Judgment on language

Mr Justice Jawad S. Khwaja had a very brief tenure as Chief Justice of Pakistan, and thus it was not possible for him to do as his more famous predecessor, Mr Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, did. He therefore had to select one area, indeed one case, where he could as a judge make a difference. In short, he took up the constitutional clause dealing with language, and gave a ruling. He did not even have to take suo motu notice, but merely took up for hearing a petition already filed, and gave a decision.

The decision was earth-shattering not because it decided some knotty point of law, or because it removed from office some great panjandrum of state, or even undid some grievance, but because it took on the question of language. The decision was quite unexceptional, and perhaps inevitable, in that it merely decided that a constitutional provision was to be upheld, but it also set the cat among the pigeons, because it struck a blow at the official language. It also struck a weighty blow in the language question that is such a battle.

The original clause was itself included in the backdrop of the language riots in Sindh. Preceding that, the respective positions of Urdu and the other languages in Pakistan owed much to the special status accorded to Urdu before Partition, when it was claimed by the Muslims as appertaining to their religion, as opposed to Hindi, which was supposed to appertain to the Hindus. Then there was Hindustani, the language of India, which is actually Urdu written in the Deonagri script rather than the Persian.

However, speakers of both Hindi and Urdu had another part of the linguistic heritage: the English language, that of their common colonial master, the British. English proved to be the commonality between the newly independent states and the USA, at a very crucial period of history; the post-World War II world, when British power declined, India and Pakistan became independent, and the USA emerged not just as a world power, but the leader of what it was pleased to call the Free World.

In India, the language issue ran into trouble because the South, where a welter of Dravidian languages were spoken, including Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, refused to adopt Hindi as anything. In Pakistan, the language issue remained, first as a bone of contention between East and West Pakistan, and even when East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh, within what remained of Pakistan, particularly within Sindh province, where Sindhi majority and the Muhajir minority were locked into positions of contention. Incidentally, whereas India had the large provinces of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthani as homes for the Hindi language, Urdu had no province in Pakistan, and the only native speakers were the Muhajirs of Sindh.

Before the current judgement there had been another language controversy, that of the creation of one or more Seraiki province. Chief Justice Khwaja thus landed the Supreme court in an area where before it had not gone. It would be hard enough identifying the stakeholders, let alone outlining the problem. To take an example, the supposedly neutral bureaucracy has a vested interest in English remaining the official language. It is not simply a matter of fooling the ruled. Knowledge of English is a sign of social status. The question arises that, if English has a certain social status, what is the social status of Urdu? Especially if, like all Pakistanis except the Muhajir community, if the Urdu speaker has some other native language? Is it all that difficult to adopt English? Like all Pakistani languages except Barhwi and Shina, English too belongs to the Indo-Germanic group.

There is one group which argues that the majority language in Pakistan is Punjabi, thus the national language should also be Punjabi. After all, it includes the Hindko dialect (which provides a pathway to Pashto), the Derawali dialect (to Baluchi) and the Riasati dialect (to Sindhi). This involves hiving off Derawali and Riasati as separate dialects of Punjabi, even though most would say they are sub-dialects of Seraiki, itself a dialect of Punjabi. To make one understand how complicated the issue is, there is a claim that Seraiki is a separate language that should be separated from Punjabi.

However, the real problem is not one of linguistic classification, or even administrative. It is judicial. English is still their language of the courts. That is natural, because the laws they administer were passed in English. When a mere comma can change the meaning, and produce more than one interpretation, the courts are obliged to operate in English. That is another reason why the executive will go on using English. The executive tries to follow the law, and leaves it to the courts to interpret the statute. If the courts use English, even of the most legalistic kind, to make their thinking known, the executive will use that same language to operate in. The legislature will pass or promulgate laws in that language.

Perhaps that will be the real test. There will have to be an adoption, or rather adaption, from another language. Though there is much chest-beating in favour of Urdu, it is forgotten that it was learnt with Arabic and Persian, from both of which it is now cut off. Legislators (or rather, legislative draftsmen), lawyers (and judges) and civil servants will have to turn to these languages for the technical terms in their work. While Arabic is inherently a particularly adaptable language, it is likelier than they will turn to Persian. Not only is it also Indo-European, but Pushtu and Balochi are Indo-Iranian. And in fact this was the point of departure between Hindi and Urdu. Whereas Urdu used Persian and Arabic to coin new words, Hindi used Sanskrit. The education system favours those who have mastered English, and a switch-over to Urdu would require a massive translation movement, akin to that carried out by the Abbassids for Latin and Greek literature, mostly scientific.

The Article in question, Article 251, also has a sub-clause, 251(3), which says: “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.” That would well dilute the national language, and if it is thought that there is no popular movement currently to make provincial assemblies pass enabling resolutions and laws, it takes hardly any time to develop one. As the Seraiki province episode showed, language issues may not be to the fore, but everyone has strong views on them.

It might be in the fitness of things to make Arabic the official language. The support for it may well be greater than for Persian, for while Persian is not compulsory anywhere, Arabic is taught in madressas. And where Urdu has given something of an advantage to native speakers and Punjabi speakers, because of the closeness of Punjabi, Persian would give an advantage of speakers of Balochi and Pushto, which are related. Arabic, a Semitic language, puts everyone at a disadvantage. It is the people’s liturgical language, and for that reason, will always be there. It makes sense for it to be the official language. That would not meet the judgement by Chief Justice Khwaja’s bench, and would require an amendment to the Constitution. Which was drafted in English.


The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of The Nation.

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