February 21 is celebrated worldwide as Mother Languages Day. In Pakistan too, even a cursory glance at the activities and events held in the country on the day this year (2021) reflects the growing awareness on the issue. In the federal capital Islamabad, the Cultural Forum in collaboration with the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) arranged the sixth Pakistan Mother Languages Literature Festival. The Festival continued the legacy of celebrating the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country. Speakers at the Festival emphasised the need for the state to take measures for the promotion of linguistic diversity in Pakistan. Country Director Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Birgit Lamm said she was thrilled by the enthusiasm Pakistani people showed for their languages and cultural identity. Writer Jami Chandio from Sindh pointed out that Pakistan is the only federating country that has only one (official) national language whereas in the federal spirit all major languages should be declared national languages. Journalist Asma Shirazi insisted that all major TV channels should allocate time for different Pakistani languages (notwithstanding the regional languages channels, of which the latest addition is a Punjabi channel). Other speakers underlined the importance and need for scientific and technological development in our diverse languages to meet modern day requirements.
The Balochi Labzanki Dewan, Quetta, organised a seminar at which speakers said global cultural and linguistic harmony and solidarity could only be established through the promotion of all languages spoken in the world. However, the trend is that of the about 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world, 516 have become extinct. (UNESCO too has confirmed the threat to linguistic diversity as more and more languages disappear from the world). In Pakistan, over 70 languages are spoken but their continued existence, especially the marginal ones, is threatened due to the neglect of the state. The death of languages leads to the abandonment of culture, history, art and literature (and, one might add, identity), as all these owe their existence to the mother tongue. Speakers pointed to the failure of the 18th Amendment to provide constitutional protection to all the languages spoken in the provinces. Education in the mother tongue, they continued, is a basic human right because it enables children’s cognitive abilities. (In their early years, children have little problem being multi-lingual; in fact this arguably also helps cognitive development). The speakers pointed to the fact that countries that gave importance to their mother tongues made more rapid progress. Local languages, especially in Balochistan, faced difficulties because of a lack of curriculum in schools (and text books and teachers). In the past, local languages as the medium of instruction up to primary level was started but not continued. Pakistan, the seminarists underlined, is a country where people from different cultures speak their own languages, a sign of diversity and versatility. The government therefore should take necessary steps for the development and promotion of mother tongues, which in the context of Balochistan means promoting Balochi, Brahui and Pashto, and providing funding for this purpose.
In Lahore, rallies to mark the Day congregated before the Punjab Assembly, demanding Punjabi be made compulsory for primary classes and optional thereon. Ironically, they carried placards and banners demanding the passing of a Punjabi Language Bill from a Punjab Assembly that does not allow speeches in Punjabi! Unlike Sindh, which adopted Sindhi as an official language in 1972 (sparking off language riots in support of Urdu), and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa adopting Pashto as an official language four decades later, Punjab, despite ‘recognising’ Punjabi as an official language in 2013, remains a prisoner of its history. That history is rooted in the Muslim Punjabi elite and intellectuals’ resentment against Sikh rule and the embrace of the British colonialists’ imposition of Urdu and English to replace Punjabi and Farsi.
This cultural ‘hara kiri’ dictates the sense of confusion amongst Punjabis today as to their identity, having jettisoned long ago their linguistic and cultural legacy that defined them since time immemorial. As if this historical tragedy were not enough, Punjab’s elite bought into the Pakistani state’s narrative revolving around ‘one nation, one language’, a misplaced concreteness that arguably fed into the separation of East Pakistan that still celebrates in Bangladesh February 21 as Language Martyrs Day after the revolt against Mr Jinnah’s attempt to foist Urdu as the national language on his visit to Dhaka in 1948.
No country has fallen apart for granting genuine provincial autonomy and a national status to all mother tongues. On the contrary, a policy of accommodation of diversity has served to strengthen states that adopt it. Those agitated by what this may mean for Urdu should rest secure in the knowledge that Urdu has established itself since Independence as the lingua franca and means of national communication. Its importance therefore is unlikely to diminish if regional languages are accepted as national languages.
The disrespect of mother languages in our history as an independent state has arguably fed into our struggling 50 percent literacy rate of dubious quality. The exception to this trend is Sindh, largely, it could be argued, because it adopted Sindhi as the medium of instruction in schools (thereby avoiding the reluctance of poor children to enter school where they struggle with a ‘foreign’ medium of instruction, and vast numbers drop out). UNESCO and the world’s experience has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that adopting the mother language as the medium of instruction (at least till primary level) accelerates literacy and cognitive ability, yielding in the final analysis a well educated people that can help their country’s development in the modern age.
This government’s attempt to ‘impose’ a Single National Curriculum indicates we are still mired in the ‘one nation’ syndrome that flies in the face of our multi-ethnic, multi-national, historically received reality. Accommodating diversity of languages and cultures binds federations, redresses a sense of marginalisation, welds bonds of solidarity between diverse peoples and communities, brings pride to our breasts, and helps preserve and transmit this rich, diverse heritage to ourselves and the world.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021