Punjabi as a catalyst for regional and global trade — I

After the British annexed Punjab they decided to use Urdu as the language of education
and, therefore, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who sought government employment had to learn Urdu


On December 28, 2014, I had the privilege of giving a talk at the National Punjabi Conference held at the Punjabi Complex, Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore. One of the greatest tragedies in the life of people is when they feel ashamed and hesitant to speak and write in their mother tongue. Upwardly mobile Pakistani Punjabi Muslims are a notoriously complex-ridden people who associate their mother tongue with a humble and rustic origin. As they climb the social ladder — or imagine they do — they start speaking Urdu while the Punjabi elite prefers English. So, there is a clear class cut-off point with regards to the language question in Punjab. Almost all Pakistani Punjabis are illiterate when it comes to their ability to read and write Punjabi, and I am one of them.

However, we are now determined to set right this historical wrong. Arguments in support of speaking Punjabi as well as writing it were advanced at the conference by different scholars, writers, poets and activists. I chose to speak on the role Punjabi can play in boosting economic development and prosperity. I hope the enterpreneurial class and concerned civil servants take note of the connection between language and the economy. I shall begin with some remarks on the role of language in human societies.

As far as we know, language is a faculty unique to human beings. It enables particular experiences to be abstracted and put in words, which in turn makes possible the coining of general terms and concepts describing recurring phenomena. On such a basis regular interactions between human beings can take place and thus relationships can be established that make possible a more complex society and social structure based on a division of labour regulated by law to generate goods and services over and above the needs of bare survival. This is the beginning of civilisation. Therefore, language is an essential part of the material or economic base of social organism upon which communication, culture, surplus production and civilisation rest.

Ordinarily, a language is learnt and internalised through regular interaction over long periods of time. Consequently, over time, the speakers of a particular language acquire a distinct cultural identity that distinguishes them from the speakers of other languages. Understandably, such long interaction and association generates shared values, norms and practices and they, in turn, produce shared cultural and emotional ties. Poetry, fiction and other art forms that also evolve in the historical process become a part of the intellectual and aesthetical heritage of a people.

Language is therefore both a part of the economic base as well as of the cultural identity of a people. Some theories of nationalism consider language the core element in nation formation and nation identification. It is therefore reasonable to assert that the speakers of Punjabi language share a common identity thatwe can call Punjabiyat. However, language is not the only factor shaping and defining group identity. Ethnicity, religion, sect and even caste ties have historically been important to the formation of group identity. Such multifarious ties have sometimes converged to constitute a compact national identity but not always. They have also competed with each other and led to conflict and splitting up among language speakers and, in some cases, become the dominant factor in group and national formation, thus driving shared language to the periphery. Nowhere is this epitomised more graphically than in the history of the Punjabi speaking people.

As a frontier province, located at the entrance to the Indian subcontinent from the northwest mountain passes, it has seen waves of people arriving and settling down. In the process, new religions and languages also became part of society that existed in territories now known as the Punjab. We have evidence of a language akin to Punjabi being used as early as the 12th century, used by the common people even when the ruling classes spoken some foreign language such as Turkish or Persian. After the British annexed Punjab they decided to use Urdu as the language of education and, therefore, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who sought government employment had to learn Urdu. Historically, Punjabi was written in the Persian-Urdu and Devanagari scripts; the second Guru of orthodox Sikhs, Guru Angad, introduced a third script called Gurmukhi.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Punjab became politically active as secular nationalist as well as communal revivalist movements emerged among the three main communities of the province. Muslims constituted the biggest group, followed by Hindus and Sikhs. In my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, I have argued that communalist revivalist movements gained the upper hand. In census records, while Muslims began to return to Urdu as their “mother-tongue”, Hindus returned to Hindi and Sikhs to Punjabi. On an everyday basis all three communities spoke Punjabi but group identity based on religion became the core factor around which political identities consolidated. In 1947, the British Punjab province was partitioned on the basis of religion. It required that contiguous religious majorities of Muslims and non-Muslims were to be separated and given to the states of Pakistan and India respectively. The same principle of contiguous religious majorities was applied to partition India into two separate states: India and Pakistan.

The actual partition process proved to be extremely violent. More than a million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were killed and 14 million to 18 million were forced to cross the international border between the two states. Punjab bore the brunt of the violence. Out of its 34 million population, 10 million had to cross the international border created in Punjab between India and Pakistan. This means that nearly 30 percent of its total population had to leave home and hearth to be in the state where their religion was a positive factor. Some 500,000 to 800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were killed during the partition riots and raids.

Later, East Punjab was further divided to create the Haryana state in the easternmost parts of former united Punjab and some Punjabi-speaking areas were taken away and given to Himachal Pradesh. West Punjab remained in the same shape though briefly under the One Unit Scheme it was amalgamated with other provinces in West Pakistan to create West Pakistan. Now demands are being raised to divide Pakistani Punjab to create a separate province for the Saraiki-speaking people of mainly southern Punjab.

Punjabi as a catalyst for regional and global trade — II

If now we want Punjabiyat based on shared language to be a meaningful link among Punjabis, as social scientists we need to
develop theoretical arguments that make Punjabiyat attractive not only emotionally but also rationally

The hugely positive markings on the Daily Times comments section and similar responses on Facebook to last week’s article on the Punjabi language have greatly pleased me but, more than that, greatly surprised me as well. It seems I have lifted the lid from a cauldron in which Punjabiyat had been brewing for a long time despite whatever pretensions they may don to convince themselves that they are a superior caste because they speak Urdu or English. The current relationship between Punjabi and Punjabis is highly artificial and hollow and, therefore, fickle and superficial.

The partition of India, Punjab and Bengal in 1947 on a religious basis lent legitimacy to the politics of exclusion from the community of those who belonged to a stigmatised religion. So, Hindus and Sikhs were rendered unwelcome in Pakistani West Punjab and, likewise, Muslims in Indian East Punjab. In my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, this fact is affirmed over and over again from the hundreds of interviews I have conducted. Most of them did not want to leave their homes, mohallas (neighbourhoods) and villages but had to. At the end of the day, ethnic cleansing had taken place on both sides and the administrations of both Punjabs were complicit in such cleansing.

Instead of beating our chests about what happened in 1947, we need to think creatively to transform the current situation into a positive one. If now we want Punjabiyat based on shared language to be a meaningful link among Punjabis, as social scientists we need to develop theoretical arguments that make Punjabiyat attractive not only emotionally but also rationally, as a material incentive. For intellectuals the emotive and aesthetic aspects of Punjabiyat are most appealing but for traders and industrialists, unless we can make a strong case about the cultivation of the Punjabi language being good for business, we are unlikely to win them over. Finally, we have all those state functionaries whose bread and butter is based on suppressing Punjabiyat on both sides of the international border, though in different ways. We have to make a convincing case on the lines that Punjabiyat does not mean the redrawing of borders but of transcending them as we interact regionally and globally in the pursuit of economic development and prosperity. In other words, Punjabi should play a positive role in generating economic rewards while preserving the political shape that exists today of the two neighbouring states of India and Pakistan.

As social scientists we know that for building sound trade relations, trust and confidence in one another is imperative. When trust and mutual confidence exist, we say that social capital has been created. Social capital is the resource that provides strength and resilience to a relationship. Now, Punjabi was and always will be the most natural link between all Punjabis even when at present many do not speak or many more do not write or read it. I know many Punjabis who live in Karachi whose children do not speak Punjabi but they are identified as Punjabis by Sindhis, Baloch and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs, and when asked how they identify themselves, they too say they are Punjabis. We can extend this situation to India as well; Punjabis are one of the biggest immigrant groups settled in the west. So, then, what is the case for the Punjabi language as a catalyst to regional and global trade? I shall address this question below.

Globalisation refers to an increasing and perhaps irreversible integration of the disparate economic units of the world into a single structure, even when the organising units of the international political system continue to be territorial nation-states. The proponents of globalisation argue that economic prosperity can be achieved more effectively through free trade, which requires the factors of production — land, capital and labour — to be put to optimal use through expanding networks and ventures. Capital and labour are moveable while land is stationary. Obviously, it is the free movement of capital that globalisation, based on Thatcherite-Reaganite neo-liberal economics, favours most, but labour too moves relatively more freely under the globalisation regime.

However, given the uneven development of the world economy, powerful economies are in a far more advantageous position than weaker or less developed ones. If individual states have to face globalisation individually, oftentimes they are unable to protect themselves against the powerful economies of the world, and multinational and transnational companies start drawing maximum benefit from globalisation. Consequently, regional economic cooperation has been a popular response to globalisation. The EU and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are the best examples of regional cooperation but, in fact, all over the world regional cooperation has resulted in the founding of similar cooperative unions. This means that states within the same region accelerate trade amongst themselves and thus benefit from each other while retaining their individual identities and sovereignties.

In South Asia such an understanding exists since 1985, when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded. But the partition of India, Punjab and Bengal resulted in India and Pakistan becoming rivals and enemies, going to war on a number of occasions and, when at peace, they have been indulging in zero-sum games derived from mutual suspicion, fear and hatred. Therefore, while we have the regional framework for accelerated economic interaction and cooperation, morons on both sides of the border have created a situation that hugely undermines the scope for genuine, substantive cooperation. I will not take sides and say which side bears the greater responsibility for this dismal situation but surely on both sides there are vested interests hellbent on preventing the normalisation of the India-Pakistan relationship.

We know that irrational standpoints cannot be maintained forever; sooner or later they require resolution. If that does not happen, ultranationalism results in war. Such a possibility is always lurking behind the India-Pakistan relationship. Alternatively, rational thinking can help adversaries bury the hatchet and establish a new equation. Next week we shall be probing what role Punjabi can play if both sides begin to think rationally and farsightedly.

Punjabi as a catalyst for regional and global trade — III

The state and its functionaries have, in the last 1,000 years or more, conducted their affairs in foreign tongues, most notably in Persian, Urdu and English. On the other hand, Punjabi was the medium through which the message of love, tolerance and mutual acceptance was bequeathed

I ended my second article in the ongoing series on the Punjabi language’s potential for boosting regional and global trade with the plea that it is only if rational thinking based on mutual benefit prevails in the corridors of power and amongst the trading and entrpreneurial classes that Punjabi can be used as an asset. So, here follow my main arguments in support of Punjabi as a medium for trade and commerce. If India and Pakistan decide to adhere to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Charter, which commits them and other member states to work towards the elimination of poverty and other egregious indicators of underdevelopment, it should not be difficult to appreciate that they will have to replace confrontation with cooperation. Cooperation of course would mean solving common problems with regards to the environment, land erosion, waterlogging, fair sharing of river waters and so on, but also entering friendly trade relations. Without producing wealth, prosperity will not be possible.

Since the overwhelming bulk of India-Pakistan trade will be carried out via the land route, the Wagah-Attari, Hussainiwala and other borders in Punjab would be the main routes for such trade because the old road systems and railway tracks that were laid down for a united Punjab exist even now and can be put to use again. The BBC announced on October 1, 2007 that a truck carrying goods from East Punjab crossed the Wagah-Attari border and entered West Punjab for the first time in 60 years. This was once an ancient trade route that linked India to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Analysts believe that trade between the two countries could reach $ 10 billion a year if both sides ease restrictions.

Punjabis would be involved in such trade in a major way: workers, farmers, truck drivers, petty officials and so on. What do they share most among themselves if not the Punjabi language? However, this natural reservior became dormant after 1947 and, after the 1965 war, all communications ceased between Punjabis and they became strangers to each other. Let me share my own personal shock about this. On March 4, 2013, exactly 66 years to the day on which the first violent clashes took place in Amritsar in 1947, I gave a talk on the partition of Punjab at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. The talk was in English but afterwards, when I intermingled with the students who had come to listen to me, I switched over to Punjabi. This surprised them a lot. Almost in chorus they said, “Sir tussi tey barri sohni Punjabi boldey ho” (Sir you speak such beautiful Punjabi). Obviously, they had no idea that just 50 kilometres away was the capital of undivided and present day Punjab and that the Lahori and Amritsari Punjabi dialect was identical (even after the partition). The same sort of response I have had when speaking to younger generations of Indian Punjabis elswhere in India. It has resulted in great curiosity and natural empathy. I have seen this magic at work in international conferences and in my travels worldwide as well. Whenever two Punjabis come across each other, a natural empathy connects them. Later, of course, if they start discussing politics, the nationalist narratives they have been groomed in come into play but the first encounters almost always have a magnetic pull towards one another.

Even at the apex of power and politics, Punjabi plays a miraculous role. The first major breakthough in India-Pakistan dialogue took place when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the late former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral (the former a refugee from a village in Amritsar district and the latter from Jhelum city) met at the SAARC Summit at Male in 1997. As is famously reported, after the formalities, when both talked to each other, they instinctively began to speak in Punjabi. Thus, the first step towards normalisation was taken. Later, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Lahore in February 1997 and brought along a large contingent of prominent Indian Punjabis with a Lahore or West Punjab connection. Both sides fully appreciate that the Punjabis have a special role to play in the process of normalisation. Among them were matinee idol Dev Anand, famous singer Mahinder Kapoor and well-known journalist Kuldip Nayar.

The truth is that whenever the two governments have let Punjabis meet and socialise, the impact of such an interaction has almost invariably been positive. Free mixing at cricket matches — 1955 in Lahore, 2004 in Lahore, 2005 in Mohali and so on — has resulted in the outpouring of genuine warmth and hospitality. Of course an ugly incident at a recent kabaddi match between the two countries in Indian Punjab has resulted in ventilation of the vilest Punjabi invectives, but I wonder if this would not happen if two teams belonging to the same country were involved in a dispute over the fairness of the umpires’ decisions.

Punjabi has historically been the language of the people while the state and its functionaries have, in the last 1,000 years or more, conducted their affairs in foreign tongues, most notably in Persian, Urdu and English. On the other hand, Punjabi was the medium through which the message of love, tolerance and mutual acceptance was bequeathed by our Sufi saints, the Gorakhnathi yogis, the Bhakti sages and the early Sikh gurus. The oral tradition also resulted in historical tales and romantic epics being recited and sung by bards and wandering medicants so that Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal, Puran Bhagat, Alif Laila and so on are a shared culture of Punjabis of all religious persuasions.

On the other hand, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hindi and Urdu became the mediums of Hindu and Islamic revivals and Punjabi written in Gurmukhi script became the medium of Sikh revival. The oral tradition of little cultures that had blurred religious differences were eclipsed by the high cultures of chaste Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, dependent on different scripts and languages. Such developments prepared the grounds for separatism and estrangement between these three communities and culminated in the horrors of the 1947 partition of Punjab.

Punjabi as a catalyst for regional and global trade — IV

All scientific studies show that children learn faster and better if they
are able to read and write in their mother tongue

In this concluding article, I will sum up my standpoint on how the cultivation of Punjabi, in spoken and written form, can be a spurt to regional and global trade. Let me underscore that, for me, the definition of a Punjabi is anyone who says he is a Punjabi. It is not necessary that such a person should speak Punjabi, though that is the core basis for such a classification. As I have said in an earlier article, foreign tribes and groups that, from time immemorial, started entering the Indian subcontinent through the northwest mountain passes arrived in what we call Punjab if they kept going east. Many settled there while others moved on even further east. So, ethnically speaking, Punjabis are a mixture of many different groups, but they all learned the language we recognise as Punjabi. For various historical reasons, Punjabi was never the language of the state or of the Mughal or Afghan province. Even the Sikh state, founded by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the only ruler one can call a son of the soil, employed Persian as the state language.

If we just look at the population of Punjabis currently, they are one of the biggest South Asian groups. The total strength of the Punjabi people is roughly 140 million. Roughly 97 million are Pakistanis, most of whom live in Pakistani Punjab but they are settled in large numbers in Sindh and the port city of Karachi as well. Some 32 million live in India, mainly in Indian Punjab but with a strong presence in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the greater Delhi region. In New Delhi especially, but also Calcutta and Mumbai, Indian Punjabis are a noticeable group. Some 10 million Punjabis are dispersed outside the Indian subcontinent, with a strong presence in the UK, North America, Southeast Asia (nearly 130,000 Sikhs in Malaysia alone) and the Middle East. In terms of religious affiliation, some 54 percent are Muslims, 29 percent Hindus and 14 percent Sikhs. A three percent minority is Christian.

Punjabi poets, fiction writers, journalists, filmmakers, songwriters and music directors form a prominent part of the cultural scene in both India and Pakistan. The truth is that the biggest film industry in the world, Bollywood, makes great use of Punjabi themes, folk songs and Punjabi verses or phrases in film songs. This makes sense because such inclusions are commercially viable. Additionally, in Indian Punjab, Punjabi written in the Gurmukhi script is the official language. In Pakistani Punjab literacy in Punjabi is limited, but since the same script is used for writing it as for the official state language of Pakistan, Urdu, it should not at all be difficult to quickly acquire reading and writing proficiency in Punjabi. All we need is the Pakistan state, in particular the government of Pakistani Punjab, permitting Punjabi to be taught in schools.

For the pro-Punjabi movement in Pakistan it is important to declare that we have nothing against Urdu remaining the official state language; we only want our tongue to be given its due recognition as an essential part of the Punjabi identity. The problem is of course that Indian and Pakistani Punjabis currently can never communicate readily in written form because of two different scripts being used. I think a great leap forward can be made: Latin, or rather Roman script can be adopted to break the silence that the two scripts constitute.

I am told that the Roman script exists already to be used in printing and it can prove to be a very useful tool to learn to communicate instantly on the internet. Already, many of use do use it on Facebook. Such a script can facilitate movement of goods and people, and make possible a documentation of economic transactions and other forms of interactions that people on all levels can easily understand. Since trade is now globalised and Punjabis are one of the most globalised people, Punjabi in spoken and Roman script can establish trade and friendship networks. For sound trade relations, trust and confidence in one another is important and Punjabi can help generate such cultural capital.

There is nothing that suggests that the speakers of the same langauge must be organised into one national state. We have Arabic-speaking people in the Middle East and Spanish-speaking people in Latin America divided into several states but that has not meant that their cultural identities based on a shared language do not exist as a shared cultural tie.

Two things are important with regards to language. The more languages one knows the more doors are opened. Second, all scientific studies show that children learn faster and better if they are able to read and write in their mother tongue. I am in favour of Urdu retaining its unique position as the national language of Pakistan and English being taught to help us keep abreast with the latest developments in science and literature. Introducing Punjabi in schools as a complusory subject in lower school will only produce better students. Research in Sweden shows that children can easily learn several languages in school and we plead for Punjabi only at the lower level.

As noted already, language is part of the material basis of society as well as the repository of shared culture, values and norms. The Indian and Pakistani Punjabs are located on the same route as they were in historical and pre-historical times. For, during the last 2,000 years or so, people entered the subcontinent from the northwest mountain passes and then came to Punjab or went eastwards. This time round the same route is again important. Economic and industrial develpment in Asia have taken a westerly direction, originating in Japan in the 1960s, into Southeast Asia, after which China and India jumped onto that bandwagon and now that trend is parked on the Attari-Wagah border. This time the movement can go in the opposite direction. Goods and services from the subcontinent can move towards Afghanistan and into Central Asia and beyond. The region and people who would benefit most would be Punjabis. The Punjabi langauge, spoken and written, can be a great help at this stage of history.

Curtsey:The Daily Times: Published on January 06,13,20 and February 03, 2015

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed
The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University and is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan, professor emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and honorary senior fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at: billumian@gmail.com

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