A notice such as this in Lahore, Pakistan, will be a thing of the past once Urdu replaces English. Image Credit: AFP

Islamabad: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in danger of jumping the gun after ordering that English be replaced with Urdu as Pakistan’s new official language, following a supreme court landmark verdict seeking the change.

There is a time line of 15 years to oversee the change in a major move towards enforcing a new national value. Pakistan’s hard-core nationalists have hailed the decision as a long overdue move towards enforcing an important home-grown value, in spite of others opposing the change.

“Pakistan was created 68 years ago [in 1947] and we still don’t have our own language identity. At last, the prime minister has fulfilled the mission of nation building” said Haleem Asghar, an Urdu language schoolteacher in Islamabad in a Gulf News interview. “We can’t remain hostage to colonial values” added Asghar.

Others, however, slammed the decision as a meaningless exercise. “We will end up with government-owned schools only using Urdu to teach their students, while the more expensive private schools for children of the elite will teach their students in English” warned Hassan Askari Rizvi, a prominent political commentator and former university professor in an interview with Gulf News. He said “the gap” between the rich and poor will surely grow.

For Rizvi, one of the biggest challenges will be publishing books in Urdu for students enrolled in professional degree programmes in areas such as medicine and engineering. “Can we be certain that books for medical students or engineering students will be available in Urdu on a par with the ones in English?” asked Rizvi.

Meanwhile, senior government officials who spoke to Gulf News eagerly said that the decision will not mark Pakistan’s departure from a more worldly inclined narrative to an inward looking one.

The South Asian country with a population of about 20 million will be the world’s only country where Urdu is the official language in sharp contrast to regions like the Arab world where Arabic is spoken across a cluster of countries.

Urdu dates back just under 400 years, though it has evolved to include an impressive variety of prose and poetry in spite of its young age. It was formed through an amalgamation of languages such as Persian, Sanskrit and some Turkish.

Some historians have spoken of the need for a common language in the Mughal Empire, which gave birth to Urdu. Uniting an otherwise diverse military and bureaucratic force drawn from areas ranging from present day southern India to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and parts of central Asia has thrown up the need for a common language under the Mogul empire, goes the argument.

But historical context aside, Sharif’s decision has thrown up more confusion for now. “Are common people going to be more successful in getting jobs” asked Farooq Khan, a college student in central Islamabad who spoke to Gulf News. Nadeem Tahir, another college student clearly sceptical of the ruling elite, which is notorious for corruption told Gulf News; “Is this conversion going to allow someone to make money? When the government acts, there is usually an ulterior motive”.

Meanwhile, across the political spectrum, politicians from both sides of the divide are clearly left baffled. In Sharif’s own party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz or PML-N, news of the language shift came as a surprise. A PML-N member of parliament who spoke to Gulf News on condition of anonymity said; “I never thought changing the official language would be a major priority”.

In a telling reminding of where he and other PML-N politicians would like their government to focus, the member of parliament asked “shouldn’t we worry more about fighting militants” — a reference to Pakistan’s ongoing campaign against the Taliban.

Meanwhile, an opposition member of parliament who also spoke to Gulf News on condition of anonymity added that Sharif appears to be seeking to divert attention to “non-issues as the government fails” in tackling Pakistan’s most vital challenges. “Our economy is in trouble, there is a precarious security environment and our politics are in disarray. Where does enforcing Urdu come in the picture?”.

While Urdu is meant to become Pakistan’s next lingua franca, the new official language will likely remain as much of a foreign language as English, in regions where both languages remain alien from local dialects and languages such as Pashto, Sindhi and Saraiki, to name just a few.