The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, also known as the 1973 constitution, was drafted by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government. It was ratified on August 14, 1973 and was the first Constitution to be framed by elected representatives in Pakistan (Bajora, 2010).
It comprises 280 articles and five schedules, and has undergone twenty-three amendments to date. The Constitution is divided into twelve parts, with the first three chapters establishing the rules and separate powers of the three branches of the government. The constitution broke away from its predecessor documents by establishing a bicameral legislature and parliamentary system, establishing two chambers, separate in deliberation from one another. 41 percent of the world’s governments adopt a bicameral system, including countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, India and Russia.
The Parliament cannot make any laws which may be repugnant or contrary to the Constitution, unless the constitution itself is amended by a two-thirds majority in both the houses of the bicameral parliament.
With a history wrought with military coups upending the supposedly enshrined constitution, it’s no surprise that the Constitution continues to be the focus of political struggle. Considering language’s intricate ties to group identity, the constitutional provisions addressing it remain a charged debate.
The history of the Constitution contextualizes the political conflicts underlying most of its provisions. Experts believe that the principles of the Constitution of Pakistan still stem from colonial times. At the time of its independence in August 1947, Pakistan inherited the Government of India Act of 1935) as its constitutional model – a framework designed by a colonial power to govern a colony that provided for a strong central government, a bureaucracy dominated executive unanswerable to the legislature, and very limited representation with continuation of feudal domination over politics.
On March 23, the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan came into existence. While parliamentary and federal in form, the constitution ensured that the president retained supreme powers and the center was more powerful than the provinces. But this Constitution had a very short life. The country’s first general elections were scheduled for February 1959, but President Iskandar Mirza, fearing a rise in East Pakistan’s influence could undermine his hold on power, abrogated the Constitution before the elections in 1958, establishing martial law and appointing army chief Ayub Khan as chief martial law administrator. This set a precedent for the military to assert itself into the country’s political affairs. It also led to a pattern of takeovers, subversion of constitutional provisions, and a military-bureaucracy dominated executive that superseded the elected parliament.
A new constitution came into effect in 1962 which failed to include fundamental rights until the first amendment was made to it, granting the executive power to the president and abolishing the office of the prime minister. Most significantly, it institutionalized the intervention of the military in politics by providing that for twenty years, the president or the defense minister must be a person who had held a rank not lower than that of lieutenant-general in the army.
The 1973 Constitution created a parliamentary form of democracy in which the executive power is concentrated in the office of the prime minister. It established the Pakistani president as the formal head of state, bound to act on the advice of the prime minister. The parliament consists of two houses, the national assembly and the senate. The Constitution also provides for four provincial governments and the distribution of legislative power between the federation and the provinces. The new Constitution included Article (6) which stated anyone who now abrogated or attempted or conspired to abrogate or subvert the Constitution shall be “guilty of high treason.” It was an attempt to guard against the takeover of the state by future military rulers.
Importance of Constitution
In order to understand the importance of its articles- particularly those concerning language- its important to underscore the multi-faceted importance of the Constitution. To put it simply, the state, as an institution, is created and defined by its constitution. The study of constitutions must therefore inform policy making at every level.
Constitutions ideally provide an acceptable framework for maneuvering political polarization. They engender stability by giving legal and social guarantees that despite escalating political disagreements, all stakeholders accept the legitimacy of the system of choosing governments.
Even though constitutional provisions have been historically manipulated in Pakistan, they remain important due to their unique claims to accountability. The accountability demanded by invoking constitutional articles carries most weight in the courts and amongst citizens- even when other mechanisms fall short. Therefore, in countries with weak democratic norms, the constitution becomes increasingly important. This current analysis is on the topic of language under the constitutional umbrella.
Language is one of the important aspects of society. It is not some words brought together but an entity that connects an individual to his family, identity, culture, music, beliefs and wisdom (Zalmay, 2017). Currently in Pakistan there are 72 languages spoken (provincial and regional) including the official languages Urdu and English (Zalmay, 2017). In 2014 the Parliamentary Paper highlighted that 10 out of 72 languages are near extinction and despite the fact that four major provincial languages Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and Pashto/ Puhkto are spoken in four provinces of Pakistan, with the exception of Sindhi, the other three have no official status (Zalmay, 2017). The Constitution of Pakistan makes 12 references for language, dedicating Article 251 to language only (Jabeen, S. & Shehzad, W., 2018). This section of the paper discusses Article 251 and other articles associated with language in the Constitution that provide the insights on the significance of language.
Article 251 is of supreme importance. Under this article, Urdu is declared the national language of Pakistan and provinces are allowed to carry on with their respective languages alongside with the national language.
Under this clause, Urdu is declared the national language of Pakistan. The article advises making all necessary provisions for the use of Urdu, within the 15 years from the commencing day.
According to this clause, English should be used as the official language until all the necessary arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu.
This clause allows the provincial assembly to, by law, prescribe the promotion of teaching of provincial language in addition to national language.
Article 255 discusses the Oath of Office, and Clause 1 addresses the language in which the oath can be taken.
Under this clause of article 255 the oath by a person should be taken under the Constitution (preferably Urdu) or by the language that is understood by the person taking the oath.
Article 282 is subjected to Article 251. The article allows citizens to have a distinct language, culture, or script to have the right to preserve and promote the same and, subject to law, establish institutions for that.
Article 31 of the Constitution underpins the Islamic way of life. Clause 2 (A) of the article addresses the provision of Arabic language.
Under this clause, provisions should be made for the teaching of Holy Quran and Islamiat as a compulsory subject. The clause also encourages the learning and facilitation of Arabic language and to secure correct and exact printing and publishing of the Holy Quran.
Analysis and Discussion
The Constitution makes it clear about the provision of language in federal and provincial affairs. Article 251 makes it clear that Urdu is the national language and all the arrangements should be made for it within fifteen years of commencement. The Constitution came in 1972 and the implementation process can be taken in the year 1973 so by 1988 the provisions under Article 251 should have been accomplished. Till date, English remains the official language. In the case of provincial language except for Sindhi, no other language has an official status nor provincial assemblies have taken action for it.
In 2016, a constitutional amendment bill was presented in Senate for amendment to Article 251 by Senator Muhammad Javed Abbasi (The Constitutional (Amendment) Bill, 2016). The bill proposed that instead of a national language it should be ‘languages’ and a comma should be inserted after ‘Urdu.’ The languages after comma should be inserted i.e. Punjabi, Pushto, Hindko, Balochi, Brahvi, and Sairiki. The objective of the bill was language recognition and acceptance of diversity of language. However, the bill was not passed in the Senate.
The Constitution advises forming necessary institutions in pretext to preserve language (Article 28 and 251 (3). It is up to the lawmakers and enforcers to abide by the constitutional limit. However, different theaters, NGO’s and literary groups have been working for the promotion of different languages, but they require strong policy support for further changes that could be brought in to ensure our regional languages are not lost and are preserved as an important part of our cultural and historic heritage.
Bajoria, J. (2010, April 21). Pakistan’s Constitution. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/pakistans-constitution.
Jabeen, S. & Shehzad, W. Interface between National Ideologies and the Constitution of Pakistan. International Journal of English Linguistics, 8(5). https://doi.org/10.5539/ijel.v8n5p106.
“The Constitutional (Amendment) Bill, 2016 (Amendment of Article 251)”, Abbasi, M.J. https://senate.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1503487187_505.PDF.
Zalmay, K. (2017, February 11). Language and Identity. The News. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/185439-Language-and-identity.