Tag Archives: Punjab

Urdu-isation of Punjab

Punjabi is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages today. It has over a hundred million native speakers, more than German, French, Persian or Urdu. Unfortunately though, it has also been one of the most neglected lingos, in its own home and by its own people. Punjab’s elite first deserted it for Urdu and then for English. There has been a virtual ban on education in Punjabi in the province for 150 years now, ever since the fall of the Sikh empire in 1849. In Punjab Assembly, a member cannot speak Punjabi without the speaker’s permission.

The land which is today Pakistan was home to the Harappa and Gandhara civilisations as well as to some of the oldest extant texts like Rigveda and Arthshastra. It has had its own traditions and languages thousands of years old. The Punjabi language itself has a written literary history of almost a thousand years. Its first poet, Baba Farid, belonged to the 12th and 13th centuries while the last classical poet died in early 20th century.

The decline and suppression, so to speak, of the Punjabi language and literature started with the British East India Company’s annexation of Punjab in 1849. The British found that education in Punjab under the Sikh empire was far superior to what they had introduced in the rest of conquered India. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, first principal of Government College Lahore and founder of the University of the Punjab, writes in his “History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab” that at annexation, “the true education of the Punjab was crippled, checked, and nearly destroyed”. Our system, he wrote, “stands convicted of worse than official failure”.

Under Sikh rulers, Punjabi qaidas, or primers, were supplied to all villages. Its study was compulsory for women. Thus, almost every woman could read and write the lundee form of Gurmukhi. To subdue their new subjects, the British planned to cut them off from their language and tradition, and set forth to collect and burn all Punjabi qaidas. They searched homes for qaidas and announced the prize of one aana for someone who returned their sword but six aana if they returned a Punjabi qaida. The language which once had the backing of an empire was now neglected and suppressed.

After Pakistan was created, our policymakers considered cultural and linguistic diversity a threat to national security and tried to impose a monolithic faith-based ideology on the people. They declared Urdu the national language at the expense of Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Brahui, Pashto and others. Urdu was a language that was never spoken in the regions that made up Pakistan in 1947. Bengalis rose up in arms against this and got their language recognised as a state language alongside Urdu in 1956.

The struggle for recognition of languages other than Urdu continues to date in Pakistan. One of the things nationalists in Balochistan complain about is the suppression of their language and culture. In Lahore, thousands gather every year on Mother Language Day seeking an end to the 150-year-old ban on education in Punjabi. It’s time we reconnected with our past because the state of denial we are in today will lead us nowhere.

(Originally published in The Express Tribune)


‘Who reads your gazetteers, anyway?’


The British were ruthless. They killed everybody who stood up and challenged their rule from Rai Ahmad Nawaz Khan Kharal in 1857 to Bhagat Singh in 1931.

But they were great administrators, too, and governed India meticulously. They also cared for the people and places they ruled. Apart from a splendid network of railways, and colleges and hospitals, a lesser known legacy of the Raj is their efforts to understand and document the people, the land and cultures of India.

To acquaint themselves with an alien land, the new foreign administrators surveyed and documented the wide expanses from the north-west frontier to Bengal. In the process, they produced a whole genre of literature called ‘gazetteer’. These gazetteers, in many ways, were the first ever attempt to record the society, economy and culture of the Indian subcontinent. The only previous document is Abul Fazl’s Ain-I-Akbari, which records Akbar’s empire (1556 -1605).

Produced in the late 19th and early 20th century, the gazetteers are the best historical documents available to date for many districts. One is amazed by the details as minute as the number of villages of a particular clan in a district and exact distance between its towns contained in these documents. They contain the district’s detailed geographic aspects, agriculture, castes and their social standing, languages and religions. There has never been such a large-scale attempt to catalogue an area after the Raj.

Called the Bible of the viceroy’s administrators, the gazetteer and other scholarly works of the English bureaucrats remain a work of reference to date. Most people, however, are unaware that such things as gazetteers ever existed. And the question “Who reads your gazetteers, anyway?” still holds true.

While the British-era gazetteers and other historical literature such as the land settlement reports have been preserved and catalogued in the British Library, one is hard-pressed to find this literature in Pakistan. The Punjab Archives is famous for denying access to most of its literature for being a “top secret”.

Most of the district gazetteers of Punjab and what is now the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province have been reprinted by the Sang-e-Meel Publications in Pakistan. What is needed, however, is the promotion of these gazetteers.

Following India’s lead, the provincial or the federal governments should put the district gazetteers online and encourage their inclusion in the history discourse, because the pre-Partition history is also our history. The people and places discussed in these documents are our forefathers and the towns and villages we inhabit today.

(This article was originally published in The Express Tribune)