People & Society

Mind your language—The movement for the preservation of Punjabi

Updated 02 Sep, 2016 04:26pm
Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

February 21, 2016: it is a crisp morning outside the Lahore Press Club. The sun shines bright but the air is cool and the sky a clear, sharp blue. Pulsating and growing louder against the sound of passing motorcycles and tooting car horns, is the beat of a dhol. Sweaty bodies circle the dhol player, dancing to his beat, arms raised heavenward in a triumphant bhangra move. Several others just mill around.

The crowd is a melange of colour, with a few policemen in black shirts dotting the edge of the cordoned off area. The cheerful air seems to have infected them too; they lounge lazily in their posts, munching merrily on roasted corn from a vendor’s cart.

The atmosphere is pumped with adrenaline. As I approach the buzzing crowd, the dhol beats even more urgently against my eardrum, thump thump thump… only to come to an abrupt halt as the crackling of a loudspeaker rings through the air. Atop a decorated truck stands Afzal Saahir, popular Punjabi poet and television personality. He is flanked on either side by two heavyweights of the movement for the preservation and promotion of Punjabi language.

Iqbal Qaiser, independent researcher and founder of Khoj Garh research centre, stands to Saahir’s left, jubilant with his fist raised, grinning from ear to ear as hundreds of people chant in unison: “Read Punjabi, write Punjabi, speak Punjabi” — of course, in Punjabi.

Mushtaq Soofi, president of the Punjabi Adabi Board, an organisation devoted to promoting Punjabi language and literature, stands on Saahir’s right. A soft smile beams across his usually sombre face. The board is the main organiser of the event, bringing together over a dozen associations, activist groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to demand from the state the protection of their mother tongue.

The rally, held every year on February 21, the International Mother Language Day, is the flagship event for all those working in their respective capacities for the cause of Punjabi language.

Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

February 21, 1952: the day starts as any other spring morning — bright and balmy. At 9 am, hordes of students begin converging outside Dhaka University. A protest has been organised to demand Bengali’s recognition as Pakistan’s national language. Soon, the crowd swells to thousands. Armed police enclose it in a menacing ring and fire tear gas shells to disperse it. Enraged, the students attempt to storm the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly. At that moment, a police platoon opens fire at unarmed students. Several of them are killed. Blood is spilt for the mother tongue. By 1954, Pakistan’s constituent assembly is compelled to declare Bengali as the national language alongside Urdu.

When Field Marshal Ayub Khan takes over power in a military coup in 1958, Bengali’s status as a national language is taken away. Thirteen years later, East Pakistan becomes Bangladesh and raises a monument to the students killed in 1952, recognising the movement for Bengali language as a foundation for Bangladesh’s independence.

The International Mother Language Day hides behind its cheerful veneer this dark and bloody history. It has been celebrated worldwide since 2000 following a United Nations resolution in 1999 which called on all nations to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”

In Pakistani Punjab, it has been commemorated since 2001 when a small rally was organised by a Lahore-based theatre group, Punjab Lok Rehas, and the Punjabi monthly, Panchan. The rally has attracted growing numbers since.

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With the massacre at Dhaka University wiped clean off our national memory, the spectre of ethnic nationalism continues to haunt Pakistan. The ethnic question burns as fiercely as ever in Balochistan and Sindh. Both blame Punjab for usurping their political, economic, cultural and linguistic rights. And they are joined by others, most prominently by the Seraiki-speakers.

Since the 1960s, people in southern Punjab have been complaining that their region was being kept underdeveloped for the benefit of the central and northern parts of the province. The complaints are framed in terms of a distinct ethnic identity and a separate language. This is how the movement for what its champions call Seraiki Wasaib – or the land of the Seraiki-speakers – was born.

Once more, there is talk of partitioning Punjab a la 1947. This time, the dividing line is language. Seraiki is the language of the south; Punjabi is the language of the north and the centre. Siraiki Wasaib demands freedom from Takht-e-Lahore.

A painting from a Punjabi folk tale adorns the walls of Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
A painting from a Punjabi folk tale adorns the walls of Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

And not without reason: for the first time in Pakistan’s history, the prime minister of Pakistan, the chief minister of Punjab and the National Assembly’s speaker are all from Lahore. Even otherwise, Punjab has always maintained an overwhelming presence – much larger than its demographic share – in both the military and the bureaucracy. Include politics in the mix and the Punjabi domination of national polity becomes absolute. With 148 of the 272 directly-elected National Assembly seats belonging to Punjab, anyone who wins a majority of seats in the province can expect to form a government in Islamabad.

By most appearances, Punjab could not be stronger.

To an outside observer, the International Mother Language Day rally in front of the Lahore Press Club makes no sense. If Punjab already rules the roost in Pakistan then why would its language require state recognition and facilitation?

“Punjab is the ruling province in Pakistan but Punjabi is not the ruling language,” Soofi explains to me. “The answer to this puzzle lies in the colonial period when the British created a system which tied employment to proficiency in Urdu.”

Punjabi, in fact, has always remained outside the business of the state. The Mughals brought Persian to the subcontinent and it remained the language of the court from Babur to Aurangzeb and afterwards. In fact, even Ranjit Singh, who is celebrated by many Punjabi nationalists as the only Punjabi to have ruled Punjab, chose to retain Persian as the language of his darbar, issuing all royal proclamations and legal injunctions in it. Punjabi was never institutionalised as a language of statecraft; nor did it become a formal medium of education.

The new state committed itself to the idea of a single nation which could have only one religion and one language — Islam and Urdu, respectively.

Farina Mir, a historian of colonial and postcolonial South Asia at the University of Michigan and the author of The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab, has explained in detail how the British Raj preferred vernacular languages for administration in every other province of India except in Punjab where it deemed Urdu as the appropriate language for administration. Punjabi, she says, was seen as a “crude version” of Hindustani, “a rural patois” unsuited to the needs of office. Others within the colonial administration cited its sacredness for the Sikhs, the ousted rulers of Punjab, claiming that adopting Punjabi would be “a political mistake” for the British.

Empires came and went. Punjabi remained on the margins of power and yet it survived – even thrived – giving us literary giants of the stature of Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah in the 18th century. But British colonialism changed this.

“Colonial rule led to a change in the mode of production in India. The scale at which jobs requiring Urdu and English were created was unprecedented. The railways alone generated more employment than the entire Mughal state apparatus,” says Soofi.

The late afternoon sun filters through the venetian blind in pale streaks. We are revisiting Soofi’s days as a student in the 1970s, the formative years of his Punjabi activism. Arguably, the leading spokesperson for Punjabi’s cause today, he writes a weekly column in Dawn. Titled Punjab Notes, it covers an impressive range of topics pertaining to Punjab’s history, culture, literature and language.

Frequenting forums as varied as the Lahore Literary Festival and May Day celebrations in Kasur, Soofi heads the Lahore-based Punjabi Adabi Board which works to promote reading and writing in Punjabi. It was founded in 1974 as a non-profit, non-governmental entity with Masud Khaddarposh, a prominent pro-Punjabi bureaucrat, as its first president.

Mushtaq Soofi | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Mushtaq Soofi | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

Soofi was initiated into Punjabi activism in his fourth year at Government College Lahore — now called Government College University Lahore. He was a close friend of Ajmal Niazi who later became a poet and a columnist. Niazi asked Soofi to become general secretary of the Punjabi Majlis in his stead. The majlis (forum or meeting in English) is a student initiative where Punjabi literature is read and discussed. “At that point, I had no real interest in Punjabi. Like any other young person, I was just thrilled about acquiring a position of importance and leadership. You could say I joined the movement for Punjabi almost by accident,” chuckles Soofi.

The majlis put him in touch with other Punjabi activists in Lahore. He became a regular at the Punjabi Adabi Sangat, a weekly forum where Punjabi poetry was read. The Punjabi Adabi Sangat was formed in the early 1970s by prominent Punjabi writers and intellectuals, including Najm Hosain Syed. They had begun their activities in the early 1960s with an organisation called Majlis Shah Hussain that held its gatherings at Madhu Lal Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. It ran reading circles and published books in Punjabi.

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“Syed once came to meet us at Government College. He convinced me to begin writing in Punjabi. So I translated one of my Urdu poems into Punjabi and recited it at a Punjabi Adabi Sangat meeting. I was thrilled when everyone heaped praise upon me,” reminisces Soofi. “Of course I know now that it was an ordinary poem,” he adds, laughing. “They were only trying to encourage a young person who could potentially be recruited for their cause, just like I would do today.”

Thus, with a push from his friend Niazi and on the back of a clumsy, naïve yet earnest poem, Soofi embarked on an important lifelong journey, never to look back. Over time, he would integrate his literary interest in Punjabi with cultural politics that engaged with the state and the society directly on the question of linguistic rights. “Writing in Punjabi has always been a political act. Whether the Punjabi writer likes it or not, producing literature has to go hand in hand with participating in language politics,” he says firmly.

The end of the British Raj in the subcontinent could have started a new era for Punjabi language but, like other regional languages, its status sank further within the nascent state of Pakistan. The new state committed itself to the idea of a single nation which could have only one religion and one language — Islam and Urdu, respectively.

Dr Tariq Rahman, who has studied linguistic politics in Pakistan for decades, notes that Urdu’s status changed from the language of educated Muslims to the language of all Muslims in Pakistan. Some part of this change was visible even before 1947. “The rise of religious nationalism in the 1920s gave languages a sectarian colour. Urdu was equated to Islam, Hindi to Hinduism and Punjabi to Sikhism,” he explains.

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In Pakistan, Urdu was not just the language of governance. It also became proof of Muslim-ness, an emblem of national identity and a mark of patriotism. No other language was accorded a similar status. The uproar in East Pakistan is well-documented. Punjab was also stirred.

In 1947, many prominent politicians and intellectuals were involved in efforts for the promotion of Punjabi. Hafeez Jalandhari read Punjabi poems at rallies pushing for the language’s official recognition. Feroze Khan Noon chaired meetings to establish a fund for promoting Punjabi. Hameed Nizami, editor of daily Nawa-i-Waqt, used his newspaper for voicing the same demand. In 1951, he wrote an article in Punjabi which called for introducing the language in the education system.

Political expediency would change all these men.

Jalandhari wrote Pakistan’s national anthem – in Persian, not even in Urdu – in 1952. Noon became chief minister of Punjab from 1953-1955 and later served as prime minister of Pakistan briefly in 1957-1958. By the time Ayub Khan imposed martial law, linguistic assertions of identity had become taboo. The state found a trusted ally in Nawa-i-Waqt and Nizami. The newspaper ran a propaganda campaign which alleged that some Punjabi writers were trying to enforce gurmukhi, the script of the Sikh scriptures, in Pakistan.

The Punjabi Majlis and the Punjabi Writers Guild, two major literary organisations of the time, were banned as a result, in 1959 and in 1963, respectively. Few stood resolute in the face of the state’s wrath over what the authorities saw as threats to Pakistan’s unity. One of those was Syed.

Iqbal Qaiser stands outside Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Iqbal Qaiser stands outside Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

A bureaucrat by profession, Syed arguably became the most significant Punjabi intellectual of the 20th Century. In the 1960s, he wrote a series of essays in which he analysed key themes in classical Punjabi poetry. Following their publication in the Pakistan Times newspaper, Syed would forever forsake writing in English or, for that matter, any language other than Punjabi. He has published over a dozen books of poetry, drama and literary criticism since.

Syed is not just an intellectual. He has opened his home to Punjabi activism. For over forty years, without fail, he and his wife, Samina Hassan Syed, have welcomed people to their house on Lahore’s Jail Road every Friday to read, discuss and sing Punjabi verse classics.

The weekly gathering has become known as sangat (or companionship) and has provided a fertile breeding ground for many Punjabi activists, artists and writers, including the founders of parallel theatre troupe Punjab Lok Rehas. Founded in 1986, it performs exclusively in Punjabi.

Nearing the age of 80, Syed continues to write in Punjabi and inspire others to do so. What is it that drives him and others like Soofi?

In her book Speaking Like a State: Language and Nationalism in Pakistan, American researcher Alyssa Ayres shows that the movement for the promotion of Punjabi is not a struggle for Punjab’s national liberation but a fight for “symbolic capital” by the Punjabi elite. She describes it as a revivalist struggle for ‘Punjabiyat’ pursued through the cultivation of a well-respected literary sphere.

Ayres analyses Syed’s plays to argue that the movement for Punjabi language is dedicated to celebrating a heroic, masculine Punjabi identity that has been “lost”. For an elite blessed with wealth, status and political sway, this is the last pit-stop on the way to reviving its cultural glory.

Rahman agrees in part with Ayres. “We cannot analyse the Punjabi movement the same way we analyse other ethno-nationalist and linguistic movements. The Punjabi language activists are not separatists or nationalists. As the ruling majority [in Pakistan], Punjab stands to lose far too much by raising anti-Pakistan slogans,” he explains.

But that is only one part of the story.

In a recent article, Virinder Kalra and Waqas Butt, two researchers at the University of Manchester, have emphasised the close connections between the Pakistani left and Punjabi language activism. This link provides an important clue as to why a Punjabi-dominated state demonised Punjabi language activists in the 1960s and the 1970s as “communist stooges”.

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The most significant manifestation of the connection between language and politics was the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP), a Maoist outfit formed in 1970 after the Sino-Soviet conflict split the National Awami Party (NAP). Headed by Ishaque Muhammad in Punjab, the MKP’s focus was on working in villages. Its programme stressed cultural politics and it undertook a search for traditions of rebellion in the people’s culture and folklore. Punjabi, as the language of the impoverished peasantry, became instrumental in that search.

Muhammad himself wrote two plays in Punjabi, Kuknas and Musalli. The latter exposed caste hierarchies in Punjab while the former commemorated Dulla Bhatti, a Punjabi folk hero reportedly hanged in Lahore for rebelling against Mughal Emperor Akbar.

Muhammad, who depicts Dulla Bhatti as a working class icon, used folk songs and classical Punjabi poetry to mobilise the peasantry. “These people had been kept away from paathshalas, madrasas and schools, and for them words were kept out of reach. Sitting in their school, I became convinced about the importance of Punjabi,” he wrote in the preface to Musalli.

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His party, thus, wedded revolutionary politics to language.

Syed’s play Takht Lahore is another expression of the same union. It dramatises the folk tale of Dulla Bhatti who does not appear in the play even once. Instead, he appears as a symbol of the working class resistance, an ideology of revolution. He acts through a group of striking factory workers and the rebel poet, Shah Hussain. The writer also deliberately obscures the geography, omitting the mention of Punjab entirely. This shifts the focus away from celebrating a “Punjabi hero” to reflecting upon the politics of speaking the truth to power.

Many were inspired by these ideas, including Maqsood Saqib.

His Suchet Kitab Ghar in Lahore is Ganga Ram Chowk’s most well-kept secret. Tucked in a small flat amid the hustle and bustle of innumerable offices and pharmacies that cluster around the Ganga Ram Hospital, the publishing house keeps its doors always open — to students, to researchers, to any passerby whose curiosity is aroused by its Punjabi signs.

Maqsood Saqib at Suchet Kitab Ghar | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Maqsood Saqib at Suchet Kitab Ghar | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

Saqib comes from a working class family living in Sheikhupura. He runs the bookstore and edits its flagship magazine, Pancham, jointly with his spouse, Faiza Ra’ana. “I was interested in Punjabi because it is a working class language; [it is] the language of the people,” says Saqib, sitting behind his work desk.

That was the reason why he enrolled for a masters degree in Punjabi at the Punjab University in 1973. “In those days, Punjabi was not being championed for the sake of Punjabi itself. Adopting Punjabi meant trying to identify with the working class and embrace its culture, marginalised and degraded by the upper classes,” explains Saqib. “The idea was to create a rooted literary worker, someone who would expand the [revolutionary] movement into villages and link class struggle with the language question.”

Another important figure of this movement was Shafqat Tanveer Mirza, a Dawn columnist, until his death in 2012. His book, Resistance Themes in Punjabi Literature, sought to re-cast Punjabi romantic tales in a revolutionary light. “If you want to talk about literature for the people and language for the people then you need to de-class yourself on a linguistic basis as well [and adopt the people’s language],” Mirza said in an interview with Saqib.

The exponents of this perspective separated language from ethnic identity. “Your choice of language indicates who in society you want to join and who you want to distance yourself from. Language is linked to status, to position, to class,” declares Saqib.

“But when I saw how Punjabis had been made to reject their identity, culture and language, I realised I had to work more for my mother tongue

This position also allowed political activists whose own mother tongue was not Punjabi to join the movement for its promotion. Hussain Naqi was one such person. Born in Lucknow, he moved to Pakistan in 1950. A firebrand student leader in his youth, he has worked as a journalist and a human rights campaigner for most of his life. He has edited and written for many left of centre publications such as Viewpoint and Punjab Punch. He also gave Punjabi its first daily newspaper, Sajjan.

With Naqi at the helm as managing editor, the newspaper was conceived as a six-month long experiment. It was manned entirely by volunteers. Its editorial team included Zafaryab Ahmed as chief editor, with Qaiser, Zubair Ahmed, Akram Varaich and Jamil Pal as the eager writers and desk editors. Sajjan ran between February 1989 and September 1990 on the sheer strength of the voluntary spirit behind it.

Qaiser describes his involvement with Sajjan as a love affair. “The members of the Sajjan team all had day jobs elsewhere. After work, we would gather in our small office and toil tirelessly into the night to produce the next day’s copy,” he tells me as we sit in the lawn of Khoj Garh. “Our only reward: the meal we sat down to share once the pages were ready for print. We did not get a single penny out of it,” he recalls fondly.

Khoj Garh is located a few miles to the north of Kasur city, down a winding dirt track framed by tall trees. Founded and run by Qaiser, it is dedicated to research on Punjab’s language, history and culture. Despite a paucity of funds, it is held together by the iron will of Qaiser who began his activism in the 1970s and who spent his early life struggling to make ends meet as a public schoolteacher.

He grins as he recalls how Sajjan made headlines by successfully predicting the number of seats the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) would secure in an upcoming election. “All Urdu newspapers were flabbergasted. How did this fledgling Punjabi newspaper manage to break such an important piece of news?”

Qaiser’s activism flows from a deep, emotional bond with his mother language. “My mother used to recite the classic epics such as Sohni and Sassi to me. She knew them by heart. That early memory has stayed with me,” he says.

Illustration Marium Ali
Illustration Marium Ali

Like Soofi, Qaiser started off as a poet. “But when I saw how Punjabis had been made to reject their identity, culture and language, I realised I had to work more for my mother tongue,” he adds emphatically.

Qaiser, who has written a history of Sajjan, sorrowfully remembers the day the newspaper was discontinued. The reporting table stood bare and a heavy silence descended on the cramped newsroom. A crippling lack of funds had halted the venture.

Qaiser faults authorities in Punjab. “In the eighteen months that Sajjan ran, we only received one ad from the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) government in Punjab. In fact, the Sindh government helped us more. Benazir Bhutto’s [PPP] government in the centre also provided some support.”

The PPP, in fact, had bolstered the hopes of Punjabi activists even in the 1970s. Qaiser describes that decade as a “breath of fresh air” for the Punjabi movement. The Punjabi department at the Punjab University was then set up with Syed as its head. “The plan was to develop it as a research institute where Punjab’s history, culture and literature would be documented and analysed,” says Saqib who was one of the first people to enrol at the department.

Many prominent PPP leaders were among the supporters of Punjabi — Fakhar Zaman being one of them. He joined the PPP in 1970 and rose to lead its cultural wing in 1984. He has authored nearly 40 books – a large number are in Punjabi, including a controversial novel titled Bandiwaan (Prisoner) which was banned in 1978 by General Ziaul Haq’s military regime. It revolves around a prisoner awaiting trial. His crime: “Writing in the mother language.” He is finally executed after delivering an impassioned speech about the importance of regional languages to Pakistani nationalism.

The rise of religious nationalism in the 1920s gave languages a sectarian colour. Urdu was equated to Islam, Hindi to Hinduism and Punjabi to Sikhism

Hanif Ramay’s Punjab Ka Muqadima, first published in 1985, follows a similar thread. His lengthy treatise explains how Punjab “sacrificed” its own language at the altar of Pakistan with disastrous consequences. A Punjab shorn of its identity could not identify with the Bengalis’ love for their mother tongue and moved to crush Bengali nationalism, resulting in the break-up of Pakistan, he pointed out.

Ramay was also among the founding members of the PPP. He served as both the governor and the chief minister of Punjab between 1973 and 1975. He publicly argued that Pakistan’s salvation lay in giving regional languages their rightful place alongside Urdu. His point of view represented a serious departure from what Kalra and Butt term the “Marxist inspired literary methods” of writers like Syed.

Punjab Ka Muqadima and Bandiwaan came to be widely circulated within the Punjabi movement which, at the time, seemed to be entering a new phase, reflecting the changing political realities of Pakistan.

According to Saqib, the PPP’s rise to power represented the aspirations of thousands of leftwing students and intellectuals who had given the party its decidedly socialist character. But after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had entrenched himself in office, events rapidly took a different course. The left-leaning NAP government in Balochistan was dismissed. The one in the NWFP – today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – resigned in protest. As Kamran Asdar Ali, who teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austen, tells us in his recently published book Surkh Salam, a massive workers movement in Karachi was repressed violently.

Within his party, Bhutto silenced his dissenters. Ramay, for instance, was forced to resign from his government posts and imprisoned over differences with Bhutto. And so, after reaching its zenith in the 1970s, the Pakistani left began a slow and painful decline into fragmentation. Zia’s dictatorship was no friend of the left either. It continued Bhutto’s crackdown against the leftist dissidents. The back of the organised left was broken.

The MKP also suffered a great amount of state repression. Following Ishaque Muhammad’s death in 1986, the party stumbled into irrelevance. The Punjabi movement, as a result, stood robbed of political support. The revolutionary landscape that sustained its radical edge had become barren.

Portraits and works of prominent Punjabi writers and poets at Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Portraits and works of prominent Punjabi writers and poets at Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

It was in this context that some Punjabi activists thought it prudent to make their movement more palatable for the state and dispel its subversive, anti-establishment image. They sought to widen their support base by aligning their ideology with Pakistani nationalism. Punjabiyat was seen only as strengthening ‘Pakistaniyat’. Bandiwaan and Punjab Ka Muqadima contributed greatly to this perspective.

Did support from politically influential people such as Zaman and Ramay truly further the cause of Punjabi? Veteran Punjabi activists remain sceptical.

While he was still the governor of Punjab, Ramay is said to have convened a meeting of Punjabi activists where, according to Qaiser, he declared: “If you can gather a 100,000 people outside the Governor House, I’ll get official status for Punjabi the very next day.” Saqib, who was present at the meeting, replied sardonically: “Ramay Sahab, if we gathered 100,000 people, why would we need you?”

Saqib and Qaiser concur that the elite support for Punjabi has largely been token. “From time to time, the Punjabi elite plays the Punjabiyat card to assert its dominance over the rest of the country,” says Saqib.

The elite’s support for Punjabiyat, according to him, is an empty lie. “Would the elite ever agree to share a mother language with their lowly servants? Would they willingly forego the head start their children enjoy while growing up speaking English and Urdu?” he asks.

Soofi also agrees. Despite the PMLN’s propensity to flaunt its Punjabi identity, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government in Punjab has rarely actualised support for the language, he says. Recently, the government donated 20,000 rupees to the Punjabi Adabi Board. He returned the ridiculously meagre donation immediately.

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Saqib, for one, has foresworn expectations from the powers-that-be. In his editorials for Pancham, he has actively written against state patronage for Punjabi. “Punjabi is the language of resistance because it has always remained outside power. Why convert it into a tool of the state, to replace Urdu as the language of oppression?” he asked provocatively in one editorial note.

Others still see some hope in engaging with the state. Soofi and Qaiser have joined hands with numerous NGOs, associations and student groups in demanding that the government make Punjabi a compulsory subject at the primary school level. This was the stated agenda of the International Mother Language Day rally as well.

In Rahman’s analysis, this is a flawed position. While the government may impose Punjabi in state schools, the vast network of private institutions may choose not to do so, he argues. “Private schools shy away from teaching Punjabi because Punjabi does not help students in landing jobs. Until Punjabi becomes one of the languages in which modern economy operates, making it a compulsory subject will achieve little,” he says.

Rahman’s argument is compelling but it cannot dim the hope in Soofi’s eyes. “It is still a start,” he insists. “We need a bottom-up rather than top-down approach for the promotion of Punjabi.”

Qaiser, too, vehemently backs the idea. “Ideally, Punjabi should be the medium of instruction at all levels but that would require revamping the entire curriculum overnight. We must be practical and begin with its introduction as a compulsory subject [at the primary level]. Change can only come gradually.”

Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture in Lahore | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture in Lahore | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

Is the state ready to own Punjabi? To many, the establishment of the government-run Punjab Institute for Language, Art and Culture (Pilac) seems like a step in that direction.

Pilac is located right next to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. Housed in a redbrick building, with cheerful tiled mosaics decorating its patios, the centre has an impressive range of facilities including a café, an auditorium, a library, an art gallery and a museum. Emblazoned in bold on the left-most part of the building are the words “Punjab–Jiangsu Cultural Centre”. It is in this part that the office of Sughra Sadaf, director general of Pilac, is located.

She sweeps into the room, smiling magnanimously, and settles in her chair behind a big desk. In a corner are stacked copies of Pilac’s monthly publication, Trinjan.

The centre came into being courtesy a law passed by the Punjab Assembly under the Pakistan Muslim League– Quaid-e-Azam government in the early 2000s. It began its operations in 2004 in a small rented office in Lahore’s Shadman area. In 2007, it shifted to its current purpose-built building.

“A group of Punjabi intellectuals and language activists went to see [then] Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi, pleading that Punjabi badly needed state patronage. They pointed out that every other province ran institutes to develop its regional culture and indigenous language, except Punjab. It was high time to correct this,” she says while talking about the history of Pilac.

Elahi paid heed. Sadaf points to a striking photograph from Pilac’s opening ceremony that features a notable Punjabi poetess placing a turban on his head.

The misgivings of Punjabi activists were confirmed when the programme for the LLF’s 2016 edition had to be cut short at the last minute

Since its start, Pilac has been organising a range of Punjabi-related activities. It publishes books and holds conferences. “Additionally, we give away the Shafqat Tanveer Mirza Award to three Punjabi language activists every year on February 21,” says Sadaf.

Previous recipients of the award include Soofi and fiction writer Afzal Ahsan Randhawa. This year, it was awarded to Shereen Masoud, chairperson of the Masud Khaddarposh Trust. Sadaf has been serving as the Pilac head since 2010 and speaks very positively about her tenure. “I could have done a lot more if there wasn’t such a severe lack of funds.”

The government allocated a sizeable amount of money when Pilac was first set up but it seems to have been left to fend for itself since then. Sadaf complains that barely half a million rupees are allocated to Pilac every year for organising events. “The problem is that the state treats us like the Alhamra [Cultural Complex] which rents out its many halls to raise revenue. At Pilac, we want to commission research projects, support local artists and protect dying traditions. A commercial model simply won’t work here,” she says with the smile of an all knowing sage.

Bulleh Sah’s poetry at his shrine in Kasur | Arif Mahmood, Wihte Star
Bulleh Sah’s poetry at his shrine in Kasur | Arif Mahmood, Wihte Star

[“I]f my mother fell sick, would I put her in someone else’s care or should I do it myself? Punjabi language is our mother. We cannot expect the state to care for it; we must rise to its aid ourselves.”

These are the views of Ahmad Raza who goes by as Ahmad Raza Punjabi and is the president of Punjabi Parchaar, a non-government organisation set up in August 2013. “My father taught me the most valuable life lessons through Bulleh Shah’s poetry. His poetry was what pulled me towards Punjabi,” he muses.

After years of working for major multinationals, Raza finally succumbed to his inner calling. He quit his job and started working on creating an organisation dedicated to promoting Punjabi — the result was Punjabi Parchaar.

Raza and his organisation represent the new generation of Punjabi activists in Pakistan. Their zeal to popularise Punjabi has pushed them towards new strategies. “When I discovered that Raza had a background in advertising, I thought why can’t we use his marketing abilities to promote Punjabi,” chimes in Tariq Jatala, another founding member of Punjabi Parchaar.

This idea resulted in a branding project: hundreds of auto rickshaws across Lahore were plastered with posters promoting Punjabi. According to Jatala, this has been one of their most successful campaigns to date.

“Our aim is to raise the status of Punjabi. We want Punjabis to take pride in their identity and convince them that their language is second to none,” elaborates Jatala. Punjabi Parchaar also organised a hunger strike when Punjabi workers in Balochistan were reportedly killed by Baloch separatists in 2014.

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Jatala – in his sixties – is much older than Raza but he made his debut in Punjabi activism only recently. “Growing up, I watched a lot of Punjabi films. Punjabi cinema was so popular that I never imagined that Punjabi was in danger, that it could die.”

His perception changed drastically when he moved from his native Sialkot to Lahore. People spoke Urdu on the streets. Mothers spoke in Urdu with their children. Punjabi’s public presence was considerably lower in Punjab’s capital than in smaller cities.

“My wife wanted us to speak in Urdu with our children. But it just did not feel right. We argued over it frequently. In the end, I stuck to my guns. I can proudly say that Punjabi remained the language of my home,” beams Jatala. “Of course, all my children are highly qualified and they eventually learned English and Urdu too,” he adds quickly.

This year, Raza and Jatala poured a tremendous amount of energy into organising the Vaisakhi Mela in Lahore, coinciding with the wheat harvesting season. The festival included literary discussions, Sufi music and a Punjabi mushaira.

Punjab Language Culture Centre, Lahore | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Punjab Language Culture Centre, Lahore | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

For the duo, the festival was a thumping success. It ran all day at the Alhamra Cultural Complex in Lahore; hundreds of people showed up, including some celebrities. They are clear that their success has nothing to do with support from the state. Their stance on the importance of a political or class struggle, however, remains vague. While Raza strongly believes that the official recognition for Punjab cannot be made possible without public agitation, he stops short of linking his agitation to anything other than language, whether class or something else.

A Faisalabad-based organisation, Kuknas, however, seems to be inspired by the same old leftist ideals of a union between language and class. That its name is derived from Ishaque Muhammad’s play of the same title only underscores its self-description as “a progressive youth group which is working for raising awareness about class struggle and the mother language”.

Earlier this year, Kuknas organised the Lyallpur Literary Festival through a sponsorship from Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group headquartered in Lahore that has evolved out of Punjab Lok Rehas theatre group. Punjabi Parchaar also became involved in the event by virtue of Kuknas head Tohid Chattha being a member of the former organisation’s board of directors.

By appropriating a form of elite culture for a marginalised cause, the event perhaps signalled the future of the movement for the protection and promotion of Punjabi: 21st century marketing and event management wedded to a political ideology centred on mobilising the marginalised sections of the society.

The Lyallpur Literary Festival mirrored the format of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) which is dominated by authors and intellectuals writing in English. This “other LLF”, as dubbed by historian Ishtiaq Ahmed in a column in The Friday Times, was held only a week before the one in Lahore kicked off in February.

The timing was hardly a coincidence.

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“Lahore is a Punjabi-speaking city. Yet every year, the Lahore Literary Festival only features a token Punjabi panel. The LLF’s uncritical acceptance of English is completely elitist and unrepresentative of Lahore’s culture,” says Qaiser.

The misgivings of Punjabi activists were confirmed when the programme for the LLF’s 2016 edition had to be cut short at the last minute; the few Punjabi panels in the original programme were all unceremoniously dropped.

Chattha, a chatty, amiable and animated young lecturer at the history department of Government College Faisalabad, is one of the main organisers of the Lyallpur Literary Festival. His eyes light up as he talks about his personal background. “My forefathers were all members of the Kirti Kissan Party in the pre-partition period.”

Iqbal Qaiser at Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Iqbal Qaiser at Khoj Garh | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

The party led Punjab’s landless and poor people in a militant anti-colonial struggle against the British in the 1930s — something Chattha is currently researching on. Unsurprisingly, he sees leftwing politics and Punjabi question as inseparably intertwined.

In 2008, he started a small independent theatre troupe as a student at Government College Faisalabad. “We performed only in Punjabi,” he says. Among the first of their plays was Muhammad’s Musalli. The young actors were later introduced to the National Students Federation (NSF) during a peasant conference.

The recently revived NSF is a left-leaning student organisation. Chattha and his friends began working with the NSF’s Faisalabad unit. Two years later, they had a falling out. “We disagreed with their position on language, with their preference for Urdu and their discomfort with Punjabi,” he says. Chattha and his friends then started their own group, Kuknas.

The Punjabi movement today has people of all political shades, all walks of life in it. It does not matter if you are leftist, rightist, religious or secular… if you are a Punjabi, then stand up for your mother language

Interestingly, Kuknas’ young volunteers include a Balti speaker from Skardu. “I do not speak Punjabi but I identify fully with this cause. Everyone has the right to speak their own language without being shamed for it,” says Hussnain, who studies mass communication at Government College Faisalabad.

Amir Butt, one of the two leading figures of Kuknas, is older than everyone else in the group — which is perhaps why everyone turns to him for advice. His day job is to work for the Faisalabad branch of Punjab Lok Sujag.

Butt’s Punjabi language activism began when he was a student in 1988. By 1996, he was deeply immersed in leftwing politics and in 1998 he became a card-carrying member of the MKP. “The political perspective radicalised the language question for me,” he says.

When he started working as an employee with a multinational company back in the 1990s, Butt was served a show cause notice for stubbornly sticking to Punjabi in his official correspondence and professional meetings. In 2000, he bid adieu to his job and joined Punjab Lok Sujag whose agenda includes “the protection and promotion of Punjabi language.”

At the festival, Butt could be seen whizzing around, shepherding participants to and from the refreshment lounge and managing the question and answer sessions that followed each panel discussion. The programme was tightly organised and smoothly executed, with discussions on topics ranging from Punjabi short story to Punjabi theatre. One discussion was on women’s voices in Punjabi poetry.

Illustration Marium Ali
Illustration Marium Ali

During a discussion on Punjabi novels, a young author from south Punjab insisted on categorising his work as “Seraiki literature”. One audience member stood up, objecting to that. “Why do you insist on separating Seraiki from Punjabi? This is all a conspiracy to divide Punjab,” he exclaimed loudly.

Some back and forth between the panelist and the audience followed. The Seraiki novelist was virtually shouted down.

The incident represents an old divide within the movement for the promotion of Punjabi language: whether pride in language must be coupled with Punjabi ethnic nationalism or whether Punjabi must be protected and promoted as the language of the masses abused and misused by the rapacious Punjabi elite to perpetuate its dominance within Punjab and, by extension, all over Pakistan.

Those working with Punjabi Parchaar are not concerned about the class divisions within Punjab. The organisation and its members, therefore, see any challenge to Punjabi language as a threat to the territorial integrity of Punjab. Raza echoes Ramay when he says there was no such thing as a separate Seraiki language a few decades ago. The Seraiki movement was hatched as a conspiracy in Pakistan’s early days to bring down Punjab, he claims. “Some people saw Punjab’s strength and prosperity and, in their envy, plotted to divide our province.”

Suchet Kitab Ghar | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star
Suchet Kitab Ghar | Azhar Jafri, Wihte Star

Saqib views these assertions with alarm. “By Punjab we should not mean… any geographical space. Instead, we are referring to the rich and intensely varied collectivity shared by all the people of Punjab,” he wrote in one of his recent editorials. In his view, a territorial and ethnic notion of Punjabiyat will blunt the radical edge of the Punjabi movement.

Chattha elaborates the interface between Punjabi nationalism and Punjabi language in the same leftist idiom: “Of course I am a Punjabi nationalist,” he declares. “But for me, nationalism does not entail subscribing to some regressive, chauvinistic ideology,” he says.

[T]hump thump thump THUMP

The dhol picks up where it had left off. The beat runs through the crowd like thunder. Baba Najmi, an ageing Punjabi poet, has just finished electrifying the audience with a powerful poem about the mother tongue: “And in my blood, write the alphabet of my language / So that till I breathe, my language also breathes.”

The frail poet is hauled off the truck as Saahir announces the next speaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your own MPA Atta Muhammad Manika.”

Soofi, Qaiser and Saahir look on triumphantly as Maneka, a ruling party member of the Punjab Assembly, takes the microphone. “My fellow Punjabis, I assure you that [Punjab Chief Minister] Shahbaz Sharif fully supports your cause. My presence here is proof of the current government’s commitment to give Punjabi language the recognition it deserves,” he says.

A scene from Bulleh Shah's shrine in Kasur | Arif Mahmood, Wihte Star
A scene from Bulleh Shah's shrine in Kasur | Arif Mahmood, Wihte Star

The crowd responds with loud cheers.

In addition to Maneka, political leaders from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami are also participating in the International Mother Language Day rally. Recently, even Hafiz Saeed, chief of the radical Islamist group Jamaat-ud-Daawa, put out a statement saying that Punjabi, not Urdu, should have become Pakistan’s national language.

These developments raise an important question: What should be the nature of relationship between the pro-Punjabi movement and the state? What basis should the movement have to mobilise support — a linguistic and ethnic one or a class-centred one? Also, should the movement for the protection and promotion of Punjabi with its roots in a leftwing past seek support from pro-jihad, pro-establishment groups?

The movement remains as divided on the answers to these questions as it is uncertain on the causes and effects of various political, ethnic, cultural and economic fissures within Punjab — as well as Pakistan. Despite these challenges, the movement seems to be growing rapidly. As Soofi points out, Lahore was its centre in the 1970s. Now, its spread has become much more horizontal, with the presence of activist groups in Faisalabad, Sahiwal, Pakpattan, Kasur and many other localities across Punjab.

“The Punjabi movement today has people of all political shades, all walks of life in it. It does not matter if you are leftist, rightist, religious or secular… if you are a Punjabi, then stand up for your mother language and make the government grant it the right to flower and blossom,” says Raza.

This was originally published in Herald's July 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

Sara Kazmi teaches at the Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She has also been involved with parallel theatre in Punjab.