By: Safir Rammah

Newslettter of American Institute of Pakistan Studies
Fall 2002 , Volume V, Issue 1, New Series No. 9
Editor:  Brian Spooner
Assistant Editors:  Uzmana Rizvi & Nancy Nalbadian
University of Pennsylvania


Punjabi is the mother tongue of the majority of people in Pakistan.  According to 1981 census, the last census for which the figures are available, Punjabi (including Saraiki, Hindko and other variations) is the “commonly spoken in the household” language for 60.43 per cent Pakistanis, followed by Pushto for 13.14 per cent, Sindhi for 11.77 per cent, Urdu for 7.60 per cent and Baluchi for 3.02 per cent.  Yet, Punjabi has no official status either in Pakistan or in West Punjab. The medium of teaching in government and private schools in West Punjab is Urdu and, to a lesser extent, English. There is not a single Punjabi medium school in Pakistan, as compared to 36,750 Sindhi medium schools in Sindh and 10,731 Pushto medium schools in the NWFP, per a study in 2001. Except for a very small number of writers and activists, Punjabis are illiterate in their own language – they can neither read nor write Punjabi. The rich tradition of Punjabi literature, going back to the 12th century AD when Baba Farid composed his poetry in a highly developed and sophisticated Punjabi language, has been forgotten. Among the educated classes of Punjabis, instead of pride and affection, contempt and shame for their culture and language is commonly observed.       

A closer study of this unique social phenomena of systematic and deliberate denial of their own ethnic identity by West Punjabis, as highlighted by their rejection of Punjabi language, provides many insights into the dynamics of search for an identity by various ethnic and religious groups in the subcontinent during and after the British colonial period and the way power structure has evolved in Pakistan.  

The Lack of British Patronization:  Prior to the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849, Punjabi language had developed on the same course followed by most other regional languages in India. Throughout the period of Muslim dominance of India, Persian was the official language of Delhi durbar for conducting the official business until it was officially replaced by English in 1837. The language policies of British Government provided the catalyst for a number of local languages to flourish and develop into their modern and standardized forms. Prior to the British rule, a large number of local schools were functioning in the Punjab.  They can be classified asmadrassas (for Arabic and Islamic education), maktabs (for Persian education), Gurmukhi schools (for Punjabi language in Gurmukhi script and Sikh religious studies) and patshalas (Sanskrit schools). In all of these schools, Punjabi was the medium of teaching even though the main purpose was to teach other languages and religious subjects.  For a number of years after the British conquest of the Punjab, official circulars and court orders were published in Punjabi.  The subject of adopting Urdu or Punjabi as the official vernacular and medium of education in government schools was widely debated among the British officers.  A number of them supported Urdu for various reasons, including their fear of resurgence of Sikhs if Punjabi was officially promoted.  Most of the low level functionaries in the British governments bureaucracy in the Punjab had come from Urdu speaking areas. They also supported Urdu.  Eventually, the British government adopted Urdu for Punjab’s schools and lower courts. Although Punjabi continued to be taught in some private schools in Gurmukhi script to Sikh children, it only served the purpose of religious studies since government employments were available only in Urdu and English.  Punjabi missed the boat of British patronization that was the key turning point in the development of other regional languages, e.g., Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Sindhi, etc.  

Urdu and the Muslim Identity: During the same time, the Hindi-Urdu controversy had erupted in Northern India where militant Hindu nationalists had begun to identify with Hindi language and the Muslims with Urdu.  The fact that the Muslim League had made no inroads in Muslim majority provinces, including Punjab, until a couple of years before Partition and most of its following was in the provinces where Urdu was the spoken language of Muslim minority, helped Urdu to become the official language of Muslim League. The paramount political need to claim a separate identity of Indian Muslims overshadowed all regional sentiments among them.  The educated classes of Punjabi Muslims accepted the hegemony of Urdu without any question.  A review of Punjabi literature during the first half of 20th century reveals that while during the previous millennium, Muslim writers and poets had dominated Punjabi writings, they were conspicuously absent from the Punjabi literary scene after Urdu medium schools had replaced the traditional local schools in the Punjab.  Corresponding to this change in the education system, the golden era of Punjabi Sufi poetry ended with Khwaja Ghulam Farid and Mian Muhammad at the beginning of the 20th century. Sikhs and Hindus wrote most of the Punjabi literature during this period.  Punjabi Muslim intellectuals, writers and journalists abandoned their own language and willingly aligned themselves with Urdu as an indispensable requisite of their claim of  a separate Muslim identity. 

 The Post-partition Crisis of Identity: After Partition, the language policy of Pakistan became a tool in the hands of military-civil bureaucracy axis that viewed the promotion of regional cultures and languages as a threat to their centralized power.  Soon after independence, many regional movements, demanding a fair share of the state’s resources, had risen in East Bengal, Sindh, Baluchistan and the NWFP against the powerful center that was dominated by Punjabis. To counterbalance these demands for regional autonomy, efforts were made to develop a new national identity for all Pakistanis based on a Pakistani, and later Islamic, ideology and by making Urdu language as the symbol of this national identity. The predominance of Punjabis in civil bureaucracy and armed forces necessitated the complete submergence of Punjabi identity into an all- pervasive Pakistani identity as a political tool to legitimize the rejection of all other regional and linguistic identities. Punjabis were projected as the vanguards of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers. The Bengali Language movement of 1952 and the growing Bengali nationalistic tendencies that eventually led to the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, and the growth of regional movements in other provinces, further justified the educated Punjabis’ complacent attitude towards denial of their cultural and linguistic identity. The politics of language in the multi-language Pakistan is the politics of power struggle between a predominantly Punjabi center against various ethnic groups who demand their share in the national resources based on their regional nationalities. The self-serving opinion in the ruling classes of the Punjab since the Partition is to suspect all sentiments in favor of regional cultures in other provinces as anti-Pakistan. In their efforts to legitimize their hold on power and to eradicate the menace of provincialism, they lead by example by disregarding their own cultural and linguistic roots.

 Language and Status in Pakistan:  Language is an important symbol of status and class differentiation in Pakistan. English, as the official language of Pakistan, is the working language of all high-level government officials.  Without knowing English, it is impossible to get lucrative jobs in the civil bureaucracy, military or in the private sector.  English is the real language of power in Pakistan, just as it was during British colonial government and as Persian was before that.  Learning Urdu is also a pre-requisite for entering the middle and low-level job market in Pakistan.  The government runs a class-based discriminatory system of education by providing subsidized English education in state-run educational institutions for the children of power elite whose parents belong to armed forces and other government agencies, while mass education is provided in Urdu, and on a smaller scale, in Sindhi and Pushto.  The fees for good private English schools are out of reach for common Pakistanis.  On the one hand this creates a self-perpetuating elite class in Pakistan and on the other hand it makes various languages as class identifiers.  English as a symbol of upper class, Urdu of middle and lower middle classes and Punjabi or other regional languages representing the uneducated peasantry and unskilled labor class. This provides a strong incentive for class conscious Punjabis to distance themselves from their language and common culture. The process of gentrification for an educated Punjabi begins with adopting Urdu for all formal usage and is further enhanced by learning to speak English.

n the villages, markets and majority of the rural and urban homes of West Punjab, the use of Punjabi language in conversations is as robust as ever. Most of the market-based popular media, outside the realm of state controlled radio and TV, is in Punjabi. Punjabis have become used to the contradiction of talking and listening in Punjabi while reading and writing in Urdu or English. Even Punjabis living in the Diaspora shift from a telephone conversation with their parents in Punjabi to writing them letters and cards in Urdu without noticing the obvious change of language from one form of communication to the other.  The small cadre of Punjabi activists and writers, who have been struggling against all odds to promote Punjabi language, literature and culture, have so far generally based their case on emotional appeals to save their beloved mother tongue and culture.  Unless they fully understand the underlying institutionalized and entrenched power politics of languages in Pakistan, they will have little hope to win many adherents to their worthy cause.