Academy of the Punjab in North America (APNA)

Report of 7th Annual Punjabi Conference

Punjab: Prospects For Future

Harvard University,

13 Appian Way, Cambridge,  MA 02139

Report by:  Dr. Jaspal Singh

        Academy of the Punjab in North America held its 7th annual conference at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA on April 20, 2002. APNA members, supporters and many delegates from New Jersey, Washington D.C., Virginia, Montreal, Winnipeg, Boston, New York and other places participated in the day long deliberations of APNA. Punjab: Prospects For the Future was the theme of this conference.

rajvidersingh.jpg (2633 bytes)At 10:30 AM, Rajwinder Singh, a doctoral candidate at Boston University in the department of Photonics, welcomed all the participants on behalf of the Boston chapter of APNA. He described some of the activities of the Boston chapter, including seminars on Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Shah Hussain as well as Punjabi classes. He also pointed out the importance of the role of APNA and its activities to bring together all Punjabis irrespective or their religion, political views and other differences. He then called upon Safir Rammah, from Washington D.C. to conduct the program for the day. After thanking the Boston APNA chapter for hosting the 7th annual conference, Rammah briefly outlined the day’s program and informed everyone about the APNA’s goals and mission and made a brief presentation on APNA’s web page. He then introduced Javed Boota who chaired the first session. This session began with introductions of all the participants. Its focus was on the role and work of APNA and its prospects for the future. The predominant feeling of all those present was that APNA should do more in the future to support and involve youth in its activities.

shahidahmadkhan.jpg (2274 bytes)At 12:00PM, Shahid Ahmed Khan, local community leader, introduced the next session on Future of Punjabi Society. Shahid said that Punjabi society had gone through tremendous changes in last fifty years both in West Punjab as well as in East Punjab. With this introduction he called upon Dr. Manzur Ejaz, well known journalist and Punjabi scholar, to address this topic.

manzur.jpg (2523 bytes)Manzur Ejaz very graphically and poetically described the changes that had taken place in his village in the last fifty years or so. He pointed out that while he was a child as the dusk settled in the village children would gather and listen to stories told by some grand uncle or grand father. This activity has now been replaced by television. Similarly a great change has taken place in the means of production. Agriculture has become mechanized and is fast becoming agribusiness. This in turn has made a great deal of people redundant, therefore no longer gainfully employed. This development has posed a great challenge to the Punjabi society. His prescription for Punjab to get out of this situation is that a massive industrialization of Punjab is the need of the hour.

jaspal.jpg (3101 bytes)After Manzur Ejaz, Jaspal Singh, a well known philosopher and writer, made a brief presentation on the development in East Punjab during the last fifty years. He pointed out that after the traumatic division of Punjab in 1947, East Punjab, home to more than 20 million Punjabis, had also gone through tremendous changes. He said that while Dr. Manzur Ejaz was describing the village in West Punjab, he was reminded of his own village in East Punjab which had gone through similar changes. Agriculture has become mechanized, and bullocks, camels, and bulls have been replaced by tractors, thrashers, combines and tubewells. Grain production has increased ten fold. Punjab has become the breadbasket of India. At the same time, farmers and peasants have become tremendously indebted. Quoting various studies Jaspal Singh described the terrible condition of farmers under debt in East Punjab, as indicated by the dramatic rise in suicides by poor farmers. He also pointed out the increasing landlessness of small and middle farmers. He said that a contradictory process was taking place in East Punjab, on the one hand, tremendous wealth was being produced, and on the other, poverty was also increasing and unemployment was increasing. He said that earlier a small farmer with couple of acres of land could easily make a living, but now, it is very difficult for a farmer with 100 acres to make a living. He pointed out that this was taking place due to an imbalance between the input costs that the farmers have to incur and the price that they get for their crops. He also pointed out that the last fifty years have also been years of great unrest and of social and political movements such as movement against Betterment Levy, movement for Punjabi Suba, Naxalbari Movement and Militant movements of the 80s and 90s. His prescription for future was that democratic renewal and empowerment of Punjabi people is a primary necessity to set the direction of change of the Punjabi society. At the present moment, Punjabis have no say in deciding the matters that affect their lives.

A vibrant discussion took place after the two presentations. Dr. Manzur Ejaz pointed out that there is a misconception in East Punjab that West Punjab is more feudal and backward than East Punjab. But he pointed out that industrialization and pace of industrial development was actually greater in West Punjab than in East Punjab. He also pointed out that 70% of films made in Pakistan are made in Punjabi. Participants expressed their concerns about the miserable state of Punjabi language in both East and West Punjab.

Lunch break was announced by Shahid Ahmed Khan at 1:30 amidst this discussion and all the participants moved to the dining area of Longfellow Hall, where they enjoyed saag, roti and lassi, typical Punjabi food.

At 2:00 PM, Anila Asghar, a graduate student in the School of Education at Harvard University introduced the panelists for the next session on New Media and Punjabi. She pointed out that technology was changing at a very rapid rate and the information age has had tremendous impact on Punjab and Punjabi as well. She introduced Safir Rammah, an AT&T executive and the webmaster for APNA’s home page, and Gurdip Singh, a worker, writer and activist, and called opon them to make their presentations.

safir.jpg (2143 bytes)In his talk, Safir Rammah pointed out that the rise of information technology and especially the Internet has created great changes and possibilities for people. He described in detail how the dawn of information age is making sweeping changes in all aspects of human society. In particular, the electronic media has revolutionized the modes of human interaction and communications. At the speed of light we can communicate with each other and relatively cheaply. The electronic media has weakened all traditional methods of suppression and selective dissemination of information by the states and other powerful institutions. It has empowered the individuals to freely communicate with each others, form new groupings and web communities without the fear of state sensor. He pointed out that through the APNA web page, hundreds of thousands of people have been able to access Punjabi literature, music and language. He encouraged Punjabi activists to fully utilize this media to promote Punjabi language and culture and to raise Punjabi issues. He pointed out that this new electronic media had created a level playing field, relatively speaking, and we should take full advantage of it.

gurdipsingh.jpg (2790 bytes)Gurdip Singh described the evolution of Punjabi press and newspapers in East Punjab and Punjabi press in Gurmukhi abroad. He spoke of 4 major daily papers in Punjabi in East Punjab that have a readership of hundreds of thousands. He also listed literary and cultural magazines in East Punjab which have come and gone. He spoke about the need of press expressing the concerns of Punjabi people, which at the moment the dominant media is not doing.

During the discussion it was pointed out that while Punjabis constitute 70% of the population of Pakistan, there is not a single Punjabi newspaper in West Punjab. With the Punjabi language becoming the official language in East Punjab, many newspapers and magazines came into being. In West Punjab, one of the reasons for the lack of Punjabi publications is that Punjabi language is still not taught in school nor is it recognized as a language in which business is conducted. In this context, electronic media can play an important role for the development of Punjabi language and culture.

hassan.jpg (2666 bytes)At 3:30PM, Hassan Abbas, a journalist and a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, reconvened the conference after a short break, and introduced the panel on Punjabi Language, Literature and Culture. Hassan pointed out that in his opinion Punjabi language in West Punjab does not enjoy any status and it is a cause of worry for people, because without language it is very difficult if not impossible to develop one’s culture. In this panel Anila Asghar, Pami Arora , Kalvir Singh and Navroop Singh spoke .

pammikalvir.jpg (3525 bytes)Pammi Arora, a corporate executive, and Kalvir Singh Dhugga, professor of nuclear physics at George Washington University, made a presentation about a "ipunjabi" software that they have developed for learning Punjabi in Gurmukhi script. They demonstrated how user friendly this software is. With a click of a mouse Gurmukhi alphabets and their pronunciation can be learnt. This software gives the sounds of the letters and pronunciation of the words. It also has an English/Punjabi dictionary. They pointed out that this software is only a tool and is in no way a replacement for other sources of learning such as teachers and parents. All the participants highly appreciated this presentation by Pami Arora and Kalvir Singh and engaged them in a lively discussion.

anila.jpg (3204 bytes)Anila Asghar, a graduate student at the School of Education at Harvard University from Lahore, spoke about the condition of women, their education and role in Punjabi society and culture. She started with an observation that the meager representation of women in the conference and the panels was an example of one of the problems she was going to address. Then she narrated the experience that Tanveer Khan and her colleagues had while trying to organize literacy programs for rural women. She pointed out that these women were greatly interested in education, but education that was relevant to their lives and conditions. The rural women pointed this out to themselves and found that the standard literacy programmes were not relevant to their lives, so they need to be changed. Anila pointed out that since patriarchy was overwhelmingly dominant in Punjabi society and women were considered the depository of Izzat (honour) and Sharam (shame), and society as a whole must take up the question of emancipation of the women, so that they can have equality and dignity.

navroop.jpg (3004 bytes)Navroop Singh, an undergraduate at Boston University, coordinator of the BU Bhangra team that won the first prize in the Boston Bhangra Blow Out in November 2001, spoke about their experience of learning Bhangra. He pointed out that Bhangra is presented in isolation from Punjabi culture. It is presented as just another dance, with a strong beat without having any meaning. Most of the youth that participate and do Bhangra have no understanding of what Bhangra is about. They do not understand the lyrics or the Bolis as most of them do not even know the language. In this manner Bhangra is completely disassociated from Punjabi culture and becomes meaningless and banal. Talking about his own experience and the experience of his teammates, he pointed out that it is very important that opportunities be created for teaching Punjabi culture to their generation. He alluded to some work being done in this direction, for instance a seminar on Bhangra and regular discussions on this topic being held by some members of Boston APNA chapter, being helpful but not sufficient. He pointed out that these questions were questions of our identity and survival. Manidner Singh Jheeta, a graduate student at MIT in the department of Physics and a member of the MIT Bhangra team, also pointed out similar feelings. He said that no one understands what Bhangra is and there is no one to explain it to us. It is completely taken out of context. APNA should make more efforts to deal with these questions of culture amongst the youth.

A vigorous discussion took place on the issues raised by Ania Asghar, and Navroop Singh. Women and youth present in the conference elaborated from their own experiences regarding these issues. Around 5 PM, Subhash Sehgal, a Boston APNA member, businessman and community activist, brought very much needed tea with samosas and pakoras and informal discussion continued on the issues raised by Anila and Navroop. The participants then decided to hold the plenary session then and there, rather than the next day, since some of the participants had to leave early Sunday morning.

At 6:00PM, Safir Rammah convened the Plenary Session.This session reaffirmed the aims and objectives of APNA as formulated earlier and called for discussion through email, APNA discussion forum and APNA chat rooms to elaborate on them and refine them according to the needs of the changing times. It was also decided that APNA should increase its focus on raising the interest of young generations of Diaspora Punjabis in Punjabi language and culture. Finally, a resolution was passed, calling for introduction of Punjabi as the medium of education in West Punjab’s schools.

This brought the formal proceedings of the conference to a conclusion and all the participants made their way to Conant Hall, a graduate students' residence, where a reception was being held on this occasion. Many other friends also joined the festivities. Around 8:30 or so, Safir Rammah called upon Shahid Ahmed Khan to chair the Kavi Darbar and call on the poets and others to recite their own poems and other songs. Surinder Sohal from New York, recited two heart rendering poems, followed by Daljit Mokha also from New York, their poems were deeply appreciated and they were interrupted by the audience to repeat parts of the poems again and again. Gurdip Singh from Winnipeg, recited "Uddham Singh Di Var" full of enthusiasm and valor. Bagga Singh from Montreal, presented a very touching poem about the state of Punjabi language which hit a cord with everyone. After him, Subhash Sehgal read a poem about the necessity of uniting against all kind of divisive efforts. Gursharan Singh beautifully recited a heart rendering poem by Shiv Kumar Batalvi..

Javed Boota recited verses from Sultan Bahu, Jaspal Singh sang a Kafi from Shah Hussain and Manzur Ejaz sang portions from Pilloo’s Mirza and Heer Waris Shah. After the Kavi Darbar, the youth performed a vigorous Bhangra. In this Bhangra they depicted the life of farmers of Punjab, how they work so hard and produce great wealth but they are caught in the web of indebtedness. Everybody present joined in the Bhangra, then dinner was served. This reception continued till the late hours of the night with people discussing various presentations made at the conference.


baga_singh.gif (6389 bytes) Bagga Singh's Punjabi poem captured the spirit of the Conference............

Shamukhi Version

Gurmukhi Version

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A few pictures of the participants ..............

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