Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Punjab, Punjabi and the contradiction within

A rare sight: A shop displays sign board in Punjabi "Billay di Hatti" [Shop of Billa] in Raja Bazaar, Rawalpindi. 

Over the last few weeks, I have been meeting children from different parts of Punjab. They were between 3 to 5 years of age, and included the children of my friends and extended family. I was pleasantly shocked to hear these kids speakin Punjabi.  “Kithay chalay o”, “aa ki aey”, “ki karde paye o” are some of the Punjabi phrases I recall having heard.

Punjabi is the most widely spoken language across Pakistan. However, most of the people in Punjab, especially in urban centers, do not encourage their children to speak their mother tongue, Punjabi.

But “kids will be kids” and they will always find ways to learn new things. So, through methods best known to children, they quickly pick up the language, continuously learning (mimicking to be more precise) from various people around them and their parents, as the adults speak in Punjabi among themselves regularly. The end result is that the children learn Punjabi quite effortlessly; such is the beauty of mother tongue.

Incidentally, in your average Pakistani school, a child goes through the experience of learning two new languages, English and Urdu. As reading Quran and prayers are also considered as mandatory teachings in the Pakistani society, he / she learns Arabic as well. So, a 3-5 year old child in Punjab starts to learn almost four languages at this stage. Other than this, the teaching of all other subjects is also via the medium of Urdu or English.

However, as far as the effectiveness of learning is concerned, it is in the best interest of any child that primary education be imparted in mother tongue. Children learn more efficiently and quickly if he / she start learning various subjects in his / her mother tongue instead of learning a completely new language first. This is the reason when a 3 year old enrolls in a nursery class he / she naturally reads “Meem Kukri” instead of “Meem Murghi” (which is enforced on him / her) because he / she already knows and relates to the picture of a hen as a “Kukri”.

However, in Pakistan, it is a popular practice to label a child as an “illiterate” and “uncivilized” if he / she speaks in Punjabi. This is why parents try their best to refrain from speaking in Punjabi with their kids. Somehow, one cannot blame the parents as the harsh reality is when a 3 or 4 year old kid enrolls in school and begins to speak in Punjabi with the other children or teachers, he / she is promptly tagged as “illiterate”. Needless to say, it’s quite depressing for young minds. Naturally, the parents want to prevent this from happening. Hence, the mother tongue is sacrificed.

In addition to this, there are strong arguments that “talking about ‘people not encouraging their children to speak Punjabi or their mother tongue is like dishonoring their mother’ is just a hollow slogan”. This line of argument strongly believes that it is common knowledge that in real life knowing Punjabi is not of any use and learning Urdu and English are more important for education and a career. When I look at the current scenario, I realize that for all practical purposes this line of thinking is not entirely wrong. One has to get a job after all! Again, Punjabi is forced out.

Frankly speaking, discrimination against the Punjabi language is nothing new in our society. It started during the British period with the end of Sikh rule in Punjab. Later, it was somewhat obtusely assumed that Urdu is the language of Muslims, Hindi,of Hindus and Punjabi, of Sikhs. By this oversimplified formula not only our land divided on the basis of religion but languages were also divided on the same basis. Today, in Indian Punjab one observes the regular usage of Punjabi everywhere – signage on the highways, in schools, colleges, universities and in public offices. This is exactly why Mian Shehbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab, while visiting the Indian counterpart delivered a speech in Punjabi to win their hearts!

But I am afraid I have rarely heard the Chief Minister of Punjab or any other leaders delivering a speech in Punjabi in Gujranwala, Faisalabad or any other city of the Pakistani Punjab. This is what I call the inferiority complex of us Punjabis in Pakistan.

It is obvious that Punjabis are living in some kind of confusion. It is a bitter truth that Punjabis have gradually destroyed their own language, as we never confidently owned it. Inspite of being the largest spoken language in Pakistan it is not taught in any schools! You wouldn’t find any sign boards in Punjabi anywhere in Punjab (except “Billay di Hatti” shops in various cities).  As I see it, the future of Punjabi in Pakistan is not bright.

Strangely, quite contradictory to this phenomenon of our self-denial, there is this interesting practice of Punjabi being popularized all across, without Punjabis even wanting it to! And the reason behind this is the televised musical program, Coke Studio – Pakistan.

I am sure, you would have heard on countless episodes of Coke Studio, numerous Kalams of Baba Bulleh Shah or Sultan Bahoo being performed by the participants. Be it Bulleh Shah or any other Sufi poet of Punjab, it is becoming quite a fashion to be associated with their music as an enthusiast. Don’t we simply love to listen to them and share Punjabi music by whatever means available to us and feel good that they project the secular and moderate culture of Punjab? Many people were introduced to Baba Bulleh Shah or Punjabi Sufis after the launch of Coke Studio. I feel, it is quite ironic that today we actually rely on a corporate giant and thankful to them for introducing Punjabi to the world because at the same time, we hate this language too!

This contradiction in our behavior baffles me completely.

However, I see rays of hope, coming from completely unexpected quarters though. Recently, a friend who shifted from Karachi to Lahore, complained “why the hell everyone speaks Punjabi here? I spoke to Rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers and a few other people and everyone replied to me in Punjabi!” It was a welcome realization that Punjabis have not completely given up on their mother tongue, at least not yet. It was a relief that at least a visitor to Punjab has realized that Punjabi is the language of Punjab. Deep inside, that made me immensely happy.


  1. I agree with your point. In Eastern Punjab too, Urban punjabis have disown their mother tongue.Hindi is common there.
    even I noticed my niece and nephews speaking english. The parents have totally replaced Punjabi with Hindi or English.

    However, it feels good that signboard in Eastern Punjab are in Punjabi mostly.

  2. This is an insightful piece. It brings out many aspects of the paradoxes in the maintenance of the Punjabi language--the social, political, economic, individual and linguistic (about natural lang acquisition). More such articles would be very welcome. :)

  3. Sir,

    I implore you to please read some non partisan academic sources before you write a whole article about the state of Punjab and Punjabis. As someone who is from Karachi but has deep admiration for the Punjabi culture and Language I would agree with your thesis that Punjabi is a dying language, however, the reasons you have quoted and the trigger that inspired you (namely a sign board) are kind of sad. I wish you would have tried to get some academic sources to understand the true nature of things first.

    Please do read the following:
    Name of the book:
    Crisis of identity
    Pakistan: Nationalism without a nation?
    edited by Christophe Jaffrelot

    Chapter 1
    The Punjabization of Pakistan: Myth or Reality
    Written by Ian Talbot

    It is available for free at this link:

  4. Shiraz, you have mentioned very interesting but also, very bitter facts. As the case is, in this regard, me, you, our people, our leaders and our state, all are to be blamed. We have relegated our mother tongue to a place where it is considered a language of the menials. You go anywhere, any home, you will find the ‘Begum Sahiba’ speaking Urdu (and that too in a very funny Punjabised accent) but when it comes to speaking with a house maid or a domestic servant, she would speak Punjabi but will show off as if she is doing something which she is compelled to. Otherwise she is not so backward (she would pose) to speak a backward language with the backward people employed to do various household chores at homes of us ‘begums’
    This situation though is highly unfortunate, yet it also (like you too have pointed out) has another ray of hope. Whereas the Mumbai Movie Industry is producing lot of anti Pakistani propaganda films, yet the good thing is that you find a lot of Punjabi terms, Punjabi festivals and many other beautiful depictions of Punjabi culture in the films produced in the Bollywood.
    Nowadays even those young boys and girls who felt shy of speaking Punjabi now use Punjabi words, sentences and dialogue with a flair of being a people of vogue, and this dear Shiraz is a very good sign indeed.
    Let’s hope that Punjabi gets some boost even if its in this way bcz after all it motivates people to speak their mother tongue.


  5. Strangely things are just identical on both the sides off the dividing line . We on this side are becoming more and more inclined to English and Hindi . Factors playing towards the trend may be economic , needs of the job market, religious and many more BUT one positive deviation .... In the four walls heir homes Punjabis are keeping their mother tongue vibrant . Just for an example .... I had to be away from Punjab for about 28 years in connection with the job , so children had to have their education through English / Hindi as the medium of instruction .. Now the are very well settled with top multinationals and while their frequent tour abroad , English and other foreign languages come to their rescue , but the moment they are in the four walls of the house , nothing but Punjabi .... simple ground rule .
    And one thing more interesting , when we talk to some unknown on telephone we generally start with English / Hindi but the moment e get an inkling that the person on the other side is a Punjabi immediate response from both sides is ," Punjabi on naan ?? taan phir Punjabi ch gll kro bhaa jee "

  6. Chalo, for a change, let us look at a very modern film star explaining the meaning of Swaraj in Punjabi in Chandigarh:

    Aam Aadmi Party Chandigarh candidate Gul Panag's powerful and passionate speech in Punjabi at Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh Memorial. Must Watch & Share!

  7. A very modern Bollywood actress explaining Swaraj (Self Rule) in Punjabi to a crowd in Chandigarh