On 16th July, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice rejected with a majority vote, a bill presented by PML-N MNA Marvi Memon that sought the status of national language for regional languages.

The regional languages included Balochi, Balti, Brahvi, Punjabi, Pushto, Shina, Sindhi, Seraiki, Hindko, Urdu and others that the National Language Commission of Pakistan had to establish through clear criteria, as being national languages of the people in Pakistan.

A report in Dawn stated that the Special Secretary of the law ministry said that there should be just one national language. According to him, the country had already suffered the East Pakistan tragedy in 1971 as a result of the decision to declare both Urdu and Bengali as national languages.

His opinion is highly disputable.

Pakistan does not possess a homogenous people with a single ethnicity, language and religion. It is a multi-ethnic country with a multicultural, multilingual population, made up of various segments, histories and heritage.

Writer Sean Singh Chauhan made a strong point when commenting on the rejection of the bill:

“There is no logic to the systematic alienation of minority groups to promote a national identity. I guess regional languages are only cool when they’re on a Coke Studio album.”

Culture is a phenomenon with multiple components, in which language features prominently. In Pakistan today, it is no secret that many peoples belonging to dissimilar ethnicities of different provinces and regions feel that they are culturally marginalized, and a single culture reigns dominant at the expense of their own. Whether that is true or not, it is true that this breeds cultural animosities, grievances and a sense of resentment. In such a condition, it is unreasonable to assume national solidarity to spring forth when groups that make up the nation feel a single culture exclusively defines the national culture. How then, in such an atmosphere, can national unity be forged? Let alone, an identity subscribed to by the whole nation.

This sense of marginalization, which can be political, economic, social, religious and cultural, has immense potential to be a dangerous force that can crystallise into various manifestations of reassertion by alienated groups; violence, nationalism, conflict and discord. And which the state, then ignorant or arrogant enough to not realize what has fuelled these, often does not brook.

In this lies the core of the example the Special Secretary has presented rather skewed. To shift all the debris of the catastrophe of 1971 on the acceptance of Bengali as a national language is both facile and ignorant to all the complexities and contrivances that led to it, and which, as the late Eqbal Ahmad said, “to honour our past and for the sake of our future”, must be properly understood.

The East Pakistan tragedy was already in the making for years due to the systematic marginalization from the political, economic and cultural sphere of the people there; a result of engineered disparity between both wings. And a situation created and exacerbated by the callous attitude and the disastrous decisions taken by the leaders of that era and the military establishment; which their response to the deadly Bhola Cyclone of 1970 encapsulated. The separation of East Pakistan was only the culmination of this condition.

It is also pertinent to mention that the Bengali Language Movement of 1952 developed right out of the demand for the recognition of Bengali as a national language of the then-dominion of Pakistan, and as history remains witness, this assertion of denied linguistic identity later contributed to the impetus for the force of nationalism, and eventually, separation.

It is the disregard of cultural components which language forms a part of, which causes problems; something that Prime Minister Ergodan of Turkey recognized with his Kurdish reforms of September 2013, which eased the use of Kurdish.

A state that respects and accepts, promotes and preserves the distinct cultural components of all the nation’s groups is what is considered to be a state for all by all; belonging to which is inevitably seen by the people in their best interest.

The bill may have been rejected, but the light thrown upon it in the occurrence emphasises the significance of the fear in Pakistan’s state and society of opening up their notions of a single all-Pakistani culture and identity. It also accentuates the need for safeguarding and recognizing nationally, the distinct cultures of peoples in Pakistan, among which the linguistic subcultures number.

In March this year, Shahid Siddiqui, a linguistics scholar, revealed that 27 out of 67 languages currently being spoken in Pakistan, were endangered.

Some, including Federal Urdu University Vice-Chancellor Prof Dr Zafar Iqbal, believe the bill and such an elevation of regional languages threatens to undermine Urdu. However it must be stated that it is not mutually exclusive to promote and preserve Urdu and the regional languages. Unfortunately, this is contingent on a coherent policy for language and culture, which doesn’t seem to be seen in Pakistan.

At the end of the day, it is the political system that must infuse solidarity and unity between the different peoples of the country; by fostering their greater and equal participation in the affairs of the state, economy, society and culture – which has been missing in FATA and Balochistan for years – and granting them the political, economic, social, cultural, linguistic and civil freedoms and recognition while developing and improving them.

National promotion of the distinct ethnic and linguistic cultures in Pakistan should not be feared. It is the suppression of this diversity which ushers in conflict and opens chasms within the nation and country; not its embrace which is likely to propel the nation to greater creativity, to cultural preservation and pluralism, and prosperity. For diversity is indigenous to Pakistan, and in diversity lies Pakistan’s identity.

 The writer is a student based in Lahore. http://hafsakhawaja.wordpress.com