Urdu Would be the Official Language of Pakistan


By Nasir Dehwar



Since the adoption of the Constitution about 44 years ago, the process of Urdu’s implementation is still far from complete. In many areas, it has not even started. The 15-year time frame given in the Constitution has passed almost thrice but English remains an administrative, economic and social necessity.

As regional languages experience an unprecedented revival in the age of Smart Phones and Social Media, where these technologies have democratized activism, Urdu’s status as the “language of cosmopolitanism and distinction” seem to have fallen by the wayside. Nothing reflects this more than a 2015 Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision. A three-member bench led by then Chief Justice Jawwad S Khawaja combined different petitions that came up for hearing 18 times in 2015 alone over the violation of Article 251. One was filed in 2003, by lawyer Kaukab Iqbal, and the other by Syed Mehmood Akhtar Naqvi, known for being a serial petitioner, in 2012.

The case received immediate public attention. In proceedings spread over seven months, the Judges observed they were “not informed of satisfactory arrangements by the Government” for Urdu’s adoption as the official language.

The Supreme Court issued its verdict on September 8, 2015, directing the Federal and Provincial Governments to make Urdu the official language within three months. “In the governance of the Federation and the Provinces there is hardly any necessity for the use of the colonial language (English) which cannot be understood by the public at large,” the judgment noted.

The Judges, however, recognized “the importance of English as a language used in international commerce”. They also carefully avoided demographic and political questions surrounding Urdu by using words that sound more sacred than realistic. “We are tasked to both obey the Constitution and to enforce it, and we cannot shy away from our obligation to the same while the nation suffers even if some may (from habit or training) find it more convenient to continue using the colonial language (English).” The Judges left the ball in the Government’s court to implement the Constitution or change it.

Dr Sharif Nizami is a chemist by profession and a Jamaat-e-Islami activist by choice. Born in Punjab’s Vehari district on January 1, 1947, he runs an organization called Pakistan Qaumi Zaban Tehreek. It was this organization that made last year’s Qaumi Nifaz-e-Urdu Conference in Islamabad possible. It was also the force behind Kaukab Iqbal’s petition at the Supreme Court. Pakistan Qaumi Zaban Tehreek that, according to Nizami, runs on “contributions from supporters” was formed on November 5, 2010 in the drawing room of his Rehmanpura Colony residence in Lahore.

He and 11 of his associates decided to bring it about when, in 2009, the Punjab Government announced that English will be the medium of instruction at primary schools. The organization has been making minor stirs through opinion pieces in Urdu dailies as well as with sessions meant to bring round people of power and influence to the cause of Urdu’s implementation.

It is already midnight but Nizami is as energetic as ever (he said, he has been used to all-nighters ever since his time as a student at the Punjab University). “We are not against English. We are against the slavery of English,” he says as he points towards a cardboard imitation standing shyly in one corner of the drawing room. Dressed in western attire, the imitation has something written on it: “Pakistan the born slave of English”. Another inscription displays the mobile phone numbers of the organization’s office-bearers. Nizami plans to parade the statue outside educational institutions in Lahore.

He sees the Supreme Court verdict as a “victory that we could not have imagined in our dreams”. There was no hope in sight until Justice Khawaja came along. With a tendency to break into monologues about Pakistan’s ideological foundations, laced with verses from Allama Mohammed Iqbal, Nizami insists in an interview that service to Urdu is service to Islam.

“Our first step is the implementation of Urdu across all sections of society,” he said, “the second step will take time but it would be ideal if we could adopt Arabic in the future.”

Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved the implementation of Urdu as the official language even before Justice Khawaja came out with his Judgment, perhaps to avoid criticize by the court. The Cabinet Secretariat issued a memo on July 6, 2015, directing all Ministries and Divisions of the Federal Government to translate their paperwork, signboards and websites into Urdu. The memo stated that all Government representatives will make speeches in Urdu, even outside Pakistan. Sharif himself would not follow that directive in multiple foreign visits he made subsequently.

The language of the memo certainly needed clarification duly provided by Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reforms, Ahsan Iqbal, in a July 18, 2015 interview with Time magazine. “Urdu will be a second medium of language and all official business will be bilingual,” he said.            Less than a month later, he announced the introduction of ‘Urdish’ in schools, a mixture of Urdu and English. At the launching ceremony of an educational reform program on August 14, 2015, he said Urdish “would get rid of the English- medium/Urdu-medium controversy which had damaged education standards and adversely affected the growth of young minds in contrast to the world practice of educating children in their native languages”.

(To be continued……)

The case received immediate public attention. In proceedings spread over seven months, the Judges observed they were “not informed of satisfactory arrangements by the Government” for Urdu’s adoption as the official language.


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