Why Pakistani Punjabis disowned mother tongue

Punjabis constitute 48-55% of Pakistan’s population depending on ...Teaching of Punjabi in schools has been prohibited. All official business of the state is conducted either in English or in Urdu. IHTIAQ AHMED looks at the issue

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By Ishtiaq Ahmed | OPINION |

The biggest linguistic nationality of Pakistan (since December 1971) is the Punjabis. Yet, the national language of Pakistan is Urdu, which is the mother tongue of merely 7-8 percent of the total Pakistani population, now in the neighbourhood of 213 million. The Punjabis constitute 48-55 per cent of Pakistan’s population depending on whether Saraiki, spoken in southern Punjab and northern Sindh, is treated as a dialect of Punjabi or a separate language.

The Punjabis dominate state and society at all levels – political, civil bureaucracy and the ubiquitous Pakistan military as well as the economic and financial sectors. Yet official policy from the very inception of Pakistan has been to employ Urdu as the medium of instruction in schools. Teaching of Punjabi in schools has been prohibited. All official business of the state is conducted either in English or in Urdu.

In the 1980s, some Punjabi intellectuals tried to bring out a daily newspaper in Punjabi, Sajjan. It was published for a while but went out of print because neither the government nor the private sector helped it through advertisements and public notices. Until the early 1990s, members of the Punjab Assembly were forbidden to address the House in Punjabi. This ban was temporarily removed by the writer Hanif Ramay who at that time was the speaker of the Punjab Assembly. However, the ban was revived afterwards.

Some valiant champions of Punjabi continue to propagate the cause of the Punjabi language, but this has been confined to small intellectual circles. They have been demanding that Punjabi be taught in school at the primary level, but no government has accepted the idea. The Punjabi language therefore is relegated to informal day-to-day communication. Why have Pakistani Punjabis disowned their mother tongue?

We need to find clues in the peculiar cultural and political evolution of Punjab. The Punjabi language belongs like most others of northern India to the Indo-European family of languages. It began to be used in literary communications and writings from at least the thirteenth century. Legendary Sufi Master Baba Farid Uddin Shakarganj is noted to have written in Punjabi using the Persian script. That tradition continued in the writings of later Sufis such as Shah Hussain, Bahu Shah, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, and into the nineteenth century through Mian Muhammad Bakhsh and Khawaja Ghulam Farid. They used the native vernacular to connect with people.

On the other hand, with the founding of Sikhism in the Punjab by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, Punjabi became the language of a brotherhood which consolidated as a religious community under the spiritual successors of Guru Nanak. Sikhism adopted a distinct script, Gurmukhi, devised by Guru Angad, the first Guru who succeeded Guru Nanak. It should be mentioned that the Devanagari script continued to be used in the Punjab by Hindus all along and Hindu religious ceremonies were conducted in Sanskrit.

However, and this is most noteworthy, the state officialdom in Punjab hailed from the Turco-Afghan nobility who conducted their affairs in Persian and owed loyalty either to the ruler in Delhi or Kabul. In northern India, the common lingua franca was Hindustani, which in more literary forms was expressed as Hindi written in the Devanagari script or Urdu written in the Persian script. Towards the end of Mughal rule Urdu began to be cultivated by the literati while Persian continued to the state language.

Read the full story, ‘Why Have Pakistani Punjabis Disowned Their Mother Tongue’, (Nayadaur.Tv, 22 Feb 2020), here.

Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Swedish political scientist and author of Pakistani descent, is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University and an Honorary Senior Fellow at Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached on billumian@gmail.com

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(Asia Samachar, 20 Feb 2020)

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