To commemorate the Mother Language Day this year, I could think of nothing better to write about than this book Lok Boli Lok Wehar by Maqsood Saqib.
Despite being the fourteenth major language of the world, spoken by over a hundred million people and nearly sixty per cent of the people of Pakistan, Punjabi suffers the negligence that is reserved for only poor minorities and their languages in the rest of the world. Maqsood Saqib is the editor of the magazine Pancham that was awarded Bhai Ram Singh Award for being the best magazine in Punjabi language in both East and West Punjab, then published under the title Maan Boli (Mother Tongue).
The book is a collection of editorials of Pancham. Editorials and columns are not an ideal format to be put in a book form as they address the issues of the day and are prone to obsolescence. I experienced that while reading a collection of columns of Walter Lippmann, a renowned American columnist who covered both the world wars, was advisor to the presidents and inventor of the term Cold War. But this collection is all of a piece, addressing the single issue of Punjabi Language and the fate that it suffers. Even the obituaries of Shafqat Tanveer Mirza, Sibt-ul-Hassan Zaigham, Asaf Khan and Pathanay Khan are in the context of language alone.
Saqib believes that unless we understand the nature of economics and state oppression of the people, we cannot understand the issue of people’s language. In the post-colonial times, the status and domination of English language created a class of toadies of the colonists. Even Urdu language, that unlike in Sindh was made the medium of instruction in the Punjab, created a middle class that served the same purpose.
Our middleclass aspirations make us talk to our children in Urdu. The result is that a five year old who, if he spoke and interacted with people using his mother tongue, would have a vocabulary of four to five thousand words, barely manages to learn a couple of hundred words of Urdu.
The denial of learning of children’s mother tongue is a denial of their identity and that tantamounts to genocide. Before you react to this extreme terminology by Saqib, let me tell you he borrowed it from world-renowned linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. Her book is titled Linguistic Genocide. According to Skutnabb-Kangas, it is violation of Article E II of the UN Human Rights Charter of year 1948 (Forcibly changing the nationality of a child).
She gives the example of Finnish children who had emigrated to Sweden during war with their parents, where the medium of instruction was Swedish. These children, when reviewed after a decade, were lagging behind the Swedish children and knew neither Swedish nor Finnish too well. Same was the fate of Zimbabwean children who were taught in English. They learnt neither English nor knew Zimbabwean language. On the contrary, Malawian children who got their basic education in Malawi were able to learn English easily in their senior classes and knew Malawi well. Learning in the mother tongue gives a child the language skill that makes it easy to learn foreign languages, according to the author.
This is a common experience in America where, in the state of California alone, there are eighty languages still spoken at some level by the native tribes. Since the medium of instruction was English, these natives were abysmally poor in literacy. Spanish speakers who were too large in numbers took their case to the courts. According to the US Supreme Court judgment, the school districts where a majority spoke a language other than English, the medium of instruction till high school would be in the language of the majority in the school district. As a result, there are high schools in California where the medium of instruction is Spanish.In the last sixty years or so, we have witnessed this linguistic decline in Punjabi. Our mothers knew hundreds of proverbs and dozens of songs and stories that even they have forgotten through disuse. Saqib also explores the rich classical poetic tradition of nearly a thousand years of which Baba Farid was the forerunner and that runs through Baba Nanak, Shah Hussain, Damodhar, Sultan Bahu, Hafiz Barkhurdar, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Najabat, Khwaja Ghulam Farid and Mian Muhammad Bakhsh right up to the twentieth century.
This is a lot of poets that would compare with the best in any language of the world. Saqib also emphasises their pro-people philosophy. Their choice of Punjabi, while they were well-versed in Persian and Arabic the languages of the Court and Religion respectively, was a pro-people act. But we are fast losing on Punjabi language and knowledge of this poetry. Heer Waris Shah that was once published in hundreds of thousands and sung in every village and neighbourhood has almost disappeared since the 1970s due to the ‘consciousness industry’ that is media.
The canvas of the book is too large to be covered in a short review. Saqib both opposes and demands state patronage; he feels any language adopted as state language changes its purpose — to render service for the state and the ruling classes. He thinks our statist politics has only been about politics of greed and appropriation of resources by a few from all.
Language, according to him, goes through various stages of hearing, assimilation and learning that transform us. Introduction of Punjabi for basic education, a granted right to regional languages as per the 1973 Constitution, was never implemented. Even a handful of poorly-written books for Punjabi as an optional subject were never allowed to be taught anywhere. He even criticises the so-called Punjabi Movement (Punjabi Lehr). Most of these sloganeers neither studied nor wrote any Punjabi. According to Saqib, you cannot be pro-Punjabi unless you are pro-people. It is a fact that a handful of activists from the leftist parties who were the sole protagonists of Punjabi did any real work. Major Ishaq of Mazdoor Kissan Party even wrote plays in Punjabi to make the point.
He also introduces readers to the philosophy and work of Rama Ratna, the mother of children’s literature and plays in East Punjab. Those who do not know Punjabi may have difficulty with Saqib’s idiom; those who are close to the people and their language would not. Our distance from the people is actually reflected in our distance from the Punjabi language.
Saqib and I have had a mentor in Hussain Naqi, an Urdu-speaking person from Lucknow, who was the editor of the marvellous but short-lived Punjabi daily Sajjan published from Lahore. Hussain Naqi also forcefully agitated the issue of education in mother tongue as a member of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. As an ideologue of the Left, activist and journalist, he has been an inspiration to us all.
Saqib rightly blames Sanskritisation of Punjabi by Bhasha Vibhag (India’s language authority) in East Punjab for the devastation of Punjabi there. That again is oppression by the state.
We are not dealing here with Punjabi nationalism, an empty meaningless slogan, but with the problem of articulation, aspirations and rights of the economically-oppressed. The critique of the political economy and its propagation is Saqib’s principal concern. Language is an index of our history and economic and cultural being. The book should be read in this context.
(The Mother Language Day was celebrated on Feb 21.)