A Historic Perspective

By: Dr. Manzur Ejaz


Probably, it was the first time in the history of Punjab assembly, that a member of provincial assembly from Rai Wind, Mr. Abdul Rashid Bhatti, opened his speech in Punjabi with the remarks that "I am not a literate person." His colleagues smiled knowing fully well that he has a masters degree in science, however, Mr. Bhatti went on to clarify that "He is not literate because he cannot read and write in his mother tongue, Punjabi." It stunned many in the assembly chambers because when the last time, an MPA from Faisal Abad, Mr. Fazal Hussain Rahi, tried to make a speech in Punjabi, he was forced out of the chambers by security guards, on the order of the speaker. This time, assembly speaker, Hanif Rammah, let Mr. Bhatti deliver a speech in Punjab assembly, in Punjabi. What an achievement!

Shameful for the mighty Punjabis who want to rule every corner of the country but cannot dare to speak their own mother tongue in their own assembly. A language which is described by Bhola Nath Tivari as: "Punjabi is the oldest among Indian Aryan languages. Still many Prakarati word are used in their original form. For example, sat, ath [instead of saat and aath of Hidi and Urdu] are Prakarti forms." Nevertheless, Mr. Bhatti led to a splendid and historical achievement because this has happened first time in the history of the center of power of Punjab: A power center that has seen, all kinds of rulers from central Asia, their own Jat Raja Ranjeet Singh and the Britishers who are said to be in love with this part of the sub continent, nevertheless, none of them gave Punjabi language its deserved position.

It is understandable that invaders and rulers from the North and Central Asia had no interest in promoting this language but one cannot easily explain why Ranjeet Singh could not make it the language of his court? Several popular explanation have been around for a long time, however, on closer examination, these explanations do not hold the water. We will examine these explanation in the following section and show how these explanation are false from a logical viewpoint.

The most popular explanation has been that it was a British conspiracy to subjugate Punjabi to Urdu. The proponent of this explanation hold that Britishers established institution for the development of Urdu, Hindi, Sindhi and several other Indian languages, however, they did not encourage Punjabi. The question were they more hostile towards Punjabis than Bengalis?

All indicators point out that Bengal was more oppressed area than Punjab. Furthermore, Bengali was a much more potent and modernized language, than Punjabi, to be used for anti British struggle. As a matter of fact, it was the most sophisticated Indian language of that period. Rabindar Nath Tagoor was writing poetry, fiction and other forms on a level that was more sophisticated than Urdu and Hindi of that period. Therefore it is not probable that the Britishers conspired to kill Punjabi and promote Bengali. It is said that once Tagoor commented that a comparison between him and Allama Mohammad Iqbal is irrelevant because he does not write in his own mother tongue. "His language is fully developed while mine is not", replied Dr. Mohammad Iqbal. "My language was not developed when I started writing, however I have developed it", responded Tagoor. It is irrelevant whether this dialogue actually took place or not, nevertheless, it profoundly juxtaposes linguistic evolution in both lands, thousands of miles away from each other.

Another popular explanation has been that it is the Urdas of U.P who suppressed Punjabi by a thought out strategy, It might be true in case of Sindh after 1947, where Sindhi was full grown language being used in every sphere of life and was coerced to take a back seat. However, it does not appear to be a plausible explanation about Punjab where the bulk of the elite was using Urdu much before any migrant from U.P entered Punjab. As a matter of fact, from Allama Iqbal onward, major writers of Urdu have been coming from the Punjab. Moreover, the Urdas were a very small minority in Punjab, who themselves had to learn to speak Punjabi to carry on their day to day business with vendors, shopkeepers and other working class persons who had not learnt Urdu like Faiz or Qasmi. Therefore, it was not Altaf Hussain of MQM who asked speaker of the Punjabi assembly to throw out MPA Mr. Fazal Hussain Rahi. It was an indigenous Punjabi, acting as the speaker of the house, who did it on his own volition.

One cannot even say that the political ideology of Muslim League overwhelmed the Punjabis. Ashiq Hussain Batalvi, K.K Aziz and many other have established an undeniable fact that Muslim League was almost non existent in Punjab till early forties. A few years before the creation of Pakistan, Unionist Party was at the helm of affairs in Punjab. This was a pure Punjabi party composed of ruling elites of three major religions, Muslim Hindu and Sikhs: Chauhdry Chotto Ram, a Hindu, was the general Secretary of the party while Sir Fazal Hussain, a Muslim was the president of the party. The composition of Unionist Party and its prolonged rule accepted by the Britishers, negates the notion that the Britishers created friction among different religions of the Punjab and the suppression of Punjabi language was a thought out strategy of the colonialist to keep the people from uniting. Britishers knew very well that the love of a mother tongue is not the only factor that can eliminate the sectarian hatred: Love of Bengali language, both by Muslims and Hindus, did not stop them from killing each other. Furthermore, they promoted Sindhi in Sindh despite a strong presence of Hindus besides Muslims. In the light of these facts, such a conspiracy theory assigned to the colonialist does not explain much. Nevertheless, it serves a therapeutic device to blame somebody else for one's own weakness.

One does not get very far trying to find the answer to this question through the history of written Punjabi literature which, at best, has been sporadic. One finds very little between eleventh century Shalook's of Baba Farid Shakar Ganj of Pakpattan recorded in Guru Granth, and fifteenth sixteenth century poetry of Guru Nanak and Shah Hussain. Eleventh Twelfth century was a period when a great transformation of idealogies was taking place; where the Turko Persian ruling classes were seeking their counter parts among Jats and Rajputs of India and, on another level, the migrant intellectuals from the same lands were trying to reach an ideological synthesis among the masses. Great mass of down trodden people of the lower castes were converting to Islam under the Chishtia Sufis who also were encouraging the creation of new forms of music, arts and were nourishing the local dialects to become full grown languages: It is not accidental that Farid of Pakpattan and Amir Khusro of Dehli were the pioneering writers in the languages of their areas.

The following four centuries saw no new upsurge of powerful schools like Chishtias which corresponds with absence of any noteworthy written literature in Punjabi. It was the fifteenth sixteenth century that a new wave of reformist/revolutionary ideas engulfed Punjab: Baba Nanak's revolutionary synthesis of Hindu Muslim ideologies reverberated the masses, particularly, the artisan classes while the rebellious, Shah Husain (a Malamtia sufi intellectual) is said to have been a source of inspiration for the famous nationalist peasant leader Dullah Bhatti. On also observes that Shah Hussian's sphistication of articulation of ideas and use of language raised Punjabi to new heights. The tradition of great epic writing also started during this period.

Demodar Das was the first great poet who created the epic of Heer Ranjha. Heer and Ranjha were mostly used as powerful poetic symbols to express cosmic philosophies. Demodar Das transformed these characters into living socialized charaters representing the real world contradictions of all kinds. Following two centuries, till the end of eighteenth century, Punjabi language saw its mid prime in form of several poets creating greatest Punjabi masterpieces. Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah are the most renowned and popular poets of that era, although several other poet less known among masses, were of the great calibre.

This mid prime of Punjabi literature reflects a point in history where the society itself has gone through a great evolution between fifteenth and eighteenth century. Such an evolution relects itself in Punjabi literature very clearly. For example, if we compare the epic of Heer Ranjha written by Demodar Das in the sixteenth century and, the same epic written by by Waris Shah in the eighteenth century, (which has remained best seller since than in Punjab) the evolutionary process becomes very vived. Demodar Das's Punjab is mostly tribal where the institutions of property, mullaism, qaza and feudal hierarchy have still not taken roots. On the other hand, these institutions are well developed in Waris Shah's society. For Demodar Das, Heer and Ranjha are struggling as exceptional individuals striving for justice for themselves and other persecuted semi slave artisans like the boatman, Luddan. For Waris Shah, Heer and Ranjha are representatives of a struggle against established institutions of property, mullaism, jog, family, and justice system.

To elaborate this point let us examine a few examples from Demodar Das and Waris Shah.
(1) Demodar Das's Ranjha leaves Takhat Hazara, his home town, due to a rivalries of his brothers but Waris Shah's Ranjha is forced out of his home town because his brothers have deprived him of his due share in the property by bribing the qazi (magistrate) and the elders of the village. Ranjha's brothers in Demodar Das are after his life, while the brothers in waris Shah's epic are after his property. As a matter of fact, Ranjha's brothers, in Waris Shah, hypocritically try to stop him from leaving his home, while Demodar Das's Ranjha runs away because his brothers have hatched a conspiracy to kill him. In other word, property institution has become the source of fundamental contracitions in eighteen century which was not that much intense in sixteenth century.
(2) For Demodar Das's story, mullah is an irrelevant character, probably, because the institution of mullaism is still not established to play any meaningful rule in the society. For Waris Shah, mullahism is a full grown institution of imposition of formalistic religion and has to be exposed. Therefore, Waris Shah composes most provocative verses against mullah.
(3) In Demodar Das the boatman, Luddan, is a semi slave artisan who rebels against his master and seeks refuge by Heer. The same Luddan is an independent commercial individuals who transports trading commodities across the river. Demodar Das's Luddan works for the pleasure of his tribal masters while Waris Shah's Luddan is obsessed with monetary gains to the extent that he says:
(4) Demodar Das ends his story by a mystical unity of Heer and Ranjha, while Waris Shah makes them to meet the tragic end. For Waris Shah, it is clear that in the presence of oppressive institutions, man and woman cannot unite by their own will.

Similar comparison can be made between Shah Husain's and Bulleh Shah's poetry. For Shah Hussain the property classes are composed of lords of land while Bulleh Shah's portrayal is more of a society where commercialism has been very common. Furthermore, for Shah Husain mullah is an ill advised person, who should be ignoreed where for Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah mullah is a tyrannical character which is perilous for the society. For example, Shah Husain describes mullah who should not be paid any attention.

These comparison show a marked transition in Punjabi society between sixteenth and eighteenth century. More importantly, it shows that not only the conceptional framework of the Punjabi elite has qualitatively progressed, the language necessary for such advanced system of ideas had also taken a qualitative leap. Students of Punjabi literature know how, both Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah reconstruct the language in a very unique way to accommodate the new ideas. It appears from the linguistic constructions of both poets that the next step in articulation of evolving ideas can be only accommodated in prose. A careful reading of these poets leaves no doubt that Punjabi language was not very far away from the next stage in the development of a languagei.e. prose. However, the history cannot be written, with ifs and buts and in flowing two centuries the evolution of Punjabi language retrogressed.

The period between eighteenth and twentieth century is extremely crucial because many languages of the sub continent matured during this time. Punjab remained unsettled during this period. Not only, it became a target of annual invasions from the north, Sikh guerilla movement against Moghals transformed it into several municipalities (Misals), till Raja Ranjeet Singh consolidated his empire in Punjab and expanded its borders to Sukkar on one side and Peshawar on the other side. To the surprise of many Muslim historians of present times, Ranjeet Singh was very secular and enlightened ruler who had given key posts to Muslim commanders and incidently, the first one to abolish death penalty. Ranjeet Singh ruled affectively through consensus building between different religions, however he did not adopt Punjabi as his court language. Partly, it may been due to the absence administrators who could conduct the state business in Punjabi rather than in Persian which had been the language of urban elites for many centuries. Partly, it might have been a part of his confidence building measures among the Muslims for his consensus based politics. Furthermore, it should not be ignored that Sikhism was a religion and partially a nationalist movement of Punjab, but half of its Gurus were non Punjabis. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Sikhs produced more scholars in Persian than in Punjabi.

The last twenty years of Sikh Raj, (known as Sikha Shahi), after Ranjeet Singh's death, played havoc with Punjab. Anarchy ravaged the land where Sikh generals fought each other every day, in addition to unchecked religious bigotry by armed Sikh army bands who were not payed their salaries regularly, and were set loose to do whatever they please. The brutalities became indiscriminate to the point that Ranjeet Singh's own family was not spared which prompted his wife, Rani Jindan, to invite the Britishers to take over. Consensus of Punjabi society was shattered to the point that British were welcomed by the majority. It is probable that non Sikhs might have been more enthusiastic in receiving the alien rulers, however, the history of following years show that even the Sikhs were not very disturbed and were soon incorporated in British empire as leading land lords and soldiers.

It is the irony of history while the soldiers of Punjab were crushing the upsurge in Dehli, the educated and enlightened elite of Punjab was getting ready to accept the linguistic hegemony of UP. Not only the Muslim elite preferred Urdu, at the expense of their own mother tongue Punjabi, Hindus and Sikhs also fell in line. Of course, the greatest Urdu poet of that period was Allama Iqbal, a Kasmiri Punjabi, but Raj Narian and Chakbasat were also non Muslim Urdu poets from Punjab during the same period. In the following years, if Saadat Hassan Muntoo and Ahmad Nadeem Qasim were muslims, non Muslim writers, like Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chandar, Ram Laal and several others far outnumbered them. One can easily conclude that the domination of Urdu in Punjab was not a religiou (Muslim) Phenomenon. It was function of other socicio political factors some of which is given below.
(1) Last twenty years of Sikh Raj had done an irreparable damage to the Punjabi nationalism. One feels rebervations of Punjabi nationalism in eighteenth century in Sikh wars and nationalistic peasant revolts against the Moghals and in an epic like (Shah Mohammad De War)written against the other invaders from the north. Probably, this was the backdrop that prompted Waris Shah, to depict beauty of Heers eyes in the following verses:
Kajal nanan de dhar wich phab reha, charia Hind tay katak Punjab da Jee Kajla is reflecting in the sword edge eyes, like the Punjab's army has mounted an attack on Hind (UP).
However, the circumstances of Punjabi nationalism had dissipated under the heavy weight of anarchy and brutality when the Britishers entered the scene. Ruling classes, comprised of Muslim feudals and urban merchants ruled Punjab collaborating fully well with the Britishers. Alienated, urban middle class and their educated elite looked toward UP for the leadership (or, in case of Muslims looked further towards Khalafit i Usmania for their salvage). On linguistic level, they adopted Urdu without much hesitation. However, the domination of Urdu was not limited to the use of language only, the culture of UP became the model of gentrification for the Punjabis for many years to come. It is said that the first badges of students in Aligharh were entirly filled with Muslim feudals from Punjab while the Urdu speaking of UP were still not very enthusiastic. It shows that, primarily, the ruling class of Punjab accepted UP culture as a symbol of the gentrification.
(2) Persian was the language of the courts and elites in UP, Punjab, Sindh and many other states. However, in Punjab, Persian elite was so overwhelming that, even Raja Ranjeet Singh, a typical jat of Punjab, had to depend upon them for running of his day to day affairs of the state. As a matter of fact, Lahore was considered to be an extention of the Dehli Darbar, for all practical purposes. Consequently, the Persian elite was much more entrenchened in Lahore than those areas that were far away from Dehli. Therefore, when the transition from Persian to Urdu took place in UP, Punjab followed.
It is still an unanswered question why the Britishers promoted Sindhi but not Punjabi. British patronage of the languages has proven to be crucial in the sense that most of the modern languages of India developed after comming in contact with the Britishers and the propensity of the Britishers to implement those languages on state level. I do not know whether a causal relationship exists between the British occupation of Bengal earlier than other areas and earlier development of its language, or it is a just corelation or an accident of history. However, the areas that came under their control earlier developed their languages faster. One can hypothesize that the rise of nationalism was much stronger in the said areas and it played a significant role in the development of language. Furthermore, British patronage might have been a ploy to pacify nationalistic aspirations in those areas.
(3) Secular themes developed earlier in Urdu poetry. The concepts of ishaq, mahboob, sharab etc were more individualistic and personalized than symbolic expressions of cosmic reality expressed in Sufi poetry. Urdu poetry could be sung on the kotha also while the Sufi and folk poetry was still shrouded in metaphysical ethos. Again, Punjabi poetry had taken a great leap towards secular concepts in eighteenth century, however, it retrogressed in the ensuing periods. Urdu recieved a further boost when the Britishers founded the Fort William College for the promotion of Urdu and Hindi. Early Urdu prose was written on demand in this college. Latter, Progressive writers' movement was also born in UP and most of its leaders were Urdu writers. Therefore, it is understandable that the enlightened middle class elite of Punjab, looking for individualistic, secular and non mystic expressions, readily adopted Urdu as their medium of expression.
Primarily, they were coming out of Persian tradition and they had no model in Punjabi to follow. Nationalist movement was not deep enough to force this tiny middle class to improvise their own mother tongue. (
4) Expansion of commerce and industry also create classes and social groups that are conducive for the development of nationalism and language. Industrial proliferation accelerate the sophistication of culture and language. It can be argued that it is not accidental that languages in the coastal states like Sindh, Gujrat, Bengal developed more rapidly: The possibility of trade is much better in those areas than in land locked Punjab. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Bengal had a better industrial network even before the Britishers came and similarly the Bengali language was ahead of language of UP and Punjab. As a matter of fact, when Fort William College was giving assignments to write folk stories (Dastan), Bengal was ready to read Rabindar Nath Tagoor's developed form of novel.
Punjab had surges of industrial seedings, that we observe in eighteenth century literature. However, the political instability and systematic intervention of the ruling elites, commerce and industry could not progress. Therefore, bulk of the population lived in self contained village settlements, while the cities were few and inhabited by the administrative bureaucracy, court aristocracy and a small merchant class which again depended on the feudals patronage. Forward looking middle class, that comes as a product or by product of commercial activity, was absent in Punjab.
(5) A certain part of Punjab had a long tradition of supplying mercenaries to different invaders and rulers. These mercenaries came from all religions and creeds. Now, it is a known fact that non Muslim mercenaries from Punjab were also part of the Mahmood Ghaznvi's army that looted and destroyed Somnat: The purpose was to collect gold that had piled up in the mandar. Ranjeet Sinhgh's military was also expanded by these mercenaries. But when going got tough in Punjab after Ranjeet Singh's death, Britishers took over this military and used them around the world, (including shooting at Khana Kaaba). This section of the society also contributed towards negation of nationalism. Most of the history of Pakistan is also a proof of this fact.