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Why Have Pakistani Punjabis Disowned Their Mother Tongue

The biggest linguistic nationality of Pakistan (since December 1971) is the Punjabis. Yet, the national language of Pakistan is Urdu, which is the mother tongue of merely 7-8 percent of the total Pakistani population, now in the neighbourhood of 213 million. The Punjabis constitute 48-55 per cent of Pakistan’s population depending on whether Saraiki, spoken in southern Punjab and northern Sindh, is treated as a dialect of Punjabi or a separate language.

The Punjabis dominate state and society at all levels – political, civil bureaucracy and the ubiquitous Pakistan military as well as the economic and financial sectors. Yet official policy from the very inception of Pakistan has been to employ Urdu as the medium of instruction in schools. Teaching of Punjabi in schools has been prohibited. All official business of the state is conducted either in English or in Urdu.

In the 1980s, some Punjabi intellectuals tried to bring out a daily newspaper in Punjabi, Sajjan. It was published for a while but went out of print because neither the government nor the private sector helped it through advertisements and public notices. Until the early 1990s, members of the Punjab Assembly were forbidden to address the House in Punjabi. This ban was temporarily removed by the writer Hanif Ramay who at that time was the speaker of the Punjab Assembly. However, the ban was revived afterwards.

Some valiant champions of Punjabi continue to propagate the cause of the Punjabi language, but this has been confined to small intellectual circles. They have been demanding that Punjabi be taught in school at the primary level, but no government has accepted the idea. The Punjabi language therefore is relegated to informal day-to-day communication. Why have Pakistani Punjabis disowned their mother tongue?

We need to find clues in the peculiar cultural and political evolution of Punjab. The Punjabi language belongs like most others of northern India to the Indo-European family of languages. It began to be used in literary communications and writings from at least the thirteenth century. Legendary Sufi Master Baba Farid Uddin Shakarganj is noted to have written in Punjabi using the Persian script. That tradition continued in the writings of later Sufis such as Shah Hussain, Bahu Shah, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, and into the nineteenth century through Mian Muhammad Bakhsh and Khawaja Ghulam Farid. They used the native vernacular to connect with people.

On the other hand, with the founding of Sikhism in the Punjab by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, Punjabi became the language of a brotherhood which consolidated as a religious community under the spiritual successors of Guru Nanak.  Sikhism adopted a distinct script, Gurmukhi, devised by Guru Angad, the first Guru who succeeded Guru Nanak.  It should be mentioned that the Devanagari script continued to be used in the Punjab by Hindus all along and Hindu religious ceremonies were conducted in Sanskrit.

However, and this is most noteworthy, the state officialdom in Punjab hailed from the Turco-Afghan nobility who conducted their affairs in Persian and owed loyalty either to the ruler in Delhi or Kabul. In northern India, the common lingua franca was Hindustani, which in more literary forms was expressed as Hindi written in the Devanagari script or Urdu written in the Persian script. Towards the end of Mughal rule Urdu began to be cultivated by the literati while Persian continued to the state language

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When the British emerged as the ruling power in India they decided to adopt Urdu as the language of state at the lower level, especially in the British Indian Army. After 1849, when the British annexed Punjab they decided to continue with Urdu as the state language in the army and other lower levels. The argument which prevailed was that Urdu and Punjabi were kin language.

In the religious and communal revivals of the nineteenth century, Hindi came to be associated with Hindus, Urdu with Muslims and Punjabi written in the Gurmukhi script with the Sikhs. Spoken Punjabi as the shared vernacular of all Punjabis, cutting across religion and sect, continued to be the day-to-day medium of communication and interaction.

The religious revivals in turn took place in the wider context of the anti-colonial freedom movement of the twentieth century. The Indian National Congress asserting it claims to represent all Indians irrespective of religion declared Hindustani, the common vernacular of north India, with the Devanagari and Persian scripts as the national language of a future independent, united India. In opposition to it, the All-India Muslim League claiming to represent all Indian Muslims rejected Hindustani and instead claimed Urdu was the language exclusively of Muslims.

In the Pakistan which emerged through the partition of India and its two Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab, the Urdu-speaking migrants from north India who shifted to Pakistan were initially overrepresented in the central government but the Punjabis constituted the overall dominant nationality in the military and over time, especially after East Pakistan separated to become Bangladesh in December 1971 the Punjabi domination of Pakistan was both numerical in terms of the key sectors of the state and economy.

The Punjabi Muslims of Pakistan were educated in English at the highest elite level and in Urdu at the middle and lower middle-class levels and constituted the intelligentsia. For them to adopt Urdu as the language of state and medium of instruction in school served their interests well because Urdu, or more accurately Hindustani, had been the lingua franca in the other provinces of post-1971 Pakistan as well. Consequently, despite the movement for Punjabi being taught in school and even used as the medium of instruction for education all Punjabi-dominated federal governments and the provincial governments of Punjab have overruled such a demand.

It is worth mentioning that all states must choose one language to signify national identity and to conduct their affairs in an efficient and coherent manner. In multi-language societies the choice of national or state language is always problematic. An apt example is Turkey where the Turkish language alone is declared as state language. It has resulted in considerable resistance to it being given by the Kurds who speak a different language. Another example is Israel. The founders of Israel were European Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish or the national languages of the countries where they lived. Israel decided instead to have Hebrew, the ancient language of Jews as the national language. Israel has succeeded in that policy objective. In India, as part of the partition syndrome the idea of Hindustani as national language has been abandoned and Sanskritized Hindi is increasingly used by officialdom. This is especially true with the rise of Hindu nationalism and the BJP. Nevertheless, the spoken language of most Indians of north India continues to be Hindustani and is the prevalent language in the film industry and other cultural avenues.

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Considered in the light of these examples, the case of Pakistani Punjabi elite and intelligentsia adopting Urdu as their language of written communication and formal speech even when Urdu is the mother tongue of a small minority does make sense – because ultimately language is a means of communication and that means claims to power too are played in languages. For such Pakistani Punjabis Urdu gives them advantage over the smaller nationalities of Sindhis, Pakhtuns and Baloch who include their mother tongues in their nationalist resistance to what they perceive is Punjabi domination. It is worth underscoring that apart from Lahore and Islamabad where educated people speak either English or Urdu, Punjabi continues to be spoken in all other parts of the Pakistani Punjab at all levels though they too do not express themselves in written Punjabi. Overall, the Punjabi language is treated as a pariah tongue to be used to connect with the uneducated masses and to express course humour and abuse.

Notwithstanding all this, throughout the Punjab a more vocal Punjabi-language movement exists but no serious evidence exists that the state will adopt it. The recent opening of the Kartarpur shrine in Pakistan to Sikh pilgrims and the Kabaddi tournament saw Pakistani officialdom also resorting to Punjabi to connect with the masses.

Can such developments lead to Punjabi being recognized as a mother tongue which deserves elevation to the level of medium of instruction in educational institutions and ultimately as language of the state? At present that seems very unlikely if not impossible.

Postscript: National identity construction in the 1940s

One point which perhaps needed to be emphasized and highlighted in relation to the language question is that there was a fundamental difference on language and regional identities in the Congress and Muslim League stands on Language.

The Indian National Congress took the stand that the national language of India would be Hindustani with Devanagari and Persian-Urdu scripts as its equal-status written forms WHILE all provinces of India will have their mother-tongues as their regional language and identities.

The Muslim League position was that Urdu was the “mother tongue” of Indian Muslims. It therefore not only rejected Hindustani as the shared language of all Indians of north and north-western India but also regional languages of the various Muslim linguistic groups. That is why in Pakistan state policy has always been to promote Urdu and undervalue regional languages and also regional identities.

I hope that clarification helps understand an important difference before the partition between the two parties regarding their standpoint on language.

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1 Comment

  1. Sukhamaya Bain February 25, 2020

    This from a fellow at Stockholm University and National University of Singapore! Don’t people need to learn that even Allah is not a Muslim word and that it is an Arabic word? Comparing Hindi of India and Urdu of Pakistan is not very intellectual, as Hindi is spoken by a lot more of Indians than any other single language in that country.

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