Despite the fragmentation for centuries, the Punjabi identity today is engaged in a remarkably active attempt at consolidation. Pritam Singh.
For a community that has experienced such fragmentation through the centuries, the Punjabi identity today is engaged in a remarkably active attempt at consolidation. Malkit Singh.
The moment we use the word Punjabiyat, it suggests a reference simultaneously to something that is very tangible while still elusive. This dual character opens the term to many imaginations and
possibilities. Is Punjabiyat a concrete
socio-political reality, a project, a movement in process, something in the
making, a mere idea floated by some ivory-tower intellectuals and literary
figures, a wishful dream of some Indo-Pakistani pacifists, a seductive fantasy
of some Punjabi nationalists, a secular utopia envisioned by leftist
nationalists, a business plan of market-seeking capitalists, or a dangerous
regionalism dreaded by the nation states of India and Pakistan?
The tangibility of Punjabiyat derives from the recognition of
Punjab as an area that once existed as a
sovereign state, for the half-century between 1799 and 1849. In addition, it
also derives from Punjabi as a language with a rich literary heritage, the
Punjabi identity as a linguistic and regional one within both and India , a transnational linguistic and
cultural identity encompassing what Pakistan are today Indian and Pakistani Punjabis and
the global Punjabi Diaspora. In this case, ‘culture’ can encompass language
(especially its spoken for+m), food, dress, festivals, music, dance, humour,
and rituals of happiness (relating to marriage or birth) and loss (death).
The elusiveness of Punjabiyat comes from the
floating nature of the use of the word
itself. In Pakistan, the central drive of the movement is to win the right to
use the Punjabi language against the hegemony of Urdu; while in India,
Punjabiyat is seen as a project of bringing Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus close to
each other, against Sikh secessionism and Punjabi Hindu alienation from the
community’s mother tongue. These two projects are further different from the Diasporic
Punjabis’ viewpoint of Punjabiyat as a shared cultural universe of all
Punjabis. It is in this sense that Punjabiyat appears as a floating principle
and project, an elusiveness that can be considered a sign of both weakness and
strength. The changing nature of the idea of Punjabiyat can be viewed as its
weakness, after all, but the elasticity of the concept allows it flexibility
and contextuality, a clear strength.
A broad view of the historical evolution of the Punjabi people would suggest that there are solid material and moral grounds on which to argue the case for a unifying and common Punjabi identity. However, there are also counteracting tendencies that limit the potentialities of a unified Punjabiyat. Three aspects of Punjabi life – religion, language and script – can justifiably be thought
as having played the most critical role in shaping the consolidation of and
contestation over Punjabi identity. The 15th-century emergence of the Sikh
faith and its subsequent evolution has decisively shaped the modes of influence
of religion, language and script on the articulation of Punjabi identity.
Sikhism introduced Gurmukhi as a script of the Punjabi language during the
period of Guru Angad (1504-52), the immediate successor of Guru Nanak
(1469-1539), the founder of the Sikh faith. This raised the stature of the
Punjabi language, written in the Gurmukhi script, to a sacred language in
opposition to the older sacred languages of Sanskrit and Arabic. Geographical
location, economic way of life, cultural characteristics, the development of
Punjabi language and its own script, and the emergence of a distinctive Punjabi
religion all contributed in diverse ways to the formation of a Punjabi
identity, which made the people of the
The emergence of the sovereign state of
Punjab in 1799 under Maharaja Ranjit
Singh was a moment of crowning glory in the evolution of a distinctive Punjabi
identity. At this point, the process appeared to be a specifically designed
culmination of a distinctive national identity eventually achieving a sovereign
state of its own. Punjab existed as a sovereign state until 1849, when it was
annexed by the British and merged with the rest its Indian Empire. If, with the
emergence of the sovereign Punjabi state in 1799, the composite Punjabi
identity had reached its peak, the disintegration of this state in 1849
initiated the process of decline and splintering of a unified Punjabi identity.
Cycles of identity.
By the mid-19th century, the Punjabi identity was forced to face its most significant threat to its solidity, coherence and purpose. Not only had the Punjabi nation lost its own sovereign state, which had been its protector, patron and promoter; it also was to experience a painful dislocation with the economic, political and cultural onslaught of the most powerful imperialist state of the time. Instead of offering any combined resistance to the expanding military, economic and cultural power of the colonial state, the defeated and demoralized Punjabis found themselves scrambling for minor economic crumbs and concessions. The Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs became incorporated in large numbers into the imperialist army, and the Punjabi Hindus into the civil services and trading opportunities offered by the colonial administration and economy. The existing occupational divisions in Punjabi society along religious lines also became further reinforced and magnified – divisions that were to play a corrosive role in later attempts to forge a composite Punjabi identity, both during the colonial as well the post-colonial era. Punjabi Muslims and Punjabi Sikhs were to become more entrenched into the agrarian economy, while and Punjabi Hindus became more integrated into the service sector.
The development of what came to be known as the Canal Colonies in the land between the Punjab’s five major rivers, one of the most ambitious politico-economic development projects undertaken by the colonial rulers in Punjab, offered tempting opportunities to peasants, soldiers, traders and professionals. The majority of the peasants and soldiers were Muslims and Sikhs, and the majority of the traders and professionals were Hindus, which further disoriented Punjabi identity. The Punjabi nation that was celebrated in the lyrical poetry of Shah Mohammed for its brave resistance during the Anglo-Punjab Wars of the
now, just a decade later, stood as a negation of its past glory. The project of
composite Punjabi identity stood dead, and there were no signs of recovery, at
least for the time being. Sporadic and isolated attempts of resistance – even
armed resistance, for instance by the legendary Kukas – were ruthlessly
crushed. The conquering British rulers dealt very harshly with such defiant
sections of the Punjabi community, while showing generosity to the more
The late 19th century saw two diametrically opposite tendencies concerning Punjabi identity. One tendency saw a three-way religious fragmentation – Muslim, Hindu and Sikh – as a result of the emergence of religious reformist movements, in opposition to the spread of Christianity supported by the imperial rulers. In theory, this resistance could be the basis of Punjabi unity; in practice, however, it resulted in a sharpening of religious identities and boundaries. It is important to note here the contradictory nature of globalizing imperialism, by acknowledging its contribution in giving birth to another segment of Punjabi identity that remains almost completely neglected in discourses on Punjabi identity. The process of imperial cultural penetration
The second tendency that was opposed to the fragmentation of Punjabi identity was in the political-economic domain, in the form of the emergence of the Unionist Party in
Punjab. This was a class-based political alliance of the peasantry
– especially of its elite sections – of the three main religious communities.
The Unionist Party tried to invent a third way, beyond the demands for and India , in addition to toying with the
idea of an independent Pakistan Punjab. Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana, who was the last premier
of the unified Punjab and the leader of the Punjab Unionist Party from 1942 to
1947, opposed Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Partition from a Punjabi nationalist
perspective. As a last-ditch effort to save a single Punjab, he tried to tempt
the British into accepting his proposal for carving out Punjab as an
independent political entity, different from both India and Pakistan, but
rather as a part of the larger British Empire. There briefly appeared to be a
small chance that the Punjabis could have gotten back the sovereign Punjabi
state that had been annexed in 1849. However, the events of 1947 compounded the
tragedy of Punjab. If in 1849 Punjab had lost its sovereignty, it had
at least kept its united entity intact; in 1947, it lost that too.
The emergence of
and India relocated the two Punjabs in two
very different situations. Pakistani Punjab became politically dominant in
Pakistan, but by cultural surrender of the regional Punjabi identity and the
claims of Punjabi language. Just opposite to that relocation, Indian Pakistan Punjab, a relatively small state in the
Indian federation, saw a vigorous 20-year battle for the creation of a
Punjabi-speaking state but remained politically marginal in the overall set-up.
Indian Punjab also witnessed competing claims between secular Indian
nationalism, Hindu nationalism, Sikh nationalism and Marxist internationalism,
in terms of how they related to each other and to a larger Punjabi identity.
The Diaspora impact.
Silently and slowly, another force relating to Punjabi identity has been emerging: the growth of the Punjabi Diaspora. Since the 1960s, the spatial and cultural relocation of Punjabis to the West has opened a new space for articulation of the common dimensions of Punjabi identity. Parallel to and opposed to this is the phenomenon of a section of the Diaspora becoming a major player in articulating sectarian religious divisions within that identity. The Diaspora’s contradictory voice has acquired special significance in the accelerating process of the globalization of the world economy and media. The process of globalization has opened hitherto unknown opportunities for exchange of commodities and ideas and, to a lesser extent, of
labour between , India and the rest of the world. In
turn, the temptations of economic gain from increased trade relations between
Indian Pakistan Punjab and Pakistani Punjab have ignited a series of
reinventions of common Punjabi heritage and identity. The logic of the
political economy of Punjabiyat thus seems to be holding out tantalizing
possibilities of power.
In recent years, the global Punjabi Diaspora’s imagination has suddenly been fired by the realization of its power as a possible catalyst in the making of a global Punjabi identity. The organizing of world Punjabi conferences has become the theatre of action for the project of global Punjabi identity. New technological possibilities of instant translations between different scripts of Punjabi language have removed many barriers of communication and national borders, and magazines are beginning to publish Punjabi literature simultaneously in different scripts. These attempted
reinventions of common
Punjabi identities unsettle many sensibilities of both Indian and Pakistani
nationalism, viewed nervously as potential critiques of the legitimacy of these
two nation states. Punjabi nationalists, on the other hand, view with glee the
benefits that might accrue to them from the potential for globalization to
weaken the nation state. Both the nervousness of the Indian and Pakistani
nationalists and the glee of the Punjabi nationalists might be overplayed,
however, because globalization is a contradictory and complex process with
Diasporas, like all other social entities under capitalism, are highly differentiated, and this holds true with regards to global Punjabis. Not only have cleavages of religion, caste, language and script not disappeared, but in some instance these have become stronger in the Diaspora than in the homeland. It is the new generations of Punjabis in the Diaspora who are experimenting with new modes of living, and are attempting not only to transcend the barriers of religion and caste but also to forge artistic and social ties with myriad other cultures.
Bhangra music, for instance, has grown to become the focal point of Punjabi and
these new hybrid identities, while also spawning new interest in learning the Punjabi language in diverse scripts.
The shared Punjabi identity has received a massive boost by the popular appeal of Punjabi language and culture in cinema, literature and music. Bollywood has become a site and carrier of celebration of the shared Punjabi culture, with some leading Bollywood producers and directors (such as Yash Chopra) having found something of a formula for success by including Punjabi cultural themes in a film’s narrative. Even the image of the Sardar has been transformed in this new enterprise of Punjabi celebration: no longer presented as a buffoon, the Singh is now a king, powerful, smart, sexy and glamorous. A Bollywood film is considered commercially successful if it runs well in
Punjab and in the Punjabi Diaspora,
while the large market of Pakistani Punjab has further added to the economic
attraction of celebrating shared Punjabi culture. Harbhajan Mann has shot into
stardom as a lead male actor of many new Punjabi films; while in Pakistan,
Punjabi films in the genre of Maula Jat, representing the brave and the rustic
Punjabi farmer, have been a roaring success. Sultan Rahi, the star of many
films in this genre, has become the most popular cinema hero in , and Punjabi cinema has in recent
years eclipsed the previously dominant Urdu cinema. Pakistan
All the while, the emotional appeal of a common and shared Punjabi identity has not died down. However, in the globalizing world of today, the reinvented global Punjabi identity has to compete with global Hinduism, global Sikhism, global Islam and global Christianity. In the contest between Punjabi identity and globalized religion, whether in
Pritam Singh is director of the Postgraduate Programmer in International Management and International Relations at
. Oxford Brookes University