The recent Supreme Court decision in Constitution petition No.56 of 2003 has triggered debate on the language issue afresh. The decision aims to implement Article 251 of the Constitution that provides for, inter alia, arrangements to be made for Urdu to be used for official and other purposes. The Court has sadly overreached and ventured into the domain of executive. But that is not the only issue with the apex Court’s decision. 

The Court opined that due to “non- implementation of this provision [Article 251] a societal and linguistic divide has been created in society…” This view is not tenable given the linguistic history of the country. Pakistani state has been criticised in the past for its policy of “Urdu Imperialism” by the dissidents. After independence, Urdu was perceived as the language of “Mohajirs” and preferred language of educated Punjabi elite who at the time controlled the power politics from western egg. The implementation of it as national language was strongly resisted by Bengali intelligentsia. They started a popular movement called the Bhasha Ondolan which gained significant momentum by 1952. The state eventually had to cave in and it made Bengali the national language alongside Urdu (from 1955 to 1971). Later on, similar but less driven reaction came from Sindhi nationals.  In the seventies, language riots took place in Sindh in January 1971 and July 1972. It should have been appreciated by the Court that “linguistic divide” and “classe[s]” are created only when one language alone is promoted to the exclusion of others. This inevitably results in marginalisation of communities who are not in dominant position and resist the state measure associating their native language with their identity.  

Pakistan is a heterogeneous society that is home to multiple languages. Urdu is the mother tongue of only about 7.57% of the population today. Apart from major languages like Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Saraiki and Balochi; there are 55 other languages spoken in the country. The Court is right to emphasise:  “Empirical studies throughout the world (including those by UNESCO) advocate the use of a child’s native language in instruction since this is the language the child grows up with and which is in use in his home and around him.” In Pakistani context, the native language of a vast majority is not Urdu. Instead of taking a simplistic view that Urdu language would have “real practical implications for the Pakistani public” as it will optimise human and financial resources, the Court should have deferred to executive discretion in creating pluralistic culture in the society that seeks to abolishing the divide created by state’s language policies. At most, the Court should have restricted itself to the principle that lower classes ought to have access to what is available to the elites in knowledge-acquisition. 

Language grows on the creation of larger community. English has that community. An estimated quarter of mankind is familiar with it. It has emerged as the language of wider inter-cultural communication and has more linguistic capital than any of the other languages in the global context. As corollary of globalisation, English has been de-imperialised. And non- English speaking world has played a pivotal part in this. It does not belong to English speaking world anymore. Even in a country like Pakistan, English language is no more an elitist preserve. It offers opportunities to middle classes to get lucrative employment both in the public and private sectors. Given the liberal trends of globalisation, as the country wrestles to integrate in the world economy, English would only foster its linguistic capital. Why should people develop their skills in English language today? Simply for pragmatic reasons. The state should allow markets conditions to influence the choice of people. At the same time, it should make efforts to popularise all major languages, including Urdu, to a degree that no language is perceived to be superior to any other language. This would diminish the apparent linguistic and class divide in the country. 

No language can be imposed from above. Languages don’t need elites and their decrees for survival and popularity. They need social conditions to thrive. The voluntary shift to opt for a certain language is only succeeded by the enabling environment. It has to be made popular through culture. Hebrew was revived after it had extinguished. Great efforts were made to popularise the historic language before it served as the binding force for modern Israel. By no account a dying language, Urdu can be further popularised too through literature, songs, poetry, theatre and cinema etc before any strict time frames are given for its usage for official and other purposes. And that was the intention of the framers behind Article 251 of the Constitution. In this regard language policies, a sole discretion of executive, can be formulated as they have been around the world. For instance, the Court could have cited the works of leading linguist Dr Tariq Rehman, Khaled Ahmed and Sahiba Mansoor –to name a few, instead of relying on the letter of 1981 by the National Language Promotion Department as possible state policy. Judges are not trained to draft policies and every time, they overstep into the domain of executive, despite noble intentions, they cause chaos. 

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In Pakistan Urdu has been the official carrier of the reductionist and regressive ideology of the state. After partition, the state progressively removed Hindi words from Urdu language apparently to purify it. With time large number of official discourses have been disseminated and distributed in Urdu to spread schizophrenic worldview. Languages don’t just reflect social realties; they also construct them. Any effort to popularise the language today must also deconstruct its unwarranted ideological baggage.