In post-Panama leaks era, rising chorus of demands for across the board accountability is met with rhetoric of the supremacy of the constitution, continuity of democracy and rule of law. Only the Scotland Yard could be trusted to identify and locate the lost democratic traditions and rule of law once it is done with Imran Farooq’s murder mystery. If the constitution, by a miracle, could speak for itself, hold press conferences and address public gatherings, media managers of government would have instantly declared it as an international conspiracy against the continuity of democracy and prosperity of the nation. Apart from the proven utility of the constitution to grab power, we may need a judicial commission with agreed upon terms of reference to tell us what else it means to our ruling coterie.
In a historic verdict on September 8, 2015, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan reminded government of a long-forgotten constitutional obligation, and ordered it to make Urdu the official language of Pakistan. The bench, headed by Chief Justice Jawwad S Khawaja and comprised of Justice Dost Muhammad Khan and Justice Qazi Faez Isa, ordered federal and provincial governments to take immediate steps for enforcement of the Article 251 in line with Article five of the constitution and strictly follow the timeline provided by the federal government. In the days preceding the judgment, the prime minister has expressed his personal interest for promotion of Urdu. On July 10, 2015, Federal Secretary for Information and Broadcasting had told the court that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already ordered that government institutions’ websites will also carry the text in Urdu. In addition, vide a letter written on July 6, 2015, the government had directed all ministries and divisions to follow 10-point short-term measures to enforce the Article 251. Therefore, after the explicit orders from the Supreme Court, adoption of Urdu as an official language looked almost certain. Only the learned pessimist was optimistic about his pessimism.
However, at that moment of jubilation a bitter truth was thrown to oblivion: we live in a piece of land where indigenous language, culture and tradition is not a source of identity and pride. The prime minister finds Urdu as the best language to narrate the fairytale of the riches of his family but finds the same language unfit for the business of the government. Non-serious attitude of this government, like its predecessors, became evident when prime minister preferred English to address the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly on October 30 2015, despite the orders to address in Urdu both at home and abroad. With the retirement of Justice Jawwad S Khawaja, commitment to enforce Article 251 was a thing of the past.
It seems that federal and provincial governments are fully determined to give the Supreme Court’s verdict the same treatment that had been continuously accorded to the said provision of the Constitution. On November 7, 2015, the Additional Advocate General Razzaq A Mirza, on behalf of Punjab chief secretary and provincial law secretary moved the review petition requesting the review and to extend the three-month deadline to a reasonable period. A great deal more than reasonable time had already passed since the adoption of the constitution in 1973, which made it mandatory to use Urdu as the official language of the country, the request to grant reasonable time in 2015 for necessary arrangements only meant to postpone the issue for an indefinite period of time. This impression is further strengthened by remarks of the Supreme Court during a proceeding on January 28, 2016. Justice Mushir Alam remarked that government sought time for implementation of court orders but failed to submit a report in this regard. Justice Qazi Faez Isa observed that the Punjab government files review report on interim order but failed to submit any report.
On January 13, 2016, prime minister’s advisor, Irfan Siddiqui said that steps were being taken to adopt Urdu as the official language. However, no signs are detectable suggesting any advancement. Thus we see that more than eight months have passed, and most of the websites of government institutions are only in English. Websites of Prime Minister’s Office, provincial governments, ISPR, NADRA, Foreign Ministry — which should have been in Urdu with an English section — are all only in English. Neither is the website of the Supreme Court in Urdu. This tells the sorry state of our governments and institutions that are not willing to honour their constitutional obligations and now the orders of the Supreme Court.
As it was a constitutional obligation, political parties and government institutions should have given Urdu its due place a long ago. Granted it is not an easy job to immediately replace English with Urdu, but exactly for the same reasons the architects of the Constitution considered 15 years enough to make all the necessary arrangements. In 2016 we still have to take the first step.
The obsession of our ruling elite with English is unintelligible as the majority of population cannot apprehend this language, and it does not make their lives any easier. Thus they need someone’s assistance for simple tasks like applying for their national identity cards online. Unless government communicates with people in the language they understand, they cannot participate for improved governance. Even in government offices, use of English slows down decision-making process, and the Supreme Court rightly remarked, “There is hardly any necessity for the use of colonial language.”
It is not to suggest that there should be a complete boycott of English. True it has been accepted as an international language. However, it is equally true that not everyone in this planet speaks English and unlike us they prefer speaking in their own languages. The United Nations recognises six languages as its official languages. If English is the international language of today then Chinese is considered that of tomorrow. As we have cultural, historic and religious ties with Arab world and Iran, Arabic and Persian should not be strangers to our people. Importance of learning foreign languages in this connected global village brings its own benefits and doors should be open to foreign languages in our colleges and universities. Importance of learning foreign languages is a different debate altogether, but the official language should be the one that connects the government with its people and cement the identity of the nation.
Language symbolises identity and is used to signal identity by those who speak them. Adoption of Urdu as official medium for communication is imperative to develop our national identity. Besides, it has practical implications for the people of Pakistan, and will help to improve governance. As the court remarked, the Article 251 is not a standalone provision, and it is directly linked to the realisation of various fundamental rights protected by the constitution, and government and its institutions must make arrangement to adopt the national language. The Supreme Court may lead by example to uphold its own verdict.