State of Indigenous Languages in Pakistan
Since 2000, February 21st is regularly observed as the International Mother Language Day all over the world. Feb 21st is one of the gory episodes, Pakistan encountered in the post partition period. On this bleak day at Dhaka police opened indiscriminate fire on Bengali students, demonstrating for the implementation of Bengali as the national language in the then Eastern wing of Pakistan. A number of students died in the incident.
The day is marked as the Language Movement Day in Bangladesh to honour the sacrifices of the students who laid their life to protect their distinct lingual identity. The seed of discomfort sowed by this massacre latter turned into a giant tree bearing the fruit of an independent statehood for the Bengali masses.
Recognizing the sacrifices of Bengali students, in Oct 1999 the UNESCO announced to commemorate this day as the International Mother Language Day. Now the day is aimed at spreading worldwide awareness about various languages, their literature, cultural heritage and above all, to preserve those languages which are steadily slipping to the edge of extinction for certain socio-political and geographical reasons.
It is more than six decades since Pakistan has witnessed the deadly Urdu-Bengali riots yet state of affairs remains more or less the same. Centuries old indigenous languages like Balochi, Pashtu, Sindhi, Punjabi and the likes are compartmentalized as regional or sub-national languages. They are continued to be outrightly neglected and denied the due recognition. Life has never been smooth sailing in Pakistan for indigenous languages given the hegemony of a dominant language especially Urdu which is the mother language of less than 10% of the total Pakistani population. Except for Sindhi and Pashtu in few parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, children are altogether denied basic education in their relative mother languages. It was only during the reign of Nawab Bugti in the late 80s when Balochi was briefly included in school curriculum. But the process was wound up with the end of Bugti’s rule in the early 90s.
Such types of discriminatory policies on the part of the state has developed a sense of alienation and discomfort amongst the native speakers of these indigenous languages. Dominance of major languages over suppressed ones leads to the socio-cultural and linguistic slavery of the oppressed masses. This sort of servitude breeds a myriad of hassles for aboriginal speakers. It dumps them into the abyss of inferiority complex that the language they speak may not brave the challenges of the time. The monopoly of Urdu over Balochi, Pashtu, Sindhi and Punjabi which have a far longer life history than that of Urdu can be seen in this perspective.
A section of the Pakistani intelligentsia is driven by the delusion that if the indigenous languages are given the national status they may cause a certain type of anti-state sentiments amongst the speakers of these languages which may not bode well for the unity of the federation. In May, 2011, the National Assembly rejected a private member bill submitted by Marvi Memon, seeking national status for six indigenous languages alongside Urdu including Balochi, Sindhi, Pashtu, Punjabi, Saraiki and Shina. The bill, which stirred the hornet bee, was declared as a move to undermine Pakistan and otherwise to the vision of Mohammad Ali Jinnah who ignoring the linguistic diversity of Pakistan, imposed Urdu as the national language of the newly created state. The mindset which stayed behind the rejection of that bill is the main barrier in the way of promotion of indigenous languages which needs immediate redressing.
The actual idea behind the imposition of Urdu as the national language was to create a sense of uniformity amongst various ethno-linguistic entities of Pakistan by tying them with ‘one language one religion’ string. Though it has emerged as the lingua franca across the country, it has not yet managed to take over the place of mother languages in the heart of indigenous people living across the length and breadth of the country.
A language is not a mere tool of communication encompassing a set of alphabets, a certain type of phonemes and orthography. Rather it is an integral part of one’s socio-cultural identity. Since time immemorial, it has been an identity symbol and sense of pride for people around the world. Thus the ignorance of a language amounts to the ignorance of a social identity, cultural entity and a sense of pride. It is unfortunate that after the lapse of more than six decades, Pakistan is yet to acknowledge its linguistic and cultural diversity. The official apathy and negligence has posed a serious threat to the survival of a number age-old languages in Pakistan. In 2011 UNESCO identified 28 endangered languages in Pakistan. Of these languages, six are categorized as ‘severely endangered languages’ and these includes Chilisso, Dameli, Damaaki, Gowro, Kalasha and Kalkoti. The disappearance of these languages from the scene will be a colossal culture loss and a serious blow to the linguistic diversity of Pakistan. The government should materialize some result oriented measures to ensure that treasure trove of these languages are passed on to the younger generation which is one of the most effective ways to preserve any language from extinction.
It is time the linguistic dictatorship, which has been imposed sine the inception of the country, was lifted and the due national status of all indigenous languages were acknowledged.
Fazal Baloch is a regular contributor to The Baloch Hal whose writings mainly focus on Balochi language literature. To read more of his work, please click here
Published in The Baloch Hal on February 21, 2013