Linguistic struggle heats up in Pakistan

A bill is advancing in Pakistan's Senate that would amend the coonstitution to give Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Balochi the status of "national languages" along with Urdu. The bill this week cleared the Senate's Standing Committee on Law and Justice. Under Article 251 of the 1973 constitution, Urdu is recognized as the only "national language," with text calling for it to become the "official" language within 15 years. The text states that English can be used provisionally for official purposes until the transition to Urdu is complete. Other tongues may be promoted as "provincial languages," but this is a clearly subsidiary position. Urdu is actually a minority language itself, as Punjabi has the most speakers of any language in Pakistan. Urdu, long used as a lingua franca by various peoples, was chosen above Punjabi as the "national language" so as not to unduly favor Punjab province, the country's most populous. But English is still used for most administrative functions, and the transition to an "offically" Urdu state was never completed. The proposed amendment would make the other languages equal to Urdu, and "establish a fund for the development and promotion of national languages." It would also allow the provinces to promote other local languages, forseeing their eventual adoption as "national languages."

The proposed amendment reiterates that English should be used for "official" purposes on a provisional basis, to be eventually replaced by Urdu. So it does not actually challenge Urdu's status as designated "official" language.

Nonetheless, the amendment is opposed by nationalists who favor maintaining Urdu's privileged status, and have brought litigation challenging the government for its failure to comply with the constitution's 15-year timetable for the transition to "official" Urdu. Leading the effort to finally make Urdu the "official" language is Abdul Qadeer Khan, controversial father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. (Daily Times, Pakistan Herald, May 11