The Sad Fate of Punjabi in Pakistan

                                By Abbas Zaidi

Punjabi is the mother tongue of well over 120 million people. It is the language of two groups: the Sikhs of East Punjab in India (who use Sanskritised script), and the Punjabis of West Punjab in Pakistan (who use Persianised script). The two groups cannot read or write each other's writing, but their oral communicability is one hundred percent.

Before the partition of India in 1947 these two peoples used to live side by side. Some of the richest poetical traditions--the Sufi and romantic--of the Indian-Pakistani subcontinent are to be found in Punjabi. The immortal Punjabi love epic Hir-Ranjha is the acme of what Matthew Arnold called "high seriousness". And yet, Punjabi is also the most jokes-inclusive language of the Subcontinent. Even the non-native speakers of Punjabi accept that it is an exceptionally rich language: just one expression couched in the right tonal emphasis or written from the right perspective is worth scores of locutions, and the same expression can convey a variety of meaning in the same and different contexts if given the right twist. It is a language of nuances and double entendres. Sometimes the two meanings are contradictory (e.g., "X is a healthy man" or "X's figure is athletic" can mean just the opposite.). Sometimes one meaning is wit-packed and the second is serious (e.g., "The mullahs efficiently carry out their sacred duties in the mosque" can also mean they do wicked sexual things there). Most of the time one meaning is an ordinary, intended statement, while the other is playfully sexual (e.g., "Shall I pour [milk/water]?" secondarily refers to penetration, and more). If someone wants to experience synaesthesia, let him learn Punjabi.

Recently I met a Sikh in Brunei. He was in his mid-20s, born in Malaysia, and had never been to the place of his origin, i.e., the Indian Punjab. But he could speak perfect Punjabi. He said to me, "If a Sikh cannot speak Punjabi, he is a fake Sikh."

And yet, Pakistani Punjabis must be the only linguistic group in the world that has a dismissive--even derogatory--attitude towards their own language. I have lived in or visited a number of countries. I have talked to countless Punjabis both in Pakistan and outside. Most of them, Pakistani Punjabis wherever they may actually reside, are willingly, even proudly, dumping their own language in favor of Urdu.

The most aggressive anti-Punjabi-ists come from the educated and semi-educated classes. As soon as they acquire the most minimal academic advancement, the first thing they do is jettison their natural language. I have never seen or heard of an educated, or even semi-educated, Punjabi parent who is willing to communicate with his or her own child in their native tongue. Rather, they strongly discourage and often rebuke their children if they even suspect that they might be talking to other children in Punjabi, because speaking Punjabi is considered a mark of crudeness and bad manners.

A young child speaking Punjabi is at best an amusing curiosity for adult Punjabis. In a posh social or academic gathering anyone speaking that language is either trying to be funny or himself soon becomes the butt of jokes. A poet who writes in Punjabi finds an audience predisposed only to ribald entertainment.

Pakistani Punjabis' negative attitude towards their language can be demonstrated by the fact that there is not a single newspaper or magazine published in Punjabi for the 60 million-plus Punjabi speakers. Historically, every Punjabi journalistic venture has died soon after its launching. The latest venture was a daily newspaper, Sajjan ("Friend"), edited and published by Hussain Naqi, an Urdu-speaking Indian emigrant. It only lasted a few months. Yet, all the regional and provincial languages like Sindhi and Pushto have a proud history of publication. Sindhi, a minor language compared with Punjabi, can boast scores of daily newspapers and periodicals. Yet, while Pakistani Punjabis can certainly speak their language, they can neither read nor write it. I estimate that not more than two percent of Punjabis can read or write Punjabi. Add to this the fact that, after Urdu speakers, Punjabis on average are the most literate group in Pakistan and you see what irony there is.

Consider the following breakdown of the speakers of the various Pakistani languages:

Punjabi 48.2 %
Pushto 13.1 %
Sindhi 11.8 %
Seraiki 9.8 %
Urdu 7.6 %
Other 9.5 %

What can one make of this situation? Is it not a linguistic schizophrenia on the part of Punjabis? Urdu is regarded as the "correct language", the language of taste and class, by the Punjabis themselves. Quite apart from what others think, it is they, the Punjabis, who think that Punjabi is an "indecent" or "vulgar" language. Some of them say this is because of the Punjabi accent, the rude way individual words and expressions are uttered, or because Punjabi is the language of the illiterate and the uncouth; or because there are countless swear words and double entendres in Punjabi; or because Punjabi is just plain déclassé. Hence, Punjabi has multiple semiotic indictments against it even before it is expressed.

And yet, a language's capacity for double entendre is actually at the heart of its expressiveness and power, making these objections to Punjabi as ridiculous as General Franco's charge that Basque was a "language of dogs".

The only places in Pakistan where Punjabi is uninhibitedly spoken are the so-called backward rural areas or city slums. These misfortunate people look up to prosperous educated Punjabis--the landed aristocrats, industrialists, the yuppies and the bourgeoisie--as role models. As they become educated they discard their mother tongue along with their uncouth dress and manners. Hence the formula seems simple enough: the more educated a Punjabi is, the more anti-Punjabi and Punjabi-less he or she becomes. Ironically, the illiterate Punjabis are the most genuine Punjabis.

The responsibility for such a state of affairs lies with the Punjabis themselves, especially the "Wake Up Punjabi" slogan-mongers. Is it not significant that in Pakistan's history no Punjabi leader of stature has addressed a mass rally in Punjabi? Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's current and twice-elected prime minister, is a Punjabi. It was he who some time back raised the "Wake Up Punjabi" slogan while challenging then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's supremacy. Yet his track record on Punjabi is as bad as any other Punjabi leader's. Bhutto, who was also twice elected prime minister, is a Sindhi. She always talks to the Sindhis in Sindhi. Similarly, Urdu-, Pushto-, Seraiki-, and Baluchi-speaking leaders and intellectuals always use their own languages when talking to their people either in private or in public.

Sindhi, Pushto and Urdu are compulsory languages for Sindhi, Pathan and Mohajir students, and the Baluchis are working hard to evolve a script for their own language. A number of official activities are transacted in these languages. The Punjabis are the largest linguistic group in Pakistan. They are also the most powerful political and economic group. Pakistan is an agrarian society, and the Punjab feeds the whole of Pakistan ("Punjab" means "the land of five rivers"). But there is not a single school where Punjabi is taught. Nor has Punjabi ever been part of the school syllabi. Pre-university as well as college courses in the Punjab are taught in Urdu. In a majority of cases, the characters, their names, and the situations projected in narratives, poems and social descriptions are based on the culture of Urdu speakers and have nothing to do with the Punjab. There are a number of universities in the Punjab, but it is only in the University of Lahore that a small MA Punjabi department exists, and even then the students admitted are more interested in finding a cheap residence in Lahore than in studying Punjabi.

The books published in Punjabi in any given year can be counted on one hand. Compared with scores of Urdu, Sindhi, Pushto, and other minority languages (e.g., Seraiki and Kashmiri), there is not a single full-fledged Punjabi research institution in Pakistan except for a misshapen Punjabi Adabi Board which is notable principally for its inactivity. The few research works in Punjabi owe their existence to individual efforts. One may argue that this state of affairs can be explained by economics, but why does economics affect only Punjabi in this way?

The average Pakistani Punjabi would answer my questions thusly: (i) The reason the Sikhs have never discarded their language is that their holy book, the Garanth, is in Punjabi; (ii) we must use Urdu because it is our national language.

To which I reply: (i) The Koran is in Arabic, but its readers have not dumped their own native languages simply because of that fact. Moreover, the Punjabis, along with other Pakistanis, never learn Arabic; they read the Koran without understanding a word of Arabic. And: (ii) All the different ethnic groups in Pakistan know Urdu, but they have not jettisoned their own languages for the sake of a national language whose native speakers make up less than eight percent of the general population.

Language has played a very significant role in Pakistan's history, a fact which makes the Punjabi question all the more ironic and tragic. When Pakistan was created in 1947 as East and West Pakistan, it was claimed by its then rulers--who were Urdu speaking emigrants from India--that Pakistan would last till the Day of Judgement with Allah's blessing: two (East and West) wings, one religion, one nation, one country, and one national language-Urdu.

But the blessing was not realized, and before it could celebrate its first anniversary the whole of East Pakistan was rocked to its foundations with bloody "language riots". The Bengalis refused to accept Urdu because it was an imposed, not their own, language. They said they would lose their identity without their mother tongue. In turn, they were dubbed "anti-Pakistan" for their opposition to Urdu.

The pro-Urdu lobby in West Pakistan then played the Islamic card: Urdu amounted to Islamic identity. Anti-Urdu was anti- Islamic. Calling the Bengalis anti-Islam, the religious scholars of West Pakistan argued that Islamic identity should transcend Bengali identity if the Bengalis were to consider themselves true Muslims.

But the language of theology could not overcome the theology of language, and in 1971, before Pakistan could celebrate its silver jubilee, East Pakistan had become Bangladesh, "Land of the Bengali-speaking People". And as the Bengalis were about to start preparations to celebrate their first independence anniversary, the province of Sindh became a scene of language riots between the speakers of Sindhi and Urdu, shaking the very foundations of the newly-elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the most popular and powerful leader (he was both the country's president and chief martial law administrator) in Pakistan's history. Bhutto appeared on TV and spoke in English, Sindhi and Urdu. He joined his hands together and, pointing them towards the people said, "For God's sake, let it (i.e., language rioting) go!"

Again the religious scholars played the Islamic card. One of them said, "The end of Urdu will mean the end of Pakistan and Islam."

The province of Sindh has continued to be a hotbed of ethnic violence between Sindhi and Urdu speakers. Sindhi nationalists want a separate homeland, Sindhudesh, exclusively for speakers of Sindhi, while Urdu speakers threaten that any "conspiracy" against "Pakistan and Urdu" would meet with an "iron fist". They themselves had planned to establish "Jinnahpur", an Urdu-speaking province within Sindh itself. Their scheme was thwarted by an army action against the Mohajirs in 1992.

Since Pakistan's creation, the Pathans have been lobbying for Pakhtoonistan, the "Land of the Pushto speakers". Nowadays they talk about separating from Pakistan itself and forming a greater Pakhtoonistan with Afghanistan, a majority Pathan country, even though severe differences exist between medieval religious obscurantist Talibaans and so-called liberals. The nationalist movement in the South of the Punjab is based upon the Seraiki language. Other examples can be multiplied. Yet, no similar debate exists amongst the Punjabis about Punjabi. They are secure in the belief that their language is merely a source of embarrassment rather than of a proud common identity.

Amrita Pretam, a Punjabi poet and fiction writer, once invoked the soul of Waris Shah (the Hir-Ranjha poet) when hundreds of thousands of Punjabi women had been raped by their own countrymen during India's partition. One is tempted to again invoke the name of this great Punjabi bard whose language is being consigned to an historical black hole by the Pakistani Punjabis themselves. What are the inheritors of the language of Waris Shah and numerous other Punjabi literary titans, both inside and outside Pakistan, doing about this shameful neglect of the Punjabi language? Will Punjabi ultimately become like Latin, a dead language with no one left who can actually speak it?

We find throughout history that dictators who want to terminate a target group are assiduous in their attempt to first efface the language of that group. Pakistani Punjabis are their own dictators. If they continue to treat their language the way they are doing at present, in future there will be a strange, baffling mass of "ethnic" Punjabis who will not know their own language. Or, if somehow miraculously Punjabi isn't lost in Pakistan, it will become at best a pidgin.

Love for one's native tongue is a universal phenomenon. At minimum, a language is a mark of personal as well as national identity. It's a glue that holds its speakers together as a people. This is why language has been so pivotal in the history of nations, a stronger bond than religion, land and even race. At present,  written and spoken Punjabi is heavily punctuated with Urdu words and phrases which are foreign both semantically and phonetically. Mohajir (i.e., the Urdu-speaking people) and Punjabi temperaments are poles apart in terms of cultural values and attitudes. Many would argue that Islam is the common bond among all Pakistani people, which in the course of time will transcend all the differences. I am not sure this is true, but what, however sadly, I am sure of is that at the rate things are going, Punjabi will have disappeared before the end of the next century.

(Abbas Zaidi <> was editor of The Ravi (1985), Pakistan's premier and oldest academic magazine published by Government College, Lahore. He also edited Interface (1990-91) for the Program in Literary Linguistics, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Zaidi has taught English Literature in Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, and worked as assistant editor for The Nation, Lahore.)