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A case of Punjabi nationalism

A rejoinder of sorts that presents another case of The Other Punjab

A case of Punjabi nationalism
Babu Feroz Din Sharaf.

A recent article about Punjabi nationalism titled “The Other Punjab” published in another English language paper merits a rejoinder of sorts. There are a few misconceptions and errors of references in the piece and, therefore, I felt it necessary to present my own case of The Other Punjab.

The author Nadeem F. Paracha writes in the piece published on May 31 that Punjabi nationalism in Pakistan emerged in the 1980s partly in response to Seraiki language movement while quoting Alyssa Ayres’s book Speaking Like A State (2009). Those who have read this book know that the senior official in the US state department got many things wrong in her book and this assertion is one of those.

First of all, there never was a movement that could be called a Punjabi nationalist movement in Pakistan. So the question of any such emergence in 1980s and that due to Seraiki issue is totally misplaced.

An organised effort for the cause of Punjabi language began in the 1960s when Seraiki-Punjabi issue was non-existent. It was a literary movement focused mainly on the language and literature of the Punjab led by stalwarts like Safdar Mir, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza (STM), Muhammad Asif Khan, Eric Cyprian, Najm Hosain Syed, Ishaq Mohammad and many others. These scholars were not Punjabi nationalists at all (most of them even resented to be identified as Punjabis). Punjabiyat was never their first preference but Marxism and communism was. They wrote in Punjabi language because of their Marxist belief system using Punjabi as a tool to push their ideology and to bring a Marxist revolution in the Islamic Republic.

They rarely explored the cultural and identity crisis of their fellow Punjabis in any clear terms. However, Asif Khan, STM and Ishaq Muhammad were three exceptions. Major Ishaq was the only Marxist leader who connected language issue with the local politics and made Punjabi a part of his Mazdoor Kisan Party’s manifesto and started conducting all his corner meetings in his mother tongue.

There is no doubt that our Southern part of the Punjab has genuine political grievances that needs to be addressed. I am from Khushab district and my own Western part of the Punjab is more neglected than Gilani’s South, so goes for the whole Dhan-Pothohar region. However, this does not mean that we start disowning our collective history and heritage claiming ‘independence’ at the behest of a few British-nurtured local feudals.

The Punjab is defined not by its political boundaries but by its linguistic geography because political boundaries may be sublime but linguistic connections are permanent. This collective lingual unity of the Punjab has been nurtured by its selfless commoners for centuries and they are its real custodians. It can’t be left to the whims of a few drawing room intellectuals or self-serving politicians. The people of Punjab belong to the land of Sapta Sindhu (ancient name of our land in Rig Ved proudly boasting of its seven rivers with Indus and Sarasvati included) and their culture and destinies are intertwined.

An organised effort for Punjabi language began in the 1960s led by stalwarts like Safdar Mir, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza, Eric Cyprian, Najm Hosain Syed, Ishaq Mohammad and others. These were not Punjabi nationalists. Punjabiyat was not their first preference but Marxism and communism was.

Whenever we raise the issue of Punjabi language, Seraiki separatism jumps in to dilute the whole struggle of mother tongue rights. Our friends from South are free to name the language of entire Punjab as Seraiki and help us get it implemented in the province. I say that because when Aashiq Buzdar claims in a session at the Lahore Literary Festival that Shah Husain and Bulleh Shah are Seraiki poets, he shares the reality of that one common language and the fact that our classics are not linguistically confined only to their birth places.

Punjabi classics were perhaps pre-aware of their coming generation’s hateful biases so they incorporated a multi-dialectic unified common language of the Punjab in their writings. We all need to understand that Punjab’s linguistic and identity problem is a class issue from Multan to Gujar Khan and it needs a collective response. Therefore, those who thrive on the politics of division must be discouraged especially the ones who have spent their lives to ‘correct’ the poetry of Khawaja Ghulam Farid to suit their linguistic version of separation.

In the article, the author has named three books that in his words “gave Punjabi nationalism its most cohesive literary shape”. His choice of books is also debatable but if we have to name names then only one person’s works deserve this honour. He is Babu Feroz Din Sharaf, people’s poet of the [undivided] Punjab.

Babu Feroz Din Sharaf's poem Main Punjabi.

Babu Feroz Din Sharaf’s poem Main Punjabi.

Paracha’s claim that these three books were banned is also not true. None of these three books was ever banned. He has also quoted Hanif Ramay as a Punjabi nationalist. Let me clarify that Ramay and Malik Meraj Khalid are considered two chief betrayers of the Punjab who, in spite of all the powers as chief ministers and having full support of their party in the 1970s, did not take a single step to implement Punjabi at any level in their own province.

If there ever was Punjabi nationalism in Pakistan, this language apartheid in Punjab may long have been ended as had happened in Sindh. However, thanks to the consistent, indiscriminate and racist verbal and non-verbal hammerings of entire Punjab and all Punjabis by Pakhtun, Sindhi, Balochi and Urdu speaking political leaders, even conservatives like Khurshid Nadeem are being pushed to admit their inner surge of Punjabi nationalism. Nadeem’s latest column: Meri Shanakht, Punjabi ya Pakistani? is an indication of that much needed soul searching.

There was a time when, in the entire decade of 1950s, only one modern Punjabi book was published and it was Ahmad Rahi’s Trinjan (1952). However, due to Faqir Muhammad Faqir’s sole efforts and the language activism of the 1960s, Punjabi books have gradually made their way up to the publishing houses in huge numbers. In recent years, nationalistic colours of Punjabi struggle have started emerging and the cause of Punjabi language has become the main entry point. Social media is playing a pivotal role in shaping this narrative and Punjabi youth is also joining in. Mother Language Day demonstrations of Feb 21 are becoming significant year after year while the Punjab Government and its allies are adamant in behaving like bullies.

I had earlier argued in detail in my piece In the Name of Punjabiyat that Punjabiyat has nothing to do with so called Punjabi chauvinism or western definition of nationalism. Ours is an all-inclusive native phenomenon engraved in our souls by humanity and humility of Baba Farid, Guru Nanak and Damodar Das. We respect every other language and community but demand the same in return. However, all this intellectual argumentation will not yield any result unless a new political leadership evolves out of this long running self-sustaining Punjabi literary movement and starts owning Punjab and Punjabi as their basic political ideology.

Babu Feroz Din Sharaf (1901-1954) was called ‘nightingale of the Punjab’. He was a trade unionist and freedom fighter. British colonial authorities not only banned his book DukhãN de Keerney; 1924 (Grieving over People’s Suffering) but also sent him to rigorous imprisonment for one year. He is more popular for his heart wrenching songs like Sohna desaN andar des Punjab ni sayyoN (it was sung so mystically by then baby Noor Jahan for film Heer Sial in 1937) but this anthem for the land of five rivers is the one to live for ever. Let’s cherish these immaculate lines Main Punjabi in the name of Punjab.

Mahmood Awan

Mahmood Awan
The author is a Dublin based Punjabi poet. He may be reached at [email protected]


  • Hassan Mujtaba

    My mother tongue is Hindko, but i love Punjabi I lived on both side of Punjab i.e East as well as west.The Punjabi on other side of dived love their Language but on this side the things are different.

  • Thanks for the article. It’s about time people shake off their apathy and claim their mother tongue. Punjabi should be made the medium of instruction in school and we should get rid of 3 or tiered education system. Teachers should be trained to teach effectively to use Punjabi while instructing. English should just be a subject. Time to end this mess.

  • Mr Awan’s love and cocnern for Punjabi is matched only by his wonderful writing.

    I would say there is no greater betrayal than the betrayal of one’s mother-tongue. A community, which turns its back on its own language is doomed from the start.
    Apropos Mr Hassan Mujtaba’s comment, Punjabi enjoys far greater prestige in East Punjab, but there are misguided people in the towns who like to hear their wards speak English or Hindi. On the whole, however, Punjabi remains dominant and powerful on this side of the Wagah.

    Sarvan Minhas

  • the Problem stems from the Divisions … Punjabi were divided three ways religiously Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs ..and then divided physically into two …East Punjab and West Punjab ..during Partitions in 47 .

    47 is the trauma that has engulfed Punjabis, disoriented them and divided them, the Urduizaiton and Hidiazation of Muslim and Hindu Punjabis was a deliberate attempt … leaving only Sikhs to care for their Language…
    the second factor is … making Gurmukhi as a Kafir Language in the Western Part of Punjab ie Pakistan, hence making Muslims punjabis averse to their own Language … the in the 60′s … a further sub division based on dialectical difference of spoken Punjabi into Seriaki and Punjabi …for political reasons .. where every one forgets … there are more than 30-35 dialects of Punjabi .

    Punjabis must come out of it for their future generations

    • Shahmukhi, the script in which we write Punjabi is older than Gurmukhi. Baba Fariduddin wrote the first poetry of Punjabi in it and all major Punjabi literature such as Heer Ranjha, Mirza Sahiban, Sassi Punnu, Sohni Mahiwal etc. is in Shahmukhi.

  • Correction

    Gurmukhi is a script not language , my bad …

  • A point that I wish to make is about Punjabi dialects. I think it is incorrect to regard dialects as distinct languages. The correct principle that applies to a group of dialects is ‘unity in variety’. In the eastern part
    of Punjab, broadly three or four dialects are recognsed, namely, Majhi (Amritsar), Doabi (Jalndhar), Malwai (Ludhiana, Patiala), and Puadhi (Ropar). In fact, it is said, correctly I guess, that Punjabi changes its form every 12 miles. Such dialectical or sub-dialectical variations, however, do not/should not lead to claims of linguistic autonomy.

    Before Partition, many other ‘languages’ such as Dogri, Himachali (e.g. Kangri), even Haryanvi were considered Punjabi dialects, but now they have become or are about to become distinct languages. Punjab was once a grand and unique culture area within India harbouring wonderful variety. British Raj unleashed a process of its vivisection and disintegration, which has not halted yet.

    • Punjab was never ‘within India’. ‘India’ is a very recent concept. Historically Punjabi was a nation and a country in its own right, even if occupied by foreigners. Agree with the rest of your post.

  • Many things more be discussed….

  • In my second comment, I used the adjective ‘dialectical’ instead of ‘dialectal’ out of inadvertence. My regrets.

  • Just for clearance, “from Multan to Gujar Khan” is just a rhyme. Otherwise, Punjab’s historic and geographic boundary is the Indus in the north.

  • dr.m.sami punjabi

    Though i have already expressed my view on Paracha’s writing; the elaborative rejoinder of Awan is literally fabulous as he has rightly opined that the said gentlemen were in fact associated with Punjabi LEFT, who used Punjabi as tool to deliver their message down to the working class…and Major Ishq practically did it through his “mazdoor kisan party”

    However, let me say STM initially was among one of those LEFTISTs; but gradually he was almost completely forged into a Punjabi Nationalist Writer; who devoted his whole last two decades to aware Punjabis through his writings with sole topic having Punjab, Punjabi & Punjabis…one can’t find another topic during this whole period; in a bid he succeeded to complete a documentary for state television (PTV) on literary history of all regions of Punjab by comparing himself in that..it was an outstanding work at a time when state/establishment has been busy in creating it’s ‘strategic assets’ (monsters) one of which is saraiki so we saw the mushroom growth of saraiki channels (kook, rohi, waseeb etc.) besides a well organized one-sided campaign on print media in an anticipative fear of the emergence of GREATER PUNJAB with the probable rise of Punajbi Nationalism…

    Yes, the Punjabi cum Communist Nationalism lead by those LEFTIST Punjabis, who always attempted to consolidate ties with Punjabis on other side of WAGHA instead of uniting the downtrodden Punjabis on Pakistani side living in a much more miserable condition than any other entity of this federation with a stigma of exploiters because of the same 5th columnists’ elite which is present among all entities…

    But Punjabi LEFT played an equally disgusting role alike PUNJABI RIGHTISTS, both of whom dreamed to conquer other regions (rather own) through the same Pakistani tool with Ordoo as the most sharped gadget for all with nor space for rude/blunt Punjabi at the end of the day…Some of those LEFTISTS even supported/synchronized with the establishment’s saraiki mantra specifically with the collapse of USSR…Thanks to social media which helped to expose such clever souls like Dr.Manzur Ejaz, Prof.Azizuddin (he is said to be a Punjabi, but i still doubt) and bridled many living with dilemma…because the were going to set the sails as usually according to the wind that suddenly the facebook,twiter, likedin etc. banged…and their arbitrariness in terms of manipulation of public opinion came to slow down (if couldn’t end…) smile emoticon Many more is there yet to say about the crimes of PUNJABI RIGHT & LEFT…

    Awan has rightly said that saraiki card has always been used to dilute the genuine Punjabis right (National Question); but his passive/defensive nay apologetic way of simply asking socalled saraiki mercenaries to democratically term/call those sages of Punjabi classics as they wish is not as much simple i must say…as they are apple of establishment’s eye, who have been fully patronized to trample upon all the Punjab’s assets as and when they intend…one of the recent unlawful/unconstitutional/seditious examples is the map published in course text book of Punjab having fragmented Punjab with saraik province…

    Because the very base on which the whole panorama of saraikiat has been erected on the notion of getting themselves declared someone different from Punjab…so at the this stage, when state/establishment has already surreptitiously recognized saraiki as a separate language without consulting the masses/linguists etc through a democratic way of referendum/public poll etc; if one produces camel from a hill or fly in air without any gadget, these ‘strategic assets’ of GHQ in terms of Ashu Lal, Riffat Abbass, Nazeer Leghari & Co. wouldn’t get convinced to accept/respect the other majority’s right as well until and unless a defiant/CLEAR stance is taken by the whole Punjabi writers, activists and masses about an irrefutable reality towards which Ashiq Buzdar sort of Baloch trespasser implied indirectly at Lahore Literary Festival…

    If native phenomenon was literally engraved in the hearts & souls of Punjabi writers pretty earlier; Punjabi Left/Right would endorse and support the presence of Punjabi nations, which was a less in numbers in comparison with Bangalis and now larger after their departure…I wonder how could genuine nationalism become chauvinism as one really respecting his/her mother can never even think to disrespect anyone’s mother across the globe and am sorry to say the modern states in west are based upon nationalistic boundaries whether within EU or out of it and their progress, mutual harmony and tolerance…so nationalism can’t be equated with racism or fascism rather it is the natural way of social survival among humans through which they could only live prosperously and peacefully… It would be a disaster if Punjabi writers still negate to accept their natural being over some other pseudo/men-made beings…!

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