Linguistic Identity: Challenges

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Syed Haris Nawaz

The Urdu-Hindi controversy of 1857 was a clear manifestation of the fact that Urdu was not only a language but an integrating and motivating force for Muslim nationalism

Bhasha Andolon was a language-based political movement of the Bengali community that started in 1948 with the principal objective of mainstreaming and promoting Bengali- the lingua franca of then East Pakistan, at a national level. Rather than conceding the democratic right of Bengalis, being the majority of the nascent religious-ideological state, the highly-bureaucratized West Pakistan subjected its people to constant dehumanization, humiliation, and subjugation. On February 21, 1948, police first batoned and then opened fire on a protest, being organised by students at Dhaka University, resulting in several casualties. That day was then declared International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in commemoration of demonstrators, who lost their lives for language rights.
The Urdu-Hindi controversy of 1857 was a clear manifestation of the fact that Urdu was not only a language but an integrating and motivating force for Muslim nationalism. If Hindi subsided Urdu to a vernacular, then the victory of Muslim freedom from the shackles of British and Hindu domination was near impossible. If Muslims struggled and advocated for safeguarding Urdu, then why were they reluctant and stubborn to accept Bengali as the language of a distinct ethnicity? The sheer hypocrisy was that the Muslims wanted equitable treatment from the British Raj vis-à-vis Hindus, but they were not ready to give similar treatment for what Bengalis had consistently thrived for since right from independence.
After religion, language is the central element of a culture or civilization. Language, to put it simply, is not a mere collection of words, but it is a reservoir of social norms deeply embedded in the distinct past and history of a particular ethnicity. It keeps intact the individuality, commonality, and distinguishable identity of a community. Alienating the indigenous people from their languages is a grim undertaking, with far-reaching multidimensional bad consequences. The spectre of strangulating native languages is haunting the postcolonial countries as ethnicity-based conflicts are reaching through the roof, further mystifying the political skirmishes, cranking up economic instability, accelerating social decline, and fuelling religious extremism. The bone of contention is that the indigenous groups want to preserve their identity, especially their languages, to not remain under the carpet, but to be properly and legally acknowledged, standardized, and mainstreamed.
Language-related identity crisis is a recurring phenomenon in Pakistan; we have a long history of language-oriented ethnic conflicts. Besides Bengali, as discussed above, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, and Saraiki language movements have been spearheaded time and again at critical junctures in our national history. Fortunately, the grievances of the four grand languages movements were staved off to some extent after the 18th Amendment when the federating units were given de jure power (legislative, executive, and administrative) over their provinces. However, despite this optimistic development, the local languages have been utterly and deliberately set aside. Unfortunately, we have a centre that toiled to throw upon us English and Urdu, and the provinces banging away at the local languages by truckling to the majority languages.
Pakistan has about seventy languages being spoken by the vast ethnolinguistic groups residing in far-off parts of the country. Among these, nearly 26 languages are endangered, and several are on the edge of extinction. Those on the helm of the affairs must awake from a deep slumber, and should listen to the voices of the disgruntled people who want their due places for their languages at the national level. The linguistic homogeneity being forcefully established on the pretext of national disunity should accept the fact to the core that ethnic and linguistic diversity is the very beauty of this country. Worry about your monopolized and lopsided policies which cater only to the selected cohort of this country!
According to George Morgenstierne, a Norwegian linguist, Dardistan (the region comprising Northern Pakistan and the surrounding areas) is the most linguistically rich land in Asia. Khowar, Shina, Torwali, Kalasha, Kashmiri, Gawri, and Burushaski, to name a few are the native languages of the region. The interesting aspect of these diverse languages is that they all are entirely different from each other; some belong to the Indo-European family, while others belong to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. Hence, when a man who speaks Shina encounters someone who speaks Khowar will use either Pashto or Urdu for communication, as their languages have not a bit of similarity. Moreover, in this region, a curious language, named Burusaki, has no language family.
There are certain steps which are needed to be taken on a war footing. The unnatural nation-building project by popularizing English and Urdu must have come to an end. The revitalization and standardization of local languages should be started primarily in higher educational institutions. Unfortunately, above half of the universities in the country don’t offer higher-level courses in linguistics. A region that is so diverse earnestly needs linguistics knowledge. Second, the medium of instructions at a primary level must be in the local languages. And lastly, linguistic diversity needs to be adored not abhorred. The languages are the identities of the native speakers who used them as a linguistic tool for communication for centuries.