Anyone who knows a wee bit of language politics is aware that a host of pundits of different hues warn us that a spectre haunts this country, the spectre of linguistic diversity. Linguistic diversity is projected as an omen for latent destructive cultural forces that pose a dire threat to our national cohesion and challenge the very existence of our body politic. What they conveniently forget is the fact that historical entities such as erstwhile East Bengal now Bangladesh, Sindh, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and northern areas voted in the mid-twentieth century to create a new state called Pakistan in order to safeguard their rights which included the protection and promotion of their languages and cultures. Things went horribly wrong when the elite of the newly created state declared the linguistic and cultural assets of these very entities a threat to the national unity and integration under the ill-conceived ideological notion of “one state, one language”. History shows us quite the opposite: a multilingual society can have a stable nation state while a monolingual region can be compelled by historical forces to have multiple states. Multilingual Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and India for instance are stable nation states while monolingual Middle East, having variants of the Arabic language, is divided into a sizable number of fragile states.
Conscious writers, intellectuals, linguists and cultural activists have been waging struggle for linguistic and cultural regeneration against all the odds which seems to have begun paying dividends. Whispers, it appears, somehow have reached the echelons of power. Soft water, in the words of a Chinese sage, by attrition over the years can grind hard rocks away. Celebrations of the International Mother Language Day this year showed us a slightly changed landscape both in Punjab and Islamabad.
There has been a significant improvement both in terms of quantity and quality in the programmes and events organised across Punjab and the federal capital during the last two weeks. Lyallpur Punjabi Sulekh Mela (literature festival) had its second edition from Feb 14 to 16 which proved to be a sort of prelude to mother language day celebrations. Three day festival organised by the Art Council, Punjab Lok Sujag and Quqnas had a number of sessions on diverse themes related to language, literature, culture and history. Prominent writers, intellectuals, historians, critics and cultural activists from different cities participated. Tariq Jawed, resident director of Faisalabad Arts Council, Amir Butt of Lok Sujag, Tauhid Chattha of Quqnus and generous sponsors of Faisalabad business community deserve credit for making the festival a significant cultural event.
Islamabad, the beautiful, witnessed two important events this week. Lok Virsa Institute of Folklore, in collaboration with Indus Cultural Forum, held the two-day Pakistan Mother Languages Festival that ensured the representation of diverse languages of the country such as Khowar, Shina, Balti, Hazargi which are usually ignored simply because they are spoken in the far-flung areas by small number of people. It also arranged a meeting of some of the participants with a group of senators who have been discussing the status of Pakistani languages for quite some time in the Senate with the express purpose of finding some way about clearing the lingo-cultural mess we have been beset with. The festival was a robust sign of country’s rich linguistic diversity which we can be rightly proud of. The organisers won accolades for bringing writers, scholars and intellectuals from all the corners of the country under one roof.
The other event, a two-day conference organised by Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL), was specifically designed to make recommendations to the federal government with a view to help it formulate a clearly defined and well-thought-out language policy. PAL’s Chairman Dr Qasim Bugio with his charm and persuasive power roped in writers and linguists of diverse languages for deliberations. Discussion and dialogue revolved around two main issues: redefining the status of languages currently referred to as regional languages by officialdom and setting up of a national languages’ commission. Three language formula, mother language, Urdu and English was found to be useful in our context. The PAL chairman would forward the recommendations of the conclave to the federal government in due course for its consideration.
The Punjab Institute of Language and Culture (Pilac) looked like a nova this year. It managed to get decent funds from the Punjab government for instituting quite a number of awards for writers, poets, artists, newly published books and cultural organisations. Dr Sughra Sadaf, director general of Pilac, is a dynamic lady who keeps things moving at her cultural complex. A word of praise for the Punjab government will not be out of place as it has recently shown some interest in the cultural matters. But it will have to pay focused attention to the issues of language and culture to help us rid ourselves of the current cultural stagnation that lulls us into intellectual inertia. Pilac, in collaboration with Pakistan Punjabi Adbi Board, Punjabi Parchar and other cultural bodies, arranged a seminar aimed at highlighting the importance of mother language for literacy, education and intellectual development. Presence of Sindhi intellectuals Hafeez Channa and Anwar Chandio added to the richness of the occasion. Both the gentlemen, on the insistence of the audience, spoke in Sindhi and were much appreciated. A resolution was passed unanimously which asked the Punjab government to make the teaching of Punjabi compulsory at the primary level immediately.
Celebrations were, in fact, all over the Punjab. It was a great sight, for instance, to see young students of the Lahore College for Women University in Lahore, intelligentsia in Gujrat and cultural activists in Sahiwal demanding the rights of Punjabi language.
The year 2017 augurs well for Pakistani languages as the language issue is gradually inching towards the centre stage of cultural politics. Acceptance of linguistic diversity and official recognition of major languages of four federating units as national languages will not only cement the bond between the peoples of Pakistan but will also push us away from the miasma of rootlessness. It will cause ho harm to Urdu which will continue to be used as lingua franca. But one needs to reiterate that in our whipped up nationalist fervour we should not commit the folly of ejecting English from our academic and intellectual spaces. English seems to be irreplaceable for now in the domains of higher learning, scientific knowledge and study of international affairs.
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2017