Pakistan’s Punjab, the Urdu literary hub of Pakistan, is slowly waking up to its lost Punjabi identity

I don’t know what to make of this article but many thanks to Kabir for sending this on to me:

“In this battle between Urdu and Hindi, it was Punjabi that lost out. As languages acquired religious identities, Punjabi increasingly became associated with Sikhs. It is an attitude that continues to exist in contemporary Punjab. While the language is still used in the vernacular, it is completely cut off from intellectual and educational structures. Just as it was imagined during the colonial regime, it is still often referred to as a barbarous language. In October 2016, a leading private school organisation found itself in the limelight for all the wrong reasons when one of its principals, in a school notice, declared Punjabi an example of “foul language”. It is no surprise, therefore, that Punjabi students studying in the best schools and colleges of Punjab grow up without even a minor acquaintance with classical Punjabi writers or its popular folk stories.”

20 thoughts on “Pakistan’s Punjab, the Urdu literary hub of Pakistan, is slowly waking up to its lost Punjabi identity”

  1. What I found interesting about this article was that it reinforces this idea of languages being identified with various religions (why that should be however is a different matter–one would think languages are neutral). So just as in UP, “Hindi” was seen as a Hindu language and “Urdu” was seen as a Muslim one, in Punjab, Punjabi is seen as a Sikh language. This perception remains even though Punjabi is the same language, whether written in Shahmukhi (Urdu script) or Gurmukhi. It would then make sense for Pakistani Punjabis, who are the dominant community in Pakistan and the most “Pak-nationalist” to sacrifice their own language for Urdu, which is seen as more Muslim (though they still speak Punjabi in the home). A similar thing happened in India when Haryana and Punjab became separate states (granted I don’t know all the details of this, but it involved the Hindu community saying that they were speaking Hindi and the Sikh community saying that they were speaking Punjabi).

    It is sad though that elite Punjabi kids in Lahore don’t know anything about Heer Ranjha.

    I kind of know the author of this article because we were at LUMS around the same time (2005-2007). I think he studied Anthropology and now he writes mostly about Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities. We’ve lost touch though.

    1. I didn’t like the tone of the article.

      Punjabis are welcome to their Punjabistan but in that case Greater Karachi must separate to preserve the Urdu culture & language.

      It’s the least the native ethnicities (Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathan’s etc) can do as a thank you to the Ahl e Zaban.

      Not to get me wrong I’m a very partial towards Pakistan but a Pakistan where Urdu has a paramount status and supremacy (I’m ambivalent on English) and is our High Culture demarcator..

      1. The problem with this view is that English is far more important than Urdu or Hindi in the subcontinent. The biggest giveaway is the fact that Urdu partisans in Pakistans insist on English medium education for their children.

        I am reminded of the words of the late TN CM, Anna Durai,
        “Since every school in India teaches English, why can’t it be our link language? Why do Tamils have to study English for communication with the world and Hindi for communications within India? Do we need a big door for the big dog and a small door for the small dog? I say, let the small dog use the big door too!”

        1. English medium education is important so that young Pakistanis can grow up to interact with the wider world. English is the premier global language.

          Urdu is important so that young Pakistanis can interact with others within their nation. The upper-classes don’t live in a bubble. They have to communicate with their employees, shopkeepers etc. For that they will need Urdu. Also, not all our grandparents know English. My late grandmother understood it but was much more comfortable speaking Urdu and Punjabi. Urdu is also important because it provides us with our cultural identity. If Pakistani kids don’t know anything about Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz, they will be totally deracinated. That is not an outcome that anyone wants.

          India and Pakistan are different because we actually have a national language in Pakistan. No one is arguing that Urdu should not be the primary language binding the nation together. The only issue is what status the regional languages should be given. On the other hand, Hindi is only the official language of the Union, not the national language.

          1. “English medium education is important so that young Pakistanis can grow up to interact with the wider world. English is the premier global language.”

            Learning English to communicate with the wider world requires English as a subject, not English as a medium. Clearly, the desire here is not the mere ability to communicate, but total immersion and fluency. People who are schooled in such an environment might quote Ghalib here and there, but will express complex thought predominantly in English, naturally relying on English language literary traditions.

          2. Of course the desire is total fluency. Parents (upper-class ones especially) want their kids to study engineering and business abroad–not in Pakistan. I would venture that upper-class parents in India have similar aspirations. English is the language of the movers and shakers. That is the reality, regardless of whether you like it or not.

            As for literary traditions, most engineers are not big on literary traditions, in any language. I just want them to know who Ghalib was. Just as people in the States know who Shakespeare was (and can even maybe name a play or two) even if they work in IT.

            LUMS offers elective courses where CS majors can take a semester length course on Ghalib, Mir and Faiz if they are so inclined. That most of them are not so inclined says something about engineering education and about the elite class’s distance from their own heritage.

      2. Urdu is the national language and very much the demarcator of the high culture. All educated Pakistanis can speak Urdu. It is a required subject in all provinces.

        The only issue under contention here is whether the various provinces should own their languages. As far as I am aware, it is only Punjabis who don’t teach their own native language in schools. Sindhi is taught in Sindh. Pathans will always choose to speak Pashto among themselves and the Baloch are very proud of Balochi. Perhaps it is the very “Pak Nationalism” of Punjabis that led them to sacrifice their language in the larger interests of Pakistani unity. Anyway that is one theory.

        My mother was part of the first generation born after Pakistan became independent. Her parents (both Punjabi) used to speak Punjabi to each other but insisted on speaking Urdu to their children out of a sense of patriotism. She ended up being conversant in Punjabi anyway due to growing up in Sialkot and having relatives who were refugees from Amritsar who didn’t speak Urdu at all.

        I don’t think there needs to be a choice between the Urdu high culture and “Heer Ranjha”. Why can’t young Punjabi kids be taught both? Similarly, Pakistan should respect its multiethnic nature and give due respect to the native languages of each part of the federation. We don’t need to be a “one blood one soil” type nation-state. Urdu remains important as a lingua franca so that Pathans and Punjabis can speak to each other (though for the super-elite this is English).

  2. “India and Pakistan are different because we actually have a national language in Pakistan. No one is arguing that Urdu should not be the primary language binding the nation together. The only issue is what status the regional languages should be given. On the other hand, Hindi is only the official language of the Union, not the national language.”

    It is certainly true that Hindi has nowhere near the status in India that Urdu has in Pakistan.

    But I dont think all groups in Pakistan accept such a status for Urdu. The Sindhis are clearly ambivalent, and as this article points out, the Punjabi Muslim bulwark is also developing some cracks. It will be interesting to see what the effect of the growth of Punjabi as the sole official language of Indian Punjab will have on Pakistani Punjab.

    1. Everyone in Pakistan knows that Urdu will remain the “qaumi zubaan” forever. The founder of the country said that it was THE language of South Asia’s Muslims. No one is going to argue with the word of Quaid-e-Azam.

      The only issue is how much the regional languages should be promoted in their own regions. Sindhi should be taught in Sindh, but people who don’t live in Sindh don’t need it (nor do they particularly care for it) . They do need Urdu. Same with Pashto in KPK. Punjab is a special case because they identify with Urdu as part of Pak-nationalism. The article pointed out that people in a position of authority in Punjab consider their own native tongue to be “barbarous” (which is a sad comment on their internalized hatred of themselves).

      I don’t think anything that happens in India’s Punjab impacts anything in Pakistan. Pakistani Punjab is going to remain the bulwark of Pak-nationalism for the forseeable future. That includes Urdu as the premier language of educated South Asian Muslims.

      1. I think moving the capital to Islamabad was a disaster. We should have had Karachi as a capital. Islamabad was a big reason as to why East Pak split (the profits from jute went to build Isb rather than recycled in East Pak).

        1. Well, Islamabad is closer to the geographic center of the country. But yes, the main motivation was for Ayub Khan to be closer to his home village in KPK.

          1. From Wiki:

            “Traditionally, development in Pakistan was focused on the colonial centre of Karachi, and President Ayub Khan wanted it equally distributed. Moreover, Karachi was located at the southern end of the country, making it vulnerable to attacks from the Arabian Sea. Pakistan needed a capital that was easily accessible from all parts of the country.[27][28] Karachi, a business centre, was also considered unsuitable partly because of intervention of business interests in government affairs.[29] The newly selected location of Islamabad was closer to the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and the disputed territory of Kashmir in the north.[21]”

            Ayub Khan’s home village is Rehana, located in Haripur district, KPK

            When I went to the International School in Islamabad, one of my classmates was Ayub Khan’s great grandson (his mother is Gohar Ayub’s daughter). Not a very impressive kid academically, but that is neither here nor there.

          2. I went to ISOI for one year (12th grade) because my mother got a job with USAID and decided to move us back to Pakistan. Btw, making your kid leave high school in suburban Washington, DC senior year and move to Islamabad is not nice.

            But because all my education had been in the American system, ISOI or the American School as it is locally called was really the only choice.

            Froebels is on the O/A Level system if I’m not wrong?

  3. Mother tongue (MT) versus language of the elite/ business/ profession/ lingua franca within and international communication, controversy continues. The dilemma is faced by a majority of people in the world and almost everyone in South Asia. This appears to be so through most of the history. In ancient India unless one knew Sanskrit one was not considered educated. Things evolved into language of the market place (Hindustani), high culture (Urdu), language of the court (Arabic, Persian), language of the classics (Sanskrit) and of course the MT. Lucky is the person who manages all his life with just his MT.

    Traditionalists are uncomfortable about the importance that is being given to English in India. Recently a regional language advocate predicted that if the situation persists, soon the language will become extinct. Ignore the fact that the particular language is spoken by 10 crores of people and all the schools in the region teach it. One should guard against such language chauvinism.

    1. Yes, this is a debate common to South Asia. But I think other parts of the world don’t get so emotional about it. Everyone in France knows French and then those who need to learn English. In some European countries, people know their own native tongue, the language of their neighboring country and then perhaps English. What makes things different in South Asia is that language has become communalized, with Urdu for the Muslims, Hindi for the Hindus and Punjabi for the Sikhs. This is of course just the situation in the north.

      In the case of Pakistan, the debate is focused on unity vs. diversity. One language (Urdu) is supposed to foster a sense of Pakistaniness on everyone. Partisans of the regional languages want a Pakistan which is multi-ethnic (some would say “multinational” but I wouldn’t go that far: there is only the Pakistani nation, otherwise there might as well be four separate countries). Certainly the sub-national groups should all be equally respected.

      Pakistan is a construct which is held together by Urdu and Islam (and the Pakistan Army). Of course in some ways, Bharat Mata is a construct as well (though the hardline Hindudvadis would strongly disagree). There is no reason why North India and South India could not be governed as two separate nation-states. For that matter, there is no reason why UP with its 200 million people could not be a nation-state.

Comments are closed.

Brown Pundits