Rabindranath Tagore was once asked why he got the Nobel Prize for literature and Allama Iqbal did not. Tagore replied “Probably because I write in my mother tongue and Iqbal doesn’t.”
With this answer Tagore touched on two important points. First, that people can best express themselves through the language they grow up speaking. And second, that the Muslim Punjabi intelligentsia has stopped using its native language as a medium of expression.
Language is probably the most important component of social identity for humans. Particularly in the Subcontinent, regional languages carry an enormous influence on the political identities of a people. As a rule, provinces and regions tend to be protective of their languages and often define their collective identities through them.
Pakistani Punjab, however, presents a curious anomaly as the Punjabi language is systematically suppressed in favour of Urdu. Punjabi is discouraged in education, politics, and government affairs, while all efforts are made to use the most refined Urdu in these domains. Educated Punjabis prefer not to use Punjabi with their children and the language is now reserved only for lewd songs, humour, and anger.
We might have to go back a few centuries to understand this unfortunate treatment toward Punjabi. After gaining control over his empire, the Mughal king Akbar engaged in a series of wars with the rulers of Gawalior,
These guerrilla wars later continued under successive Sikh gurus and leaders until Ranjit Singh assumed power over
The foreign rulers of
Other non-Punjabi sub-nationalities in
The unfair treatment toward the Punjabi language is bothersome at many levels. First, the state of Pakistan is giving a message to the Punjabi masses that their language and culture is not important enough to be taught in schools – that they should learn a non-native language to prosper socially and economically. I wonder how we can expect the masses to own the state narrative and feel integrated within the larger society when the state is not prepared to communicate with them in their own language.
Second, instead of unifying the federating units, the imposition of Urdu is contributing to the suspicions smaller provinces hold against
This takes us to the third problem of weakening identity. Since languages are an important source of social identity, subsequent generations of Punjabis unaware of their language will dilute cultural and regional ties. There is a high chance that young people, having lost touch with the pluralistic ideas enshrined in Punjabi language and culture, will end up adopting reactionary ultra-nationalistic or religious extremist identities in their search of an alternate identity. Besides, Punjabi is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world with a history, literature, poetry, songs, and diversity that should make anyone proud.
Fortunately enough, there is a growing realisation among the Punjabi intelligentsia on this issue. Punjabi intellectuals like Dr Manzoor Ejaz and Afzal Sahir are promoting the Punjabi cause through YouTube videos and radio shows. Although still a long way from mainstream media attention, this reflects a growing confidence among Punjabis for their regional identity. Hopefully one day
The writer is a lecturer of Public Policy at the