It is a fact that everyone understands Urdu in Pakistan, says scholar Iftikhar Arif

“If you love your mother and care about your language, how can you turn your back to both and embrace someone else’s mother and language?”

The question by renowned Urdu scholar and poet Iftikhar Arif left many pondering over the matter of ‘Urdu as an official language’ and why it has not happened even after 70 years of Pakistan’s existence. Arif asked this question during a one-day conference on the subject organised by the Urdu Department of the University of Karachi on Thursday.

“It is a fact that everyone understands Urdu in Pakistan. It is a common language. A majority of children in our country do not have access to education in English. On the other hand, there are the big city kids attending elite English-medium schools. But after finishing school, most won’t stay in this country. They will go abroad. Then who’s left? The kids who didn’t get an English education, obviously,” the scholar pointed out.

“The selection boards here ask their questions in English. The big city kid will say a few words in English and walk out with the job while the one with the brilliant mind who couldn’t express himself will lose out. That is how the majority gets ignored here,” he said.

“By all means, study English because you also need to know what’s going on in the world around you and exchange ideas. There was a time when Latin, Arabic and Persian were the chief mediums of education in the world but it is English now. So yes, study it. But don’t force it on everyone’s head,” he said.

Richness of Urdu

Arif added that Urdu is so rich a language that it carries Persian and Arabic within itself. “You are the inheritors of a most scholarly language,” he said.

Mr Arif, who heads the Muqtadra Qaumi Zaban, the National Language Promotion Department formed to help introduce Urdu as the official language of Pakistan in place of English, said that they have published hundreds of books about Urdu terminology for official use along with dictionaries but since Urdu is still not the official language, the office clerks are used to working over old letter templates. “It sounds silly when a boss sending a termination letter begins by writing ‘I am pleased to inform you that you are terminated’!” he said.

“The civil service people do this all the time. They have stopped using their heads,” he said.

“The selection boards here ask their questions in English. The big city kid will say a few words in English and walk out with the job while the one with the brilliant mind who couldn’t express himself will lose out. That is how the majority gets ignored here.” — Iftikhar Arif

Giving some background about the issue of Urdu and it still not becoming a national language, Urdu lexicographer, newspaper columnist and KU professor Dr Rauf Parekh said that it had been decided in the 1973 Constitution that Urdu should be introduced as the official language of Pakistan within 15 years. To facilitate this, the government decided to set up the Muqtadra Qaumi Zaban to help promote Urdu and bring people to adopt it in their daily work.

“But ironically, it took the government six years to establish Muqtadra itself. Still, the organisation set about doing its work. They even worked with Microsoft, and the Urdu emails which you are able to send and Urdu messaging that you do on your phones are a result of that,” Dr Parekh said.

“But Urdu is yet to become Pakistan’s official language even after the passage of almost three times the time given for bringing about the change, and despite the infrastructure for it laid out long ago by Muqtadra. The only change which came about was Muqtadra’s name being changed to Idara Farogh-i-Qaumi Zaban,” he said.

Urdu dictionary app

Aqeel Abbas Jafri, chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board, added that they have also been hard at work at the board as the Urdu dictionary will also be introduced as a mobile phone app this very month.

KU Vice Chancellor Prof Dr Mohammad Ajmal Khan questioned how Urdu can be implemented as the official language when the people in our own households are not speaking it as they converse in a mixture of Urdu and English, not having mastered either language.

Prof Haroon Rasheed, former director of colleges, observed that the obstacle in the way of Urdu being adopted in our offices was our own attitude.

Dr Fatima Hasan of Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu pointed out that literary greats such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was Punjabi, and Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, who is Marwari, prefer to express themselves in pure Urdu. “Our next generation doesn’t care for Urdu and the result is that they are not fluent in either,” she said. “Meanwhile, the common man,” she pointed out, “signs on the dotted lines of important official documents without und­er­standing what he is agreeing to do.”

Prof Dr Mohammad Ahmed Qadri, Prof Dr Shadab Isani, Prof Raees Alvi and head of the Urdu Department Prof Dr Tanzeem ul Firdaus also spoke.

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