By Mushtaq Soofi

Published Dawn : March 25, 2024

Chief Minister of Punjab Maryam Nawaz Sharif seems to have been well-advised on the question of language in the Punjab as she recently spoke on the taboo subject of people’s language in her province. She briefly but rightly pointed to the cultural malady ruling classes in Punjab have been suffering from since colonial times; self-hate.

One can guess her adviser Pervaiz Rasheed must have played a part in persuading her to open debate on the matter that has been in limbo for long. Cadres of political parties are not trained to think on cultural issues because they don’t seem to have the potential to be cause celebres in the narrow political sense. But they are what makes communities and linguistic and ethnic groups dynamic enabling them not only to maintain their distinct identities but also enrich other such entities by meaningfully interacting with them in the spirit of give and take.

Sadly, those who are culture sensitive are found by way of exception in Punjab encumbered with ill-conceived imperatives of state such as one nation, one language in a historically diverse region. So politicians like Pervaiz Rasheed of Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Chaudhry Manzur of Pakistan People’s Party are respected for their efforts to help get the issues of language and culture onto the political agendas of their parties.

The CM Punjab’s recent statement ought to be taken as a point of departure for public dialogue on the issues of language and culture in Punjab where the monolithic cultural policies of the state have confounded the people at the cost of their intellectual health. CM’s broaching the subject should not be allowed to serve as one time political statement. On the one hand, it should initiate public debate on the cultural and intellectual significance of people’s language, and on the other it should nudge the concerned departments of Punjab government to evolve a vision that envisages concrete steps meant to restore the rights and status of Punjab’s language to the benefits of its speakers.

In the spirit of starting a debate on the issue one can make a few suggestions. (a), in Punjab it’s not merely language that has been deliberately neglected and demonised but the very notion of people’s culture has been thrown in the bin for being not only irrelevant but also as an impediment in the way of ill-conceived notions of national cohesion and unity. So a new vision is needed that recognises the role of culture and language as a bedrock of mass psyche. Such a vision would involve not only cultural regeneration but also a fresh view of our long history spanning over thousands of years. Just one case of Harappa can tell us how we have murdered our history by simply ignoring its existence.

Harappa whose discovery changed the view of sub-continental history and human evolution lies in ruins and still has not been placed on the United Nations’ list of world heritage because of lack of interest of successive governments. (b), in order to prepare ground for a change in linguistic policy political leaders must be urged to express themselves in their mother language in the Punjab Assembly as well as in their political meetings and rallies. People emulate their leaders. (c), Government should set up ‘Punjab Language Authority’ to devise a comprehensive vision of language and its uses in all spheres of public life. (d), as to the introduction of the language in the schools, gradual approach be adopted; the starting point should be primary schools. The illogical top to bottom approach, being practiced for years, must be replaced with the rational bottom to top approach. From being a subject at the primary level it should become medium of instruction within a specified period of time. This would accelerate the cognitive development of our children and also save resources. Training a teacher in his/her mother language involves less resources than needed for training in other languages such as Urdu, English and Arabic. (d), the proposed language authority should get its policies implemented through already existing textbook boards. (e), primers and other text books must have the same contents all over Punjab featuring myriad aspects of our society and history. (f), in case of any region in Punjab insisting on the use of a separate language or dialect the concerned textbook board be allowed to use that language or dialect without tempering with the contents. (g), Textbooks must include information on the history, culture and historical personages of Punjab and other regions of Pakistan. (h), Legislation be done that allows litigants and lawyers to plead their cases in their mother language in the courts. Such a step would help the litigants to present their cases accurately and help the judges in forming their judgement in an objective manner. (i), Punjab government should encourage mother language press and electronic media by providing special incentives. (j), Punjab government may request the Sindh government to help it with its input. The latter has a robust experience of ensuring the preservation and development of its culture and language at official and grassroots levels. It has its liberally funded institutes that help the Sindh government with their policy input. If the Punjab government draws on the experience and expertise of such cultural entities it would save it money and time in evolving its own cultural policies. (k), Punjab government should stop the Punjab Auqaf Department from squandering resources collected from the public on cosmetic measures supposed to enhance the quality of shrines and their environs. They must be tasked with building libraries and research cells at the shrines of mystics and poets. Such sacred places should function as cultural hubs, not mere places of rituals.

The response of the political party that has ruled Punjab for decades to the demand of restoring the rights of Punjabi language and culture is no doubt belated but welcome. It has been lapped up by all those concerned about the plight of our mother language.

One hopes Maryam Nawaz Sharif and her team will see the job through that carries historical significance. If it happens so, she will not only be remembered as the first female head of a provincial government but also as one who restored the dignity of the language and culture of her people. Such a feat would be celebrated as an epoch-making event in our cultural history. Otherwise we shall continue to suffer from the cultural life marred by atrophy.