The Dawn: Jul 25, 2014

Punjab Notes: Parliamentarians’ contempt for peoples’ languages

Mushtaq Soofi 

Description: — File photo

— File photo

The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice rejected on July 16, with a majority vote, a bill seeking status of national language for regional languages.

Only naives could expect something different. Every Pakistani with a sane mind knows that law in Pakistan is as operative as in Somalia and justice is as much everyday experience as railways in Afghanistan. Then, the rejection of the bill is ‘a pound of flesh’ the representatives cut from the peoples’ body.

‘A paper boat steered by the monkey’ was the comment of iconoclastic Waris Shah when he saw such a committee in 18th century doling out justice to the people.

The linguistic conundrum is the phenomenon as old as Pakistan. The first political crisis that the newly emerged state faced was on the question of language in erstwhile East Pakistan in the aftermath of proclamation of Urdu as the sole national language. The Bengalis, furious at ignoring the mother tongue of majority of Pakistanis, took to the street in protest. The state responded with a brute force that resulted in death of several students, opening the flood gates of the Bengali nationalism which due to the ideologically motivated political arrogance of the West Pakistan’s elite proved to be an avalanche. After the intense agitation the Bengali was accorded the status of national language along with Urdu but the damage to the national fabric had already been done.

The state pushed itself into a political cul-de-sac. The ill-conceived ideological imperatives on the part of the state clouded the political thing turning a simple linguistic and cultural issue into the sword of Damocles that still hangs over our head.The official stance on the language issue is an outcome of monolithic notion of national unity born of denial of the layered history of what constituted our country. Pakistan came into being with the vote of East Bengal, NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Sindh and Punjab that have historically evolved distinct identities defined by diversity. These regions supported the idea of an independent Muslim majority state in hope of safeguarding their religious, economic, political and cultural rights which they thought were threatened in the united India.

It’s ironic that with the emergence of the new state the demand to have these very rights materialised was considered to be grave threats to the body politic. The power wielders got it all wrong. History is witness that a monolingual state can disintegrate if the people are denied their legitimate rights while a multilingual state can flourish if peoples’ rights are respected.

The ideological slogan of ‘one nation, one religion and one language’ has created an unmanageable political, religious and cultural mess we find ourselves in. Our leaders in their faith-inspired patriotic zeal don’t bother to consult the Holy Quran they profess to follow, which very clearly recognises ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity.

A spectre haunts the Pakistani elite; the spectre of diversity. In the early decades of the country’s history, the people were denied their rights to officially use their languages by many a ‘committee’. Last week, we saw the performance of one such committee. History repeated itself but as a farce.

Marvi Memon of the PML-N, one of our enlightened parliamentarians, undeterred by her earlier failure to get the Pakistani languages the status of national languages, again moved the bill with the same objective.

A five member committee was formed to give its recommendations. The committee rejected the bill by a majority vote. The lone supporter of the move, Amjad Farooq Khosa, voiced the aspirations of the people. The learned naysayers, not fluent in any language other than their mother language who voted against their own languages, deserve to be named and shamed. They represented PPP, PML-N, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F). The most learned of all was his lordship, a retired judge, serving as special law secretary representing the Federal Ministry of Law. He persuaded the four members of the Parliament to throw the proposed bill in the bin. His was the loftiest argument. If you have any tears, prepare to shed them now. It was a great spectacle indeed, the spectacle of murder of history! ‘The secretary said that there should be one language of a nation. Recalling the history, he said, the country had already suffered the East Pakistan tragedy as a result of the decision to declare both Urdu and Bengali as national languages’. Every Joe knows the tragedy occurred because Bengali was declared one of the national languages too late after much strife that shattered the country’s unity. Hearing the argument of his lordship one thinks of a tough guy in the Brecht’s play who, in the absence of a judge, sits in judgment and seeing the people stunned, declares: ‘hitherto the judges have been the scoundrels, now the scoundrels will be the judges’. Galileo, forced to recant before the Inquisition his ‘heretical belief’ that the earth moved around the sun, mumbled: ‘And yet it moves’. Members of the committee, despite your rejection of Pakistani languages as national languages they still exist as a mark of our national identity.

Mr Nawaz Sharif, Mr Asif Zardari, Mr Imran Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, do you know what your ‘committee’ did? You can still salvage the situation if you take immediate notice of how the ignorant and arrogant minions of yours have degraded the Pakistani languages and disgraced their speakers, the masses who you claim to represent. Otherwise, you are going to secure your berth in history as politicians with impaired judgment who despised the peoples’ voice that expresses itself through their language. —

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