The plight of the regional languages

We can either celebrate the diversity and richness of our indigenous cultures by owning our languages, or we can let the wisdom of Waris Shah, Shah Latif, Gul Khan Naseer, and Rehman Baba be lost forever to torrents of history

The plight of the regional languages

Calling these beautiful languages ‘regional’ not only limits their outlook it is an insult to their very existence. It disparages the collective wisdom that these languages have carried through thousands of years, within scores of generations.

A piece of news that went viral on social media a few days ago caught attention of many, who feel genuinely concerned for the future of regional languages in Pakistan. It was about banning of Punjabi in a campus of one of the leading private school systems of Pakistan. The notice that brought the ban into effect had actually prohibited the use of foul language within the school premises, with foul language defined as “taunts, abuses, Punjabi, and hate speech.” This comes to a common Pakistani as no surprise. Instances like these are very common to observe in daily lives of many around the country, where a discriminatory attitude is shown towards the indigenous languages, at times in a subtle way, at times openly.

Punjabi in particular has remained the most unfortunate of all the languages of Pakistan. In its case, the governmental attitude usually gets overshadowed by the generally prevalent distaste for Punjabi among its native speakers. A language that is spoken and understood by around 50 percent of the population of Pakistan sadly finds appreciation only in bhangra music or in Coke Studio sessions, a common Punjabi being too reluctant to proudly own his/her own mother language. The incident quoted above has unearthed a fundamental reality of Punjabi vernacular in Punjab; that it is generally not preferred to be spoken in schools or official establishments, effectively limiting it to being spoken only at home.

Such inferiority complex-ridden attitudes find their roots in the colonial era. As a policy decision linked to the ambitious plans of governing India, the British started a process of homogenisation of the diverse ethnic groups scattered all across the subcontinent by favouring some of the languages over the others. In the case of Punjab, Urdu and Persian were declared as the official and court languages of the province, while Punjabi was given no official status. It hence comes as no surprise that West Punjab, which during the time of colonial subjugation produced gems like Faiz and Iqbal in Urdu Poetry, was unable to produce any prolific Punjabi poet worth deserving a mention during the same period.

The plight of Punjabi and other regional languages continued with the dawn of independence too, with rigorous pro-Urdu campaigns undertaken during the years of Urdu-Bengali controversy, effectively annihilating any possibility of their revival in the national scene. Quite interestingly, the case of Sindhi reflects an anomaly in the British policy towards indigenous languages. Unlike Punjabi, Pashto or Balochi, Sindhi was retained as the official language of the pre-partition province of Sindh, which inevitably helped in the flourishing of the Sindhi language and literature before and after the partition.

Article 251, Clause 3 of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 states: “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.” Thus, there exists no constitutional bar with respect to the teaching and propagation of indigenous languages in Pakistan. However, the colonial attitudes continue to haunt us to this day. While Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have recently taken steps to this effect by making Sindhi and Pashto as compulsory subjects to be taught through the primary level, Punjab and Balochistan have yet to find the political resolve necessary to legislate on the matter. In these fortunate days, when laws are being translated into Urdu and bilingual judgements are being given out by the superior courts, the still prevalent laxity on the part of the federal and provincial governments in taking effective steps towards promotion of regional languages only reflects the relegation of their status at the bottom end of the government’s priority list.

“Ensuring Inclusive and Quality Education for all and promotion of lifelong learning” constitutes one of the key Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations. UNESCO, on previous year’s Mother Language Day, reported that education in one’s mother language could serve as an effective tool in overcoming the burgeoning problem of illiteracy, prevalent particularly in the third world countries. A logical connection between the medium of instruction and the learning levels of students seems very obvious, as language barrier is usually the first problem that many children face at the beginning of their educational careers. Coupled with the subtle and implicit discouragement of conversing in their mother languages in the classrooms, the young minds are left with no other option but to learn a whole new language before actually beginning to comprehend the content written in the books. Thus it not only remains a question of cultural preservation or the responsibility of the Pakistani state towards its indigenous languages, but a question of its commitment towards the fulfillment of the fundamental responsibility of educating its citizens.

The problem of regional languages might not seem to be a burning issue today, but it certainly has left us with bitter memories as a nation. The Bengali nationalist movement heavily drew its influence from the imposition of Urdu as the national language in East Bengal at the cost of Bengali language. In fact, the designation of 21st February as the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO was inspired by the events that took place at the University of Dhaka on 21st February 1952, where police opened fire at students protesting in favour of their mother language. Therefore, it is high time that the indigenous languages of Pakistan were patronised by the state. We can either celebrate the diversity and richness of our indigenous cultures by owning our languages, or we can let the wisdom of Waris Shah, Shah Latif, Gul Khan Naseer, and Rehman Baba be lost forever to torrents of history.


The writer is a law student at LUMS, and a member of the Youth Parliament Pakistan