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Opinion

November 9, 2017

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The language question

Winter brings its own festivities in Karachi. Last month, the three-day 2nd Sindh Literature Festival (SLF) concluded in the city. The event drew speakers from other parts of the country. Pakistan’s progressive, multicultural, lingual and inclusive narrative was reiterated in the presence of thousands of young people who attended the festival.

The SLF’s main focus was on Sindh’s language, politics, culture, history and folk literature. This year, a larger crowd attended the event and many new books were launched. It is heartening to see how the SLF is becoming an annual feature in the city.

The festival isn’t about engaging in intellectual debates and learning. Instead, it is a passionate movement to uphold the progressive, secular and (sufi) inclusive identity of Sindh and protect its society against the rising tide of violent extremism.  Literature, art and music are the vehicles to achieve these objectives. It won’t be incorrect to say that the SLF is a form of literary expression of the political unrest in Sindh against the decade-long suppression of language, culture and identity. A brief review of the speakers who attended the event, the themes that were highlighted and the poetry that the musicians sang suggests this.

These are the best times for Sindhi literature and Sindhi singers. But unlike festivals that celebrate Urdu and English literature, which are attended by speakers from India and other countries, events such as the SLF are all about authors and scholars from Sindh. Therefore, the organisers need to invite Sindhi authors and speakers from India and other parts of the world.

Federal Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal recently remarked that these festivities reflect on the improved internal environment. He took credit for the revival of the socio-cultural spaces in the country but failed to cite any reasons for how the federal government had supported such festivals.

In its four years in power, the PML-N has not allowed the language bill to be passed by the Senate and the National Assembly. It’s almost as though declaring Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi and Seraiki as national languages will be a threat to a unitary state. This country belongs to all these people and includes their historic homelands, which have existed before 1947. Pakistanis should take pride in owning and recognising these languages as they reflect our beautiful diversity.

There is no doubt that the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) inspired other people to host literary festivals in their own languages. Since Sindhi is the official language of Sindh, it made sense to hold a festival like the SLF in the capital of the province. A group of activists has started hosting an annual festival of Pakistan’s indigenous languages at the Lok Virsa. Writers in Hyderabad are preparing for the 3rd Hyderabad Literature festival and the dates for the Lahooti Melo music festival have already been announced. Sindh’s culture department recently hosted the Lar Cultural Festival in Badin. These festivals are public spaces for the lower middle class who would otherwise have little or no access to free live music.

But what is interesting to note is that Pakistan’s advertising industry is not willing to finance Sindhi language festivals whether they are being held in Hyderabad or Karachi. Many fail to understand the logic behind ignoring a major language that is spoken in the second largest province of the country (in terms of its population). Sindhi is the only provincial language in Pakistan and has the status of a medium of instruction in Sindh.

Political movements in Sindh have for decades struggled to get Sindhi recognised by Pakistan’s federal government as national language of the country. But they have failed so far. Sindhi has remained the official language in the province since British occupation in the 1840s.

Like the national question, the language question too has remained unaddressed in Pakistan and any talk of it sends shockwaves to the power corridors. On May 10, 2017, PPP senators Sassui Palijo and Aajiz Dhamrah had the language bill approved by the Senate’s Standing Committee that sought to grant the status of national languages to Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Balochi. But later, both senators were denied the right to table the bill in the Senate and were advised to resubmit it in the standing committee. This clearly showed that even the Senate Committee gets directions from other sources.

There are not more than 12 million Sindhi speakers in India.  Decades ago, the Indian government, under the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution, listed Sindhi as one of the 22 national languages of India. Why are the languages that the people of this country speak not recognised? In what manner does their recognition pose a threat? It is the one-unit mindset, it seems, that does not allow us to emerge from a deep sense of insecurity of not letting people celebrate their languages and accept them in the way they are and the way they have been for ages.

Among the noted urban-based Sindhi writers, there is a strong fear of losing their language as most of their children are receiving education at private schools where Sindhi is not taught despite provincial laws that requires all schools to teach Sindhi. In spite of the law and the resolution passed by the Sindh Assembly, private schools do not abide by the law. Only public schools are teaching Sindhi. As a result, a sizeable urban middle class cannot read and write in Sindhi; this poses a major challenge for the future of the language. There were many Sindhi writers and poets whose children are unable to read their work.

Hosting such literary festivals will revive interest in Sindhi among children. However, the question that remains is: will these endeavours save our language? It is difficult to say. For many, the ability of Sindhi children to read and write in the language is already gone without creating a concern for them. Meanwhile, our Punjabi friends have even given up speaking their mother tongue with their children, a practice that Sindhis have not started – yet.

 

Email: mush.rajpar@gmail.com

Twitter: @MushRajpar

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