How state employees insist that Urdu is mother language of Punjabis and how well-to-do Punjabis themselves hate their language is devastatingly illustrated by a text message received from a dear friend who retired as a federal secretary.
He is a brilliant fiction writer, analyst, academic and above all an upright and thinking individual, a dying breed in Punjab. A part of message is worth quoting: “—had to argue with him [member of census team] on mother tongue. He ticked; you are Urdu [speaking]. On my asking he said I was the first person insisting on Punjabi-- I corrected mine and wife’s column but failed when it came to sons who insisted on Urdu — I had to — explain to him [the] implications [of such an exercise] at later stage. His reply was [that] during the past four weeks I was the first inhabitant of Defence [who] insisted on mother tongue.The whole Defence Housing Authority [is] Urdu speaking except servants”. This small episode, insignificant for middle and upper class Punjabis, is a telling comment because it encapsulates the essential nature of the cultural crisis we have been living with since 1849 when the avaricious East India Company invaded and occupied sovereign Punjab with their Purbia [men from the East i.e. UP wallahs, Gorkhas etc] troops. In the aftermath of annexation, colonial masters opened schools in which Urdu was imposed, partly due to the influence of their Urdu speaking clerical staff. Driving force though was political. How Urdu was looked upon, let us hear it from J. Wilson, the deputy commissioner of district Shahpur [now part of Sargodha]: “—it [system of primary education] fails to attract more than a small proportion of the boys we wish to educate, and especially of those belonging to the agricultural classes, in which I include not only landowners and tenants, but also artisans and village menials---it (instruction) is conducted for the most part in a language foreign to the people. To the ordinary Punjabi village boy Urdu is almost as foreign as French would be to an English rustic. The Punjabi boy is not taught to read the language he speaks, but a language many of the words in which he does not understand until they are translated for him into his own Punjabi.”
A sea change in lingo-cultural landscape just in about 150 years! Now what we see is quite opposite of what Wilson witnessed: Punjabi as an alien language, a fallout of a social process triggered by colonial and post-colonial state. Punjabi boys [girls more so] treat the language of their forefathers as a language that seems to them not only a linguistic oddity from a cultural dead zone but also a reflection of low status of its speakers. Fault is not theirs. It lies somewhere else, thinly hidden in the entrails of colonial perception of Punjabi identity which has been internalised by dominant indigenous classes. The conundrum has been exacerbated by ideological fallacies the state, dominated by Punjabis and Urdu speaking Muhajirs from Uttar Pradesh [India], propagated in the name of monolithic national unity which flies in the face of historical reality of diverse entities that constitute the federation of Pakistan.The fraught issue of language is usually presented by the movers and shakers as if Urdu is a natural language of Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the existence of Balochi, Brahvi, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto and a host of other dialects is some sort of aberration. The malaise especially affects Punjabi middle and upper crusts which have been brain-washed to the extent that they have internalised the notion of their identity manufactured by colonial apparatus for its ulterior motives that made the acceptance of exploitation of the people of Punjab unquestionable. Even in the mid-19th century when teaching of Urdu was made compulsory in schools, the assumption that people needed it was openly questioned by enlightened scholars and educationists including the great linguist Dr.Leitner, Principal of Government College, Lahore, who wrote: “they [British colonialists] found it more convenient to carry on official business in English and Urdu with their existing skills. They shared the prejudice of Hindustanis”. Colonial bias coupled with the “prejudice of Hindustanis” proved a lethal combination largely responsible for the cultural destruction of Punjab resulting in the loss of its soul. Punjab became even more soulless when in the independence movement in twentieth century, Punjabi Hindus and Punjabi Muslims, driven by their communal motives, lied about their language without an iota of shame in the census conducted by colonial administration. It was in fact the lie of the century as the former declared Hindi their mother language and the latter ticked Urdu as their mother tongue knowing fully well that it was a blatantly false statement. It was the Sikh community that proudly owned Punjabi.
One has a strong sense of déjà vu. It’s census again. This time it’s state that insists that Punjabis should declare Urdu as their mother language. Upper classes of Punjab, alienated and rootless, are bending over backward to oblige. They in their blissful ignorance continue to commit cultural vandalism for which they will be made to pay at some point in not a distant future. Language is the most vital constituent of people’s identity. If you take away from the people their language, they lose their sense of identity. Losing identity means loss of the past and what it produced. There is no point in appealing to the state and its minions not to be a party to the elimination of the language of the majority of Pakistanis because instead of celebrating the rich linguistic diversity of the country, they take it as a threat to their ill-conceived notion of mono-lingual national unity. But such a patently stupid practice will have serious implications for Punjab as well as for other federating units.
Some “Bhai” from Karachi can now claim that high-end areas of Punjab that declared Urdu as their mother language are his constituency. As to the Punjabi, one is sure that as long as there are “servants” in the posh residential localities, Punjabi will not perish. As long as the rich cannot dispense with the poor -- which is not going to happen in foreseeable future -- the poor will continue to keep their language alive. The poor are the only hope of the Punjab’s language and culture. It will be “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for the rich” Punjabis to enter the kingdom of culture if they continue to disown what they may legitimately own; the rich language of their forefathers who laid the foundation of sub continental civilisation.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2017 — firstname.lastname@example.org