1973, demanded ‘replacement’ of English with Urdu as official language within 15 years of the enactment of the constitution, and it allowed usage of English till such ‘replacement’ was made.

After about 27 years of the deadline set in the constitution, the country is finally going to make the change. However, in his July interview with the Time magazine, federal minister Ahsan Iqbal said that the country is only going to be bilingual officially and English is not being completely dropped. While I am all for Urdu language, and the intimate connection of Urdu language with the political history of Pakistan and its founding ideology from as early on as the Urdu-Hindi controversy starting from 1837 is undeniable, however, I am not very sure that the government’s approach is going to be productive.

English: Display picture of Prof. Ahsan Iqbal
English: Display picture of Prof. Ahsan Iqbal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Any language is not just a stand alone communication medium, it is a part of a whole cultural package. It builds a sense of community, shared values, and norms. It is a symbol of civilisation. The ability to speak and write has been the hallmark of human progress since stone age. It is famously said that “language is the soul of intellect”, it should mean that unless the language of your thoughts and your job are the same, you cannot really progress and develop intellectually as well as professionally.

The existing education system divides our society in to class system. The English language is associated with the upper classes of the society, the privileged, and the liberals, whereas the Urdu language is associated with the middle class, non-privileged or under-privileged and the conservatives. More and more youngsters in the country are adopting the English language courtesy to social media, the prospects of higher education, and the adoption of western cultural values. There is already work underway in the western scholarly circles that is increasingly classifying social media as the epitome of individualism which is one of the foundation stones of liberalism and western cultural ideals. As social media is becoming the corner-stone of everyday Pakistani life, the fears of rising individualism and liberalism may also have been underlying motivation of the government.

As long as there are multiple parallel education systems in the country, this will not yield any benefits rather it will further aggravate the existing problems in the education system and their impact on the job market. There already exists a prejudice in the job market in favour of those who are proficient with spoken and written English language skills. How is the government planning to address these concerns on policy level if it really means the change in line with the spirit of the constitution?

The change will also further complicate our overall development as a society, and a body polity. The problem with modern concept of nationalism is, it is inherently divisive, it further divides a population into sub-national groups based on ethnicity, language, religion and sects. In his interview with Time, Ahsan Iqbal also added that adoption of Urdu will promote inclusive policies and increased political participation as majority of the country is not comfortable or proficient with English language. Our country is marred by linguistic prejudice, the Urdu-Sindhi clash of the past is a case in point. The issue of national language was one of the triggering issues in the East Pakistan debacle. As per CIA World Factbook, over half the population of Pakistan speaks Punjabi and Urdu is the language of only about 8% of the population. The remark by Ahsan Iqbal seems actually to be aiming at more exclusive policies and further divisive politics.

If we have to live with this modern western conception of nationalism, the fact should be accepted that Pakistan is a multi-ethnic country and the government should declare that there shall be no official language of the country. Any citizen of the country may use, and express, the right of their citizenship in any of the regional or national languages. However, if we really want to uphold the constitution in letter and spirit, then the government must only adopt Urdu as the only national as well as official language of the country.

In any case, the right approach is never to enforce abrupt changes in matters as serious as the official language of the country. The right approach is to first correct the education and employment systems in the country; enforce a single education system and eradicate the language based class divisiveness bottom-up in line with the national policy towards language and official conduct.

One of my friends concludes that our official policies toward languages have rendered us in the following dilemma (an inspiration from Emperor Charles V):

“To God I speak Arabic, to women (on social media) English, to men Punjabi, and to my boss – Urdu.”