A People without a Language

Eric Cyprian

The News, 7-31-91

It is a unique phenomenon that the educated Punjabi is ashamed of his own mother tongue and thinks that it is the language of the uncultured. He therefore, takes pride in the fact that he is illiterate in his mother tongue, though he may speak it fluently and use it for special purposes. Urban educated Punjabis use their mother tongue for informal conversation, especially in the exchange of obscenities with intimate friends in stag parties or in all male company. They are almost totally ignorant of the riches in their mother tongue and many of them have heard of some of the classics in Punjabis but have the haziest idea of the content of well-known poems. They may be familiar with some Punjabi songs and a few folk songs made popular by films and TV and radio artists. Till recently Punjabi language and literature were not taught at any stage in the Punjab. About two decades ago with great difficulty the Punjab University was persuaded to start post graduate studies in Punjabi language and literature, and there is a steady stream of students who have completed their MA studies in Punjabi and have gone out to teach Punjabi to Intermediate and BA students in some colleges. Teachers in schools and colleges do not encourage students to take up the formal study of Punjabi. In rural areas teachers and principals of some colleges exert their utmost influence on students desirous of taking up the formal study of Punjabi and usually succeed in dissuading them from taking up Punjabi as one of their elective subjects. The few lecturers appointed in colleges in the Punjab are treated as untouchables by their colleagues and made to feel inferior to lecturers in other subjects.

One reason for the alienation of the Punjabi educated people from their mother tongue is the flexibility of the upper classes to collaborate with the enemy. When the British came the opportunists flocked to bend their knees to the new rulers and made enormous gains thereby. Later when Pakistan was established it was the Punjabi elite who in alliance with the Urdu speaking that controlled the machinery of the state and also manipulated the levers of financial and economic power. They thus formed the ruling class, but for obvious reasons did not wish to be recognized for what they were. They therefore, disowned the Punjabi language and identified the ideology of Pakistan with Urdu, Islam, and the two-nation theory. Now that ethnic grouping has become a reality which cannot be swept under the carpet, and when the Pathans, Baloch, Sindhi and Urdu speaking mahajirs have asserted their identities and claimed their share in the governance of the country, the Punjabis per force will also have to recognize themselves for what they are and be content with their own part of Pakistan. This recognition has just started and in a few years time Punjabis will be as proud of their culture and language as Sindhis, Pathans and Baloch are of their language and culture.

To trace the decline of the Punjabi language and literature in our Punjab we have to delve deep into our history to find the causes for this decline. It is surprising that during the Sikh rule in the Punjab the court language remained Persian and all legal and government documents, firmans, etc were in the language used by the Moguls in their state business. But Punjabi flourished both among the Sikhs and the Muslims because of the fact that for the Sikhs their sacred books were in Punjabi language written in the Gurmukhi script while for the Muslims there was a body of mystic poetry by the great Sufi saints of Punjab which was the means for the illiterate masses to get acquainted with their religion.

For the Sikhs the Granth Sahib was the sacred book and hence literacy in Punjabi was a religious duty. In the case of the Muslims since the bulk of the Sufi mystic poetry was committed to memory and recited by a large number of bards, poets, and entertainers, literacy was not all that necessary. Apart from the poetry there was the large body of religious oratory of the zakirs of Multan who displayed their art during the Muharram when they moved millions to tears with their masterly rhetorical renderings of the tragic epic of the Karbala. For these reasons literacy in Punjabi was not widespread among Muslims.

Throughout history Punjab has been on the route followed by invading armies from the times of Alexander the Great, and even earlier. It therefore became part of Punjabi culture to resist these invaders even if they were Muslims. There exists a vast body of resistance poetry in the shape of dholas and vars, (forms of narrative poetry) which chronicle the brave deeds of the people of the Punjab when they opposed the invaders and waged their own form of guerilla warfare against the alien armies. These poems were part of the rich folk literature in Punjabi which has fortunately been recorded on tapes and preserved by the National Institute of Folk Heritage. The field workers and research workers of the Institute have done their job, but as yet scholars and folklorists have not as yet made use of these treasures to piece together the history of the people of Punjab.

The foreigners were quick to recognize the political power of the Punjabi language and once they gained control over the province they determined to deprive the people of the Punjab of this weapon. The British administrators brought with them a whole team of lower level administrators from those provinces where their rule had been consolidated and from where the British had recruited and trained a large number of clerks, lower level police officers, patwaris etc. Most of these were Urdu speaking men from the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. It will be recalled that the British had earlier in Calcutta established Fort William College, an institution for the development of Urdu as the language of the part of the administrators that had public dealings, in thanas, in revenue matters and in the army. The government functionaries that came from outside the Punjab to assist the British rule over the newly conquered province were skilled in Urdu and hence it was adopted as the language of administration at the public dealing level and in education. In this way Urdu was established in the Punjab and continues to dominate the cities. It is said that Urdu is the language of sophisticated people while Punjabi is crude. It is also alleged that Urdu is the refined form of Punjabi which is the crude form of Urdu. The refinements of Urdu and the crudeness of Punjabi are myths. The fact is that the difference between the two languages is one that arises from the differences between the people who speak them. The Urdu speaking are indeed sophisticated to the point of being decadent, while Punjabi is crude to the point of being straightforward and blunt and therefore honest and direct. Urdu is a courtly language which is meticulous in making distinctions of status whereas Punjabi is democratic and treats a man as a man. To a Punjabi, Urdu appears to be cliche ridden, emasculated and an effete language whereas Punjabi is a manly, honest plain practical speech which can be as ornate, colorful, as sweet and as mellifluous as a situation may require. It can be forceful and emphatic and when necessary it can be as melodious as the cooing of a dove.

There is now a growing consciousness in the cities among educated people that Punjabi language should be developed and used at all levels in our public life as well as in our intellectual life. There was therefore a sharp reaction to the announcement of the Punjab chief minister that in future Urdu would be the official language in government offices. There were protests against this decision in many cities in the Punjab and the champions of Punjabis demanded that Punjabi be the official language in the Punjab and that it should immediately be made the medium of instruction in primary education which will make Punjabis at least literate in their mother tongue. This is important because once the people of the Punjab become literate in their mother tongue they will discover the vast treasure of classical Punjabi poetry, the ocean of folk poetry which is at present an altogether undiscovered country to them. Once they begin to read Waris Shah's Heer Ranjha, of Mian Mohammed Buksh's Saiful Maluk, the poetry of Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahoo, Ghulam Farid to name only a few of the works which at present are closed books to most educated Punjabis. The second advantage of this would be to abolish the artificial barrier that now exists between the common people of the Punjab and the educated elite. And thirdly we all would be able to read and understand contemporary Punjabi literature, both prose and poetry. It might then be possible to start a newspaper and publish books in Punjabi for educational purposes as well as for the general reader. Many of our mass literacy programs fail because we teach the illiterate adult not his mother tongue but a foreign language. If a mass adult literacy program were to make usr of Punjabi it would be an instant success, because the learner would not have the double task of learning a script well as learning a new language. .