PAKISTAN’S Supreme Court has ordered the government to implement Urdu as the country’s official language, replacing English in all communications 68 years after gaining independence from Great Britain.
The court order, issued on Wednesday (September 9) by Chief Justice Jawwad Khawaja, requires the federal government and the four provinces to make the switchover within three months in order to end the “societal divide” between the English-speaking elite and the non-English speaking majority.
Pakistan, an Islamic Republic of around 200 million, has six major languages: Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Seraiki, Urdu and Balochi in addition to dozens of smaller regional languages and dialects.
Urdu is considered a lingua franca and is understood as a second-language by most of the population.
But English has been preferred for laws, court orders, and all other forms of official communication by the ruling elite ever since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, resulting in what some experts have called a form of “linguistic apartheid” dividing the country’s haves and have-nots.
In his judgement, Justice Khawaja noted that the constitution, written in 1973, had given the government a 15-year grace period to switch all official communication over to English, but the order had never been implemented.
“It is a corollary of a person’s right to dignity enshrined in the Constitution that his or her language should be respected and recognised by the State,” the judgement said.
“He or she must not be denied access to economic and political opportunities because he or she is…not conversant with the English language,” it added.
But past efforts to enforce Urdu across the country have led to controversy among proponents of regional languages, and was one of the major grievances of Bengali nationalists who successfully fought to secede from Pakistan in 1971 and created Bangladesh.
In neighbouring India, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced last year it would push for greater use of Hindi - which is closely-linked to and mutually intelligible with Urdu - triggering outrage among some regional parties.
The government later softened its position and said it would use both Hindi and English in its social media posts.