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)