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Afghanistan: Status Of Dari, Pashto Languages A Sensitive Topic

The status of the Dari and Pashto languages has always been a sensitive issue in Afghanistan. Both Dari -- also called Farsi -- and Pashto belong to the Indo-European family of languages. Pashto is the mother tongue of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, Pashtuns, while Tajiks, the second-largest ethnic group, speak Dari. All modern Afghan constitutions, including the new draft presented to Hamid Karzai today, have provided equal status to Dari and Pashtu. In reality, however, many Pashtuns say their language is discriminated against.

Prague, 3 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � Article 16 of Chapter 1 of Afghanistan's draft constitution, presented to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman President Hamid Karzai at a ceremony today in Kabul, formally recognizes the official status of both the Dari and Pashto languages.

"Among Pashtu, Dari, Uzbek, Turkmen, Baluchi, Pashayi, Nuristani, and other languages spoken in Afghanistan, Pashto and Dari are the official languages of the government. The government will provide and implement effective programs to promote and strengthen all languages in Afghanistan. Publications and radio and television broadcasting in all languages is without restriction," the draft says.

Despite such constitutional guarantees, however, many Pashtuns say their language has always been discriminated against in Afghan society. Although Pashto is spoken by the largest ethnic group in the country, they complain that Dari is the dominant language in Afghan government offices, at official meetings, in the courts, in publications and on radio and television programs.

The origins of the language dispute go back many centuries. Farsi has long been one of the dominant languages in the region surrounding Afghanistan. Today, Farsi is the national and official language in both Tajikistan and Iran. Tajiks are also the largest ethnic minority in Uzbekistan, while several hundred thousand Farsi speakers live in China.

By contrast, Pashto is spoken primarily only in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.

Anwar-ul-haq Ahadi is the leader of the Afghan Mellat political party and the chief of the Afghan Central Bank. He told RFE/RL that even in predominantly Pashtun regions, such as Nangarhar Province, nearly all official communication takes place in Dari. "Although I don't have exact statistics, we can say that 95 percent of official paperwork takes place in Dari both in predominantly Pashtun or predominantly Tajik regions," he said. "Pashto speakers complain that while Pashto is our country's national and official language according to the law, in reality it is stripped of both statuses. Its status as an official language is extremely weak in reality."

More than 200 newspapers and magazines have been started in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Almost half of them are published in Dari, while some 30 percent are printed in Pashtu. The rest of the publications are officially bilingual.

According to Afghan journalist Ziya Bumiya, however, around 80 percent of all articles in bilingual newspapers and magazines are published only in Dari. Bumiya said the situation is the same on Afghan National Television and Radio broadcasting. "Some 80 percent of Afghan national broadcasting is in Dari, and around 20 percent in Pashtu," Bumiya said. "National television translates some foreign movies into Pashto and sometimes broadcasts insignificant announcements or statements in Pashtu. All important interviews and statements, as well as important programs that would attract many viewers, are broadcast in Dari."

According to the law, Afghans are free to choose their language of education. Primary and secondary educations are available in both Dari and Pashtu, as well as in Afghanistan's other languages, such as Uzbek. However, in most Afghan universities, lessons are taught in Dari.

Professor Abdulshukur Rashad, a prominent Afghan scholar, told RFE/RL that apart from the Faculty of Pashto Language and Literature, all other departments at Kabul University function only in Dari. "Some people says that Pashto is also one of the official languages, but it is only on paper. It is not the case in reality. The language of education is Farsi. The language of offices is Farsi," Rashad said.

Rashad said that while most ordinary Pashtuns are capable of basic communication in Dari, a fluent knowledge of spoken and written Dari is the norm for educated Pashtuns. "Many Tajiks, however, do not try to learn Pashto," Rashad said.

Sahebnazar Muradi, the chief editor of the "Aina" (Mirror) newspaper in Kabul, acknowledges that Pashtuns are indeed the biggest minority in Afghanistan, but that Dari is still the language of the majority because Dari is used by all the country's ethnic groups to communicate with one another. Muradi said Pashtuns learn Dari voluntarily because some 70 percent of the country's scientific and historic literature has been written in Dari over the past centuries.

"No one forces people to learn Dari. There is no need for that. People of all ethnic groups learn Dari with their own initiative to be able to communicate with each other. That's why Dari is an effective language of offices, universities. It is a language of culture. It has taken this role in a very natural way," Muradi said.

All Afghan constitutions -- starting from the first constitution, which was introduced in 1923, to the latest draft constitution, which was presented to Afghan leader Hamid Karzai today -- have provided equal status to both languages.

Abdulhamid Mubarez, a deputy at the Ministry of Information and Culture, told RFE/RL that the law is obeyed. "We have two official languages in Afghanistan -- Dari and Pashtu. Everyone is free to communicate, write their letters or requisitions in one of these two languages. There is no discrimination. I have never come across any discrimination," Mubarez said.

However, Anwar-ul-haq Ahadi, the chief of the Central Bank, said many Pashtuns, especially university students, are dissatisfied with the current situation. "We have to address the issue," Ahadi said, "since our country is officially bilingual, all official workers at least have to be able to communicate in both Dari and Pashto languages."

People like Ahadi express their concern that if the issue is not acknowledged and addressed properly, groups such as the ousted Taliban will capitalize on the popular dissatisfaction, especially the discontent of young Pashtuns, to ignite hostilities between ethnic groups.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.