The desertion of Punjabi


Shahid Siddiqui

Recently a school campus in Sahiwal, Punjab issued a directive to the students to refrain from using foul language inside and outside the school. The note further clarified that “Foul language includes taunts, abuses, Punjabi and the hate speech.” Ironically, it was in Sahiwal where the strongest Punjabi voice of resistance was raised against British imperialism by Ahmed Khan Kharal who laid down his life but did not bow down before the British Raj.

It is important to have an academic analysis of derogatory attitudes towards Punjabi. This article tries to unpack the concept and functions of a language, the association between a language and speakers, the myth of the innate superiority of a certain language, the relationship between the vitality of a language and the academic support from educational institutions, and the conscious desertion of Punjabi by the Punjabi urban elite.

A conservative view about language is that it is merely a tool of communication and is essentially a passive, neutral, and apolitical phenomenon. This conservative paradigm also assumes that certain languages are superior. This view, however, is challenged by Sapir and Whorf who concept of language altogether by suggesting that language is not a neutral and passive phenomenon but a highly political reality that is involved in the construction and perpetuation of social reality.

It is important to realise that there is a positive correlation between the socioeconomic status of speakers and the language they speak. If the socioeconomic status of a certain group of speakers is high, their language is also considered strong. This explains that no language is superior or inferior and it is the socioeconomic status of speakers that determines the status of a language. All languages are equally important and must be respected.

The Punjabi language had always been a victim of social, political and economic circumstances even before the partition of United India. In India, because of royal support, Persian became the language of power and was used in courts. Urdu was very close to Persian in terms of vocabulary and structure. It also had an affinity with the Punjabi language at a semantic level. Urdu was also mutually intelligible with Hindi. These multiple associations of Urdu made it popular in certain parts of India in general and in Muslim communities in particular.

The British got rid of Persian in Sindh by replacing it with Sindhi but surprisingly, in Punjab, Persian was not replaced by Punjabi. Instead, it was Urdu that took the place of Persian. One reason that was given by the British was that Urdu was a refined form of Punjabi. Thus Punjabi was viewed as a dialect or patois with a relatively lower social standard. It is important to understand that languages, in contemporary times, are not evaluated on their linguistic merits or demerits. Rather they are assessed primarily on social, political and economic grounds.

During the Pakistan movement languages were used as political identities. Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi were tagged with the three major population groups of India – Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs respectively. In this simplistic divide (which was largely political in nature), Punjabi was the biggest casualty. A large number of Muslims whose mother tongue was Punjabi deserted it on political, social, and economic grounds.

Another important aspect is that language is an important identity marker at the individual and national levels. After independence in 1947, the question of the national language was raised and Urdu, because of Muslims’ emotional association with it during the movement for Pakistan, was given the status of national language. The two overwhelmingly majority languages – Bengali, and Punjabi – could not get this status.

There was a strong demand from Bengalis to make Bengali a national language as well. There was, however, no voice heard in favour of Punjabi by the Punjabi population. One important reason for this could be that Punjab had a large share in the army and was close to the power centres. The Punjabi elite wanted to be a part of the mainstream powerful groups and in the process deserted their own language.

It is surprising that Sindhi is taught in schools as a subject. Similarly Pashto is taught as a subject in some schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But Punjabi has never been a part of school education in Pakistan. Why is that so? Is there something inherently wrong with Punjabi? It is largely because of the social attitude of people who have associated Punjabi with informal and insignificant linguistic functions in life. The language desertion phenomenon is visible in Punjabi urban families where parents speak with their children in Urdu which is considered to be a prestigious language.

It is feared that a large number of families from Punjab would lose Punjabi language in a couple of generations. There is a lot of research available about the significant role of one’s mother tongue in early education. If we want to reclaim Punjabi, the first step is to provide it educational backing by teaching it as a subject in schools in Punjab. It is important that in educational institutions students should be taught that no language is innately inferior or superior.

All languages are equal and must be respected. Also, official patronage is needed at least at the provincial level for the promotion of language. It is important to note that Article 251 of the constitution of Pakistan clearly ssays, about the potential measures of teaching and promotion of a provincial language, “Without prejudice to the status of the national language, a provincial assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of language in addition to the national language.”

It is now the responsibility of the provincial assemblies to pass laws for the teaching and promotion of provincial languages in the provinces.

The writer is an educationist.


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