Recently at a public rally, Prime Minister Imran Khan, taking a dig at Bilawal Bhutto, remarked about his frequent lapses into English while speaking to a Pakistani audience. He attributed Bilawal's motive for speaking in English to convey a message to his foreign benefactors. As essence of my article is to address the challenges that Pakistan faces in navigating the struggle of adopting Urdu as the official language, I will refrain from getting diverted to point-scoring. In all fairness to Bilawal, it would be highly uncharitable not to remind the reader of the forced exile of his parents and his early upbringing and education abroad. It also goes to his credit that in the last one year, his spoken Urdu and accent have made definite strides, but a sustained effort is still required to acquire the desired level of skill.
Let us also remind ourselves that the Founding Father of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was not fluent in Urdu and this did not prevent him from creating history. I am witness to having heard him speak from close quarters at a huge rally in erstwhile Hyderabad Deccan a few months prior to the partition. And yet he commanded rapt attention of the audience. Although at the same gathering, the leader of the Ittehad-e-Muslimeen, the late Bahadur Yar Jang, who was a brilliant orator and had full command of the language, had also spoken. What matters the most is the content of the message and the respect the speaker commands.
The late Benazir Bhutto had lived in exile for a long duration and her foreign schooling initially caused considerable difficulty for her while communicating in Urdu. She, however, soon picked up and made remarkably-impassioned speeches. Her tragic last public address in Rawalpindi is a testimony to that resolve. Another aspect that cannot be ignored either is that Urdu is the mother tongue of only 11 to 12 per cent of Pakistan's population mainly of those whose ancestors migrated from India and are residing in Karachi and Hyderabad or in pockets of major cities. The rest have their own languages or dialects - Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Seraiki, etcetera. People from Punjab have an advantage to some extent over those from Sindh and Balochistan in acquiring fluency in Urdu. Interestingly, due to the presence of expatriates, Urdu is spoken or at least understood by a significant percentage of population in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other parts of the Middle East.
There can, however, be no two...