Education, Development, and Change
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Sunday, July 10, 2011

No Takers for Punjabi?

Dr Shahid Siddiqhttp:

There has been a growing realisation in the recent times that language is a significant political tool which is used by dominant groups to take control of marginalised groups. At the same time, language is a useful tool to put up resistance against hegemony. That is why post-colonial literature and feminist movements give central importance to language as they believe that language is an important constituent of social reality that may play a crucial role in titling the scale of power. Language is also viewed as a strong identity marker, both at an individual and societal level.

The Punjabi language has always been a victim of social, political and economic circumstances even before the partition of United India. In India, because of Mughal kings, whose mother tongue was Persian, Persian became the language of power and was used in courts. Urdu was very close to Persian in terms of vocabulary and structure and was mutually intelligible with Hindi. It also had an affinity with the Punjabi language at a semantic level. These multiple associations of Urdu made it popular in certain parts of India in general and in Muslim communities in particular.

The British as a part of their policy got rid of Persian language in Sindh by replacing Persian with Sindhi but surprisingly, in Punjab, Persian was not replaced by Punjabi. Instead, it was Urdu that took the place of Persian. One reason that was given by the British was that Urdu was a refined form of Punjabi. It is a sad fact that Punjabi was never viewed by the British decision makers as an independent language; rather it was looked down upon as a dialect or patois with relatively lower social standard.

Why was Punjabi viewed as a dialect and not as a language? Does Punjabi have no literature? On the contrary, Punjabi has a rich tradition of literature both in poetry and prose. But languages, in contemporary times, are not evaluated on their linguistic merits or demerits. Rather they are assessed primarily on social, political, and economic grounds. The attitude towards Punjabi was essentially based on social criteria.

Another milestone in the history of the Punjabi language was the Pakistan movement where three languages Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi were used as identity markers for the three major population groups of India, i.e. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. In this simplistic divide of languages (which was largely political in nature), Punjabi was the biggest casualty. A large number of Muslims whose mother tongue was Punjabi deserted it on political grounds as Punjabi was viewed as the language of Sikhs.
After independence in 1947, the question of national language was raised and Urdu, which was a minority language, was given the status of national language. The two overwhelmingly majority languages i.e., Bengali, and Punjabi were totally ignored. There was a powerful protest from Bengali people but there was no voice heard in favour of Punjabi by the Punjabi population. One important reason for this was that Punjab had a large share in the army and was close to power centres. Having a good share in army and bureaucracy, the Punjabi elite wanted to be a part of the mainstream powerful groups and in the process deserted their own language, Punjabi.

It is surprising that Sindhi is taught in schools as a subject. Similarly Pashto is taught as a subject in some schools in KP. But Punjabi has never been a part of school education in Pakistan. Why is it so? Is there something inherently wrong with Punjabi? It’s the social attitude of people that have associated Punjabi with informal and insignificant linguistic functions in life. The language desertion phenomenon is so visible in Punjabi urban families where parents speak with their children in Urdu which is considered to be a prestigious language. Another weakening factor for Punjabi is its low pragmatic value in terms of getting jobs on market. This factor is strengthened as Punjabi does not get any support from educational institutions.

It is feared that a large number of families from Punjab would lose Punjabi language in a couple of generations. There are a number of researches available about the significant role of mother tongue in early education. If we want to reclaim Punjabi language, the first step is to provide it educational backing by teaching Punjabi as a subject in schools in Punjab. Also, there is a need of official patronage at least at the provincial level for the promotion of language. It is important to note that the Constitution of Pakistan, Article 251, clearly states about the potential measures of teaching and promotion of a provincial language, “Without prejudice to the status of the national language, a provincial assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of language in addition to the national language.” The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly has passed a bill declaring five local languages as educational languages. This is a welcome initiative. Can Punjab Assembly pass some bill for the teaching and promotion of Punjabi in the province?

The writer is Professor & Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan. He may be contacted at