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Mother Tongue:

The dilemma of the Punjabi Language


One of the modern era’s recent trends, in the sphere of social-political and lingo-cultural affairs, is the global campaign for the promotion of mother tongues, particularly in regard to educational and academic perspectives.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted a resolution in 1963 to promote imparting primary education in the students’ mother tongue because that is essential to raise the literacy rate. Like the rest of the world, in Pakistan, too, observes International Mother Language Day on February 21.

In this connection, several seminars, conferences, discussions and talk shows were arranged by the government and social and media organisations. Being a participant in a few of them, I observed that different people, including educationists, literary figures, social-political personalities and general observers, have diversified views and notions about the importance and essence of a language and its association with ethnic-national identity.

Punjabi, being the most spoken as well as the most neglected language of the country, also came under discussion with heated debates and vehement views. It would not be wrong to say that the Punjabi-speaking community in Pakistan is unique in the world for unlike the general psyche of the people and ethnic-lingual societies, it does not bracket together any symptoms of pride, emotional foray, national prestige or social-cultural survival with its language.

Factually speaking, more than 50 per cent people in Pakistan have Punjabi as their mother tongue while all the other languages, including Sindhi, Pushto, Seraiki, Urdu, Hindko, Balochi, Brahvi, Pothwari and Gujrati combined are spoken by less than 50pc of the population. Globally, it is spoken by more than 13 million people, residing in India, Pakistan, Canada, USA, UK, the Middle East, Australia and other countries and regions as their mother tongue. If we include the people of Hazara, Kohistan, Kashmir and Seraiki speaking areas of all the provinces, who are quite fluent in Punjabi, the ratio will go up to more than 70pc. More than 90pc people of Pakistan understand this language and enjoy its music, poetry, legends, proverbs and idioms.

Punjabi literature and history enjoy deep-rooted foundations and are very rich intellectually and aesthetically. Baba Fareed Ganj Shakar, Baba Guru Nanak, Hazrat Shah Hussain, Hazrat Waris Shah, Khawaja Ghulam Fareed, Hazrat Sultan Bahu and Mian Mohammad Bakhsh are some of the most prominent stars on the horizon of Punjabi Sufi and classic literature. If we want to research the overwhelming services of Punjabis for Urdu and Hindi literature, music, film industry, journalism and theatre of the subcontinent, we will have to compile a bulky volume. Internationally-recognised Bollywood film industry’s foundations were laid by Punjabis and specially the creative figures from and around the unique city of Lahore and this trend is still on.

Despite the verity, Punjabi has been struggling to achieve a respectable status as a spoken language in its own motherland, the Punjab, not to speak of getting the status of academic or official language. It is highly ironic to discern that the most people of this, otherwise, the most developed and educated province of the country are illiterate according to the basic definition of ‘literacy’ that declares a person who can read and write in his mother tongue ‘literate’.

Again it is a unique privilege that is enjoyed only by Punjabis in the whole world that they cannot read and write in their mother tongue and use a different language for this purpose. Hence, some critics term the Punjabi language a dialect of Urdu despite the fact that the former is much ancient than the latter. Sindhi community has always been appreciably active and articulate in regard to its lingo-cultural promotion and development and Sindhi is being still used as a compulsory subject in schools in Sindh. Pushto, Seraiki and Balochi, too, somehow, exist remarkably in the realm of written communication and academic literature. But, Punjabi could not have its own script or a set of alphabet that can efficiently help its speakers express their words and sounds as they are pronounced.

The biggest hurdle in the way of promoting regional languages in our country is the misconception that encouraging such a culture will be a threat to our national integrity and Islamic ideology. During the early phase of independence when Urdu was declared national and official language of the united Pakistan, the Bengali speaking majority of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) raised a hue and cry and demanded that Bangla should also be declared the official and national language, along with Urdu. Their demand was strongly condemned terming Urdu as the language of patriotism and religious harmony. Later on, the creation of Bangladesh (the land of Bangla-speaking people) proved this pathetic dogma wrong, even counter-productive because lingual differences were fundamental amongst the several reasons that led to the division of Pakistan.

Another awkward aspect in the history and culture of Punjabi language is that it is spoken by both Pakistani and Indian people but we cannot read the Gurmukhi script that is basically Hindi or Sanskrit-based and is used by Sikhs and other Punjabis on the other side of the border while they cannot read our Punjabi script Shahmukhi that is Persian-based.
The reasons behind this divide are of religious nature. As the Shahmukhi script could not meet the requirements of the expansive and profound language that begins with beautiful folk stories, romantic ballads, seasonal poems, pastoral poetry, tickling jokes and soars towards the exotic creations soaked with mysticism and Sufism.

We teach our children that the invaders, the Muslim rulers of different dynasties, are our heritage and their languages, such as Persian, too, are highly valuable for our religious and cultural education. It is shocking that we have Persian departments in many of our universities but have Punjabi departments in only one or two institutions and these too are not treated with due attention and patronisation. How many native Persian speakers are there in Pakistan?

Persian came to Pakistan only with the foreign rulers who were, later on, replaced by the English speaking British. Even Urdu is only well appreciated when it has more flavour of Persian expressions and metaphor. So what message are you conveying to your current and future generations? Your own language and culture deserves to be discarded and the language of foreign rulers is polite, worthy of respect and stands superior? We are harvesting what we sowed and our new generation hardly can enjoy sophisticated and literary Urdu due to paying too much attention to English that we, now, hypocritically dub as the language of foreign invaders and a symbol of slavery. The youth understands Sydney Sheldon, Paulo Coelho, J.K. Rowling and Agatha Christie conveniently and willingly, but cannot grasp Ghalib or Iqbal. The new generations have inherited this slavish mentality from us and our approach towards language and culture.
On the other hand, Indian Punjabi speaking community, despite being in minority, has worked exceptionally to promote this language and Punjabi is the official language in the East Punjab and is conveniently utilised in proceedings of assembly and official documentation. With the immigration of Sikh community in different parts of the US, Canada and UK, the language has got a new dimension and it is taught as a second language in schools in different parts of Canada. Sikhs have promoted their language proudly among their foreign-born issues and today, the rise of Bhangra fever in the world is a vivid example of their triumph.

With the emergence of information technology and social websites, Roman Punjabi has been born and is being productively used by the Punjabis for mutual communication from all parts of the globe. In Pakistan, the absence of a convenient written script is a major threat to the survival of the Punjabi language. If that is tackled, the other social-cultural or political issues will automatically disappear. Without a script you cannot even think of making it the medium of primary education. The Roman script is easy for the young generations of all the Punjabis whether from India, Pakistan, Canada, US or UK. It will also remove the religious and cultural barrier of Shahmukhi and Gurmukhi. Only some new letters are needed for meeting the requirements of Punjabi sounds.
The writer is a teacher.







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