“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” —Ani DiFranco
Through a happy chance last year, I got to be part of a training program in which I was able to spend a few weeks in the company of people from all over Pakistan.
Many of us there were speaking in our mother tongues that others could not understand, but Urdu served as a common denominator. It was fun picking up words of other languages from each other and also learning about the culture and traditions from other parts of the country.
Apart from the things that made us different, there was a lot that connected us as well.
We, the Millenial generation have grown up with the internet. Many of our pop culture references are the same. Our universities follow similar teaching and grading patterns and we have faced similar problems of reconciling our externally influenced values with traditional ones.
Altogether, it was a valuable experience living in what was essentially a microcosm of our society and overall, things went along swimmingly.
As it turns out, we don’t all need to be exactly alike to get along. It’s important to remember this while talking about Pakistani languages, official, national, regional and the effects they have on our individual and common identities.
A decision by the Supreme Court directing the Federal and Provincial governments to adopt Urdu as the official language has once again sparked the debate on which is the most commonly used language in Pakistan and whether it makes sense to declare Urdu as the official language or not?
It does, when you consider the rationale behind it.
Urdu is indeed understood all over the country even though it may not be the language most Pakistanis learn first.
There isn’t anything wrong with trying to simplify our official correspondences and public notices by having them in Urdu. Neither is it a mistake to have our leaders give their speeches abroad in Urdu, plenty of others do.
The concern that English will somehow get supplanted is naïve on the part of those who don’t understand that people are eager to learn English not because they want to understand the Prime Minister’s speeches to the UN but because English is what connects us to international pop culture, news and entertainment. Without English, we are cut off from vast swaths of knowledge unavailable in our own languages so there is no chance of it being replaced anytime soon.
However, those who consider introducing Urdu as an official language as a matter of unifying our national identity are mistaken.
Also read: Language change
Pakistanis are a diverse bunch and the differences in dialect, dress, food and traditions that pop up every few hundred miles are there to be appreciated not suppressed. If the introduction of Urdu as a common medium of communication somehow hinders the presence and growth of regional languages then that is not a desirable outcome.
Pakistan already has enough problems accepting differences. We are not very good at providing equal rights and representation to women and to religious and ethnic minorities. Let’s not add forced cultural and lingual homogeneity to the list of social injustices being inflicted by one part of the population on the other.
If anything, these differences need to be spoken about more often and more positively to teach us all to live with the diversity that surrounds us.
Read on: National language
In ways both large and small, many of us have become adept at looking the other way when confronted with whatever is dissimilar to us.
Things like not responding when a non-Muslim says Salam, choosing only to wed people within our own caste, having stereotypical jokes about the intelligence level of one ethnicity or the other, ignoring news from parts of the country where no one we know lives.
All these things point to a deeper problem that we refuse to acknowledge.
We keep boxing ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and excluding everyone who doesn’t fit in. It’s natural for humans to seek the comfort of the familiar and to fear what is different. But we shouldn’t let these instincts get so out of hand that someone’s religious beliefs drive us to murderous rage or their way of speaking makes us question their intelligence.
Similarity and homogeneity do not necessarily mean superiority.
Once we rise over these baser instincts and decide to explore all that people with their peculiarities have to offer, that is when we discover that beneath the surface we are all not so different after all.
Skin colour, accents, beliefs and languages form parts of our identity but they are not the whole. And if we, Pakistanis, wish to move forward in the world, all together and proud of our national identity then we need to accept its uniqueness and its multiple histories.
One hopes that the acceptance of lingual diversity will be the first step.