The impractical adoption of Urdu

Posted on September 13, 2015

The impractical adoption of Urdu By Farrukh Khan Pitafi

A few months ago, I brought to your attention how a few schools are planning to teach Arabic as a foreign language. I also pointed out how this choice belied logic as the language is not only alien to our indigenous culture, it also has shrinking market value and as we struggle to de-radicalise society, there is a fear that the use of colloquial Arabic may bring with it seeds of radicalisation. Don’t forget some of the most troublesome radical groups in the world like Islamic State and al Qaeda rely heavily on the use of the language. And a couple of years ago in my piece “Urdu hai jiss ka naam”, I highlighted how neglected our national language was in terms of capacity. I discussed how the language, for all practical purposes, has been abandoned in its birthplace India and we, in Pakistan, had done precious little for preserving it. Recent developments have added a sense of urgency to the debate.

On the eighth of this month, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court asked federal and provincial governments to adopt Urdu as the official language of the country. Article 251 was invoked in the judgment which reads: “1) The National language of Pakistan is Urdu, and arrangements shall be made for its being used for official and other purposes within 15 years from the commencing day; 2) Subject to clause (1), the English language may be used for official purposes until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu; 3) Without prejudice to the status of the National language, a Provincial Assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a Provincial language in addition to the National language.”In an earlier hearing on July 11, the federal government had informed the honourable Court that a directive had been issued making it mandatory for the president, the prime minister and other office-bearers to deliver speeches in Urdu, both here and abroad. In addition, a short-term strategy paper was also submitted by the government. The directive on the obligatory use of Urdu in speeches, however, deserves close inspection. It is one thing for an office-bearer to talk in Urdu within the country, even though there still are parts of the country where the language is barely understood. It is altogether another to deliver speeches in Urdu at international forums. For a country which at best struggles to get its message across in the world of international diplomacy, is it safe now to deliver its message in Urdu? We are told that the government functionaries of various countries, including China, Russia, France and Iran, talk in their native languages at international forums. But this argument does not take into cognisance how heavily these countries invest in the development of these languages and their promotion abroad. Sadly, we have done no such thing. As things stand today, for us, this may mean only further isolation as many participants on such forums may not even bother to pick up headsets to understand the meaning of what is being said.

The English language, despite its limited local penetration, has an added advantage. Even for many countries that do not use English, its lack of use is considered a handicap. We cannot forget how useful the language is in the global market. Regarding the use of Urdu as an official language, there are two serious concerns. The first is of development. When you want to use a language in universities, colleges, hospitals, laboratories and management, you need a treasure trove of vocabulary. Sadly, that kind of vocabulary hasn’t been developed yet. As I write, the National Language Authority’s dictionary is lying open in front of me and it lacks some basic words. The second concern is one of radical literature. In the past few decades, many sectarian and radical religious works have been translated from Arabic and other languages into Urdu. As the state desperately tries to de-radicalise society, this factor is bound to give it more headaches.

So what should be done? We cannot pretend that Article 251 is not part of our Constitution. When it was passed, the time frame given was realistic. Sadly, however, there was no follow-up. And in case we are serious about enforcing the Article, that is the kind of time we will need.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2015.