National Language | Saad Rasool

On 8th September, 2015, in the very final days of Chief Justice (Retd.) Jawwad S. Khawaja’s judicial tenure, the honorable judge delivered the court’s opinion in Constitutional Petitions No. 56 of 2003 and 112 of 2012, reinforcing the status of Urdu as our ‘National Language’, and directing its use in official correspondence by State functionaries. This judgment, which must be analyzed, brings to surface larger questions about the importance of having a national language, and the virtues of enforcing communication through the same.

At the very outset, the Constitutional imperatives in regards to Urdu as a National Language must be reviewed. Specifically, Article 251 of the Constitution declares Urdu to be the national language of Pakistan, and requires that “arrangements shall be made for its being used for official and other purposes within fifteen years from” the day our Constitution of 1973 was passed. Furthermore, Article 251(2) stipulates, “English language may be used for official purposes until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu”. And finally, per Article 251(3) the Provincial Assemblies are entrusted with a power to “prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in addition to the national language”. Supporting this Constitutional command, Article 28 (which is an oft-ignored Fundamental Right) declares, “any section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture shall have the right to preserve and promote the same”.

Together these Constitutional Articles, especially when viewed through the larger prism of an individual’s right to dignity (Article 14), equality (Article 25), and due process of law (Articles 4, 5, and 8), form the full spectrum and ambit of our citizenry’s right to enforce Urdu as a national language vis-à-vis State institutions and official communication.

This is all well and good. Per mandatory provisions of the Constitution, Urdu is, and must be enforced, as the ‘National Language’ of Pakistan. However, despite all the fuss, the judgment of the honorable Supreme Court does little more than to reiterate this legal position, and directs State functionaries to abide by their existing plans of using Urdu as the official language of communication. In this regard, the honorable Supreme Court points to a letter dated 6th July, 2015 (written in Urdu, of course), issued by the Cabinet Division, which outlines a 10-point action plan for adopting Urdu as the de-facto language of communication by State institutions, and requires translation of existing information/forms/websites into Urdu language. The judgment of the honorable Court, through its 9 directions, encourages the Government to fulfill the goals enumerated in its letter dated 6th July, 2015, directs the national and provincial Governments to “coordinate” with each other, necessitates statutory and regulatory bodies to “take steps” to assimilate Urdu into their workings, and encourages government departments to “make all reasonable efforts” to submit their pleadings (before a Court) in Urdu.

None of these directions of the honorable Court, however, amount to a tectonic shift in the enforcement of Article 251 of the Constitution.
There are however two other directions of the honorable Court that are significant in nature. One, the honorable Court has required that all cases related to “public interest litigation and judgments enunciating a principle of law in terms of Article 189” must mandatorily “be translated into Urdu”, in order for a wider range of the public to be able to read and understand the same. Two, the honorable Court has deemed that any citizen “who suffer[s] a tangible loss directly or foreseeably” resulting from non-translation of official communication into Urdu, “shall be entitled to enforce any civil rights”, which may accrue to such person. Consequently, from hereon, members of the honorable Supreme Court, deciding matters of public importance and fundamental rights, particularly those relating to public interest litigation, must translate their judgments into Urdu, and the non-translation of any official documentation into Urdu can be deemed sufficient ‘cause of action’ for instituting a civil rights claim against Government functionaries.

Even beyond the ambit of this judgment, it is pertinent to review the importance of a national language, and protection of the same.
Language, in any society, serves multiple purposes. To begin with, at its most basic level, language is a means of communication. But communication, in itself, does not warrant the protection of a language. Beyond mere communication, language also serves as a cohesive instrument, gelling together disparate individuals, across distant lands. In this way language is a unifying force, quasi-nationalistic in nature, and thus forms a germane part of individual identity.

Breaking free from these practical uses, language also serves a higher purpose of inspiring human passions. Language, if used in the right way and for the right reasons, can inspire faith (verses of the Holy Scriptures), mobilize nations (speeches of Churchill), invigorate generations (Iqbal’s poetry), and unlock hidden secrets of our being (Masnavi of Rumi). And, importantly, none of the languages used for this purpose require the protection of law, or a judgment of the court, to be granted an immortal station in our collective memory.

Urdu, as our national language, as a common denomination amongst the people of Pakistan, as a cohesive national strand, is of immense important. But provisions of the Constitution or judgments of the Court will not, by themselves, protect Urdu as a language. No Constitutional imperative can inspire love for Urdu, the way Faiz Sahib’s poetry and Manto’s audacity can. We must recognize, and humbly accept, that the protection and growth of Urdu as a language lies beyond the reach of our laws. It exists somewhere in the effervescent temperament of human nature, and a desire to communicate higher truths; to be affined with a common history, and to knit the latest link in an unbroken tradition of linguistic giants, who form the core of our humanity, even beyond the core of our nation.

Postscript: Despite all the (justifiable) criticism of Chief Justice (Retd.) Jawwad S. Khawaja and his untenable brand of jurisprudence, even his critics must pause and read the farewell remarks that this out-going Chief Justice rendered on his last day. These remarks, which seem to have emanated from a place of humility, candidly highlight some of the most critical challenges facing our judicial system. The incumbent Chief Justice and his brethren Judges would do well to take note of Chief Justice (Retd.) Khawaja’s remarks, and take active and immediate steps to remedy the rot in our project of dispensation of justice.


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