The Dawn: Feb 19, 2016

Punjab Notes: Language: colonialism, power and class part-II

Mushtaq Soofi 

J. Wilson pointing to ‘the history of education in England’ writes: ‘—it was not until the native English tongue was adopted as the means of instruction that education became general among the masses of the people’. He addressed another objection against the use of the Punjabi. ‘It may be objected that there is no one Punjabi language, but several dialects. This is true, but it was also true of all written languages before the particular dialect ultimately adopted became specially favoured by the literate. Modern Standard English was originally only one of many dialects; so were modern French and modern German---‘. He wrote this in 1894 but the decision to use Urdu and English was taken and imposed much before that without proper debate.

Robert Cust had advocated the case of the Punjabi and suggested that it be used as written language in Gurmukhi script. He argued that the Punjabi was the vernacular language that deserved to be promoted in the Punjab. Joining the debate, director of public instruction, Punjab, wrote to the secretary of government, Punjab in 1862: ‘—I have not the advantage of knowing the grounds, on which Mr Cust bases his advocacy of Punjabee as the Court Vernacular in this Province, beyond what I can gather of them, from the replies of other offices on the question. –There can be no advantage in the substitution of Punjabee for Urdoo—Punjabi is merely a dialect of Urdoo and varies considerably in different parts of the Province. As a written language it makes its appearance in the Goormookhee Character, a bastard form of Nagree, almost as bad as the Kuyasthe of the N.W. Provinces which is fast dying out. It has no literature of its own’. Well, you can imagine how knowledgeable and well-instructed was this director of public instruction who declared Punjabi a mere dialect of ‘Urdoo’ not knowing that Punjabi was much older than Urdu and had written literature of its own spread over at least eight hundred years at the time he was expressing his lofty opinion. And the script it used was Arabic based. Guru Arjun and his companions evolved Gurmukhi letters for sacred literature in sixteenth century. What was it if not ignorance and prejudice? It was surely an outlandish example of colonial ignorance and ‘Hindustani prejudice’ which one of the great linguists and educations, Dr Leitner, Principal Government College Lahore, had exposed when he wrote in 1882: ‘they (British) found it more convenient to carry on official business in English and Urdu with their existing skills. They shared the prejudice of Hindustanis’. This ‘prejudice of Hindustanis’ has been internalised by the Punjabi upper classes and now it see it morphed into ‘Punjabi prejudice’ against the Punjabi’, their own language, that has literary history longer than that of English. Geoffery Chaucer, the father of English literature, was born in 1343 and died in 1400 while Baba Farid, the great pioneer of Punjabi literary tradition, was born in 1173 and breathed his last in 1265. Ginan, the Ismaili religious hymns were composed in the local language in 10th and 11th centuries.

Those who claim that there was no political motive behind the rejection of Punjabi and imposition of Urdu would be well-advised to glance through the letter the Commissioner of Delhi wrote to the Punjab Government in 1862. ‘Any measure which would revive Goormukhee, which is the written Punjabi tongue, would be a political error’. He was not wrong. It would certainly have been a political error to encourage the use or ‘revival’ of Punjabi because it would have subliminally evoked the Punjabi identity and history which could presage serious problems for the colonialists who made every effort to denigrate what was indigenous . The recent history was dreadful as it was nothing less than a chronicle of bloody wars waged by the colonialists against the valiant army of sovereign kingdom of the Punjab which put up extremely fierce resistance. The commissioner of Delhi did not know that Punjabi language in 19th century employed two scripts, the Arabic based one (now called Shahmukhi) and Gurmukhi. So much for the knowledge of the great commissioner!

The issue of the Punjabi language needs to be understood and analysed in the context of colonialism in the subcontinent. Though before the advent of colonialism Punjabi was not the court language but it was employed for academic, artistic and literary expressions. It carried no socio-cultural stigma born of class distinctions. On the contrary it had literary prestige. That’s why the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar also composed poetry in Punjabi though it was not his mother language. Punjabi was the language used proudly by clergy, Sufi-saints and secular literati. The colonial administration in the Punjab reversed the language policy of encouraging and using vernacular of the region adopted by the East India Company elsewhere in India. So all the possible factors such as administrative convenience, ‘Hindustani prejudice’, fear of nationalist feelings associated with the use of language and creating a new type of educated person loyal to the white master must be taken into account to have a holistic picture of complex linguistic situation.


What above all had the greatest impact was the gradual change in the mode of production introduced by the colonial machine. Intrusion of capitalist mode on the one hand changed the existing and on the other created what was entirely new. Railways, telephone, telegraph, electricity, Anglo-Saxon judicial system, canal network, and creation of a new landed class with perpetual rights over lands irreversibly changed and transformed the traditional landscape of the Punjab creating a huge job market. To support such a massive transformation and meet the requirements of job market, a new European system of education was introduced to equip the ‘natives’ so that they could help run the colonial apparatus that enslaved them but was touted as an instrument that empower them with the lure of different types of jobs that created a semblance of power.

Punjabi was kept out of new schools where two foreign languages, English and Urdu, were imposed. The colonial administration offered a clear choice to the Punjabis. If they wanted jobs, they had to get educated, rather instructed in the new schools. And the instruction was imparted in Urdu and English. Punjabi did not enable them to make a living. How a language can be owned and used if its learning offers one no job or dis-empower them. —

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