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Politics of division

Punjabi language and literature continued to thrive in spite of all the communal differences and colonial onslaught

Politics of division
Punjabi Writers at the shrine of Waris Shah.

Any language that becomes part of a communal framework or a religious narrative not only creates complexities of mistrust among its multi-religious communities but also breeds an unending crisis of identity and politics.

In the Colonial Punjab, there were four major religious communities whose mother tongue was Punjabi. In the census report of 1901, as per the Imperial Gazetteer of India (1908), out of a total population of around 24 million Punjabis, 49 per cent were Muslims, 41 per cent Hindus, 9 per cent Sikhs and 0.27 per cent Christians. By 2014, we mainly see Sikhs and Muslims in the Punjabi language ownership debates while Hindu Punjabis who were second largest majority of the Punjab are almost in absentia. What happened after partition and during the last decades of the colonial raj needs a full scrutiny.

However, as most of us (Punjabis of West Punjab) don’t even know the statistical self-dilution of Hindu Punjabis and how easily and systematically Hindi became their mother tongue, I will try to make sense of the whole narrative in this limited space as there are some serious lessons to be learnt in a fragile environment of the West Punjabi politics where another division of the land and language has become bread and butter of the few.

In a globalised world where people are busy creating synergies, we are hell bent on dividing ourselves further into insignificant pieces.

Although Punjabi language historically never provided its speakers the much needed political national identity, surprisingly our language and literature continued to thrive in spite of all the communal differences and colonial onslaught.

British colonialists and their embedded researchers always associated Punjabi language with the Sikhs and tried their best to make it a religious and a communal symbol without accepting it as a cross-religious cultural identity of all the Punjabis. Christopher Shackle continues this colonial diatribe by claiming Punjabi as the “sacred language of the Sikhs” and helps market the divisive engineering of Saraiki and Pothohari. Then Sikh religious leadership also propagated that reductionist narrative.

Sikh games, Sikh dances, Sikh sacred music, Sikhs and the WW1 and all other Punjabi events and cultural symbols being marketed under Sikhism even today spearheaded primarily by the post 1984 Sikh diaspora unfortunately confirm impressions of that communal game. Indian state’s brutal attack on the Golden Temple and Sikhs as a community in the 1980s has furthered this thought of ‘separateness’ among many East Punjabis.

After partition another division within division unfolded as almost all the Hindus and Sikhs of the Punjab had migrated to India. Sikh population was however concentrated in many districts of the then Indian state of Punjab but they still remained one-third of Punjab’s total population, with majority being Hindus. Akali Dal, the political wing of the Sikh reformist organisation, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC estd. in 1920) demanded a separate state for Sikhs on religious grounds immediately after partition in 1949.

When Nehru and the Union Government of India refused and agitations didn’t work either, Akali Dal approached the States Reorganisation Commission for a “Punjabi Suba” based on linguistic rather than religious grounds in 1953. Hindu Punjabis should have supported that approach but due to other factors coupled with Singh Sabha and Akali Dal’s previous claims to associate Punjabi language specifically with Sikhs, Hindu Punjabi leaders decided to play their own game.

Under the influence of Hindu right wing organisations like the RSS and Arya Samaj, Hindu Punjabis started declaring Hindi as their mother tongue and in the census of 1951 and 1961 they became ‘non-Punjabis’. The most saddening part is that the community who provided Punjabi literature with legends like Damodar Das, Peelu, Shardha Ram Phillauri, Bihari Lal Puri, Bishan Das Puri, Dhani Ram Chatrik, Ishwar Chander (IC) Nanda, Bawa Balwant, Balwant Gargi, Balraj Sahni, Davider Sathyarthi, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Prem Parkash, Raghubir Dhand, Mohan Bhandari, Sati Kumar, Amitoj and Bhooshan, there were no dissenting voices against this lingual apartheid.

A lone sane Hindu voice was that of Vishwanath Tiwari, who was dismissed by many as a self-publicist.

Tiwari was father of ex-Union Minister of India, Manish Tiwari. He was married into a Sikh family and was head chair of Bhai Vir Singh Studies (in Punjabi) in Panjab University, Chandigarh when he was shot dead by Sikh militants on April 3, 1984. He wrote a statement ‘PunjabiãN dey nãm Appeal’ (An Appeal to the Punjabis) with his blood to plead for the cause of Punjabi. He wrote in his blood: “MaiN Punjab Wich Punjabiyyat tay BoliãN Lai Sohirdata paida karran lai sãhaeeta chahonda haaN (I need your support to create good will for Punjabiyyat and Punjabi dialects in the Punajb; V N Tiwari: 1.1.1961).

However, the influence of Swami Dayanand’s Arya Samaj (which since 1880s had been promoting Hindi as the language of Hindus in the region) worked and with the death of Jawaharlal Nehru [who was against “Punjabi Suba”] in 1964 and Indo Pak War of 1965 that highlighted the sensitivity and stability of East Punjab for the centre, Akali Dal’s demand for a separate province was accepted.

In 1966, Punjab state was trifurcated. Its eastern hill districts were merged into Himachal Pradesh. The southern districts became the new state of Haryana and the remaining districts constituted the new Punjabi Suba that we now know as East Punjab that constitutes just 15 per cent area of the undivided pre-1947 Punjab.

PaRhni hai tãN paRho Gurmukhi /NahiN tãN jã kay baitho ghar (If you want to read then read Gurmukhi (Punjabi)/ Otherwise stay at home) Bihari Lal Puri , a Hindu Punjabi poet of late 19th century wrote this grief-stricken verse for his fellow religious hawks but no one listened to him then.

However, with all the globalisation, interconnected economics and concept of soft borders, we still have time to reclaim our lost territory. Punjabi language and literature has the capacity to become the centre of gravity for all Punjabis, irrespective of their geographical locations and religious zeal. It will need a conscious effort and an all-inclusive mindset to own our roots.

We need a few cultural icons who are not ashamed of their Punjabiness and are intellectual enough to inspire our youth and children that can trigger a top down ownership of language and identity. Only an unconditional love and longing for our land and heritage can heal those self-inflicted wounds: Daikh Farida Jo Th’ya, Shakkar Hoee Viss / SaeeN BajhuN ApNay, VeydaN Kahy’ay Kiss (See, Farid, What has happened: Sugar has become Poison / without my lord, who can I tell my sorrow).

Mahmood Awan

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


  • Mahmood Sahab, don’t worry, we the youth of punjab is claiming our legacy and we are not going allow these forces to ruin our mother tongue and mother land. We are proud to say that we are punjabi, we speak punjabi, we live a punjabi way and WE ARE PROUD PUNJABIS of 21st century.
    So we have adapted modern ways and technics to promote our punjabi language and script. I have named it as Lafzan Da Pul here is the link http://www.lafzandapul.com
    I am very much sure that this link will become a bridge between the punjabi living around the glob.

  • Malik Ghulam Rasool

    I can see the writing is like writing with your blood. I am always proud of being Punjabi and try my best to speak Punjabi. I was very successful with my children and am proud that they speak Punjabi at home. But now they are speaking Urdu with their children and I can’t do anything about that. You are right that cultured Punjabis should promote Punjabi proudly but I am sorry to say that people specially in Western Punjab think if their children will speak Punjabi, they will look lide uncultured. That is not true. Punjabi is way bigger and old language than Hindi and Urdu but now we have labeled Punjabi with Sikhs, Hindi with Hindus and Urdu with Muslims of India and Pakistan. We have no reliable newspaper in Pakistan which is published in Punjabi and it is responsibility of people like you to promote the idea among elite that they should not be ashamed of their mother tongue.

  • I think before the British take-over, what is called communalism did not exist in the Punjab. The religious communities had worked out ways to live together in peace and harmony. I imagine in the villages they all spoke Punjabi of one kind or another and negotiated differences in an amicable way. Together they participated in festivities and shared one another’s joys and sorrows. I have not heard or read of any communal riots in the province prior to the colonial rule.

    It is, therefore, Europe – the Brits to be specific – that brought about communal conflict and division that culminated in 1947. Let’s hope that the Punjabis will grow wiser with time and begin to appreciate the glory of their common cultural heritage.

  • I grew up in a Punjabi household. But my parents never let us kids speak Punjabi even if they spoke Punjabi to us. They said it sounded too harsh coming from children’s mouth. So thought I can understand Punjabi well, I can’t speak more than a sentence without stuttering.

  • This is a good article but the accusations that Sikhs linked Punjabi as their religious language is wrong. The Sikhs by default became the sole proponents of Punjabi because the other two much larger communities were willing to betray Punjabi and support Urdu and Hindi. The false accusation made by the article against Sikhs is actually what the Hindus and Muslims of Punjab did. Urdu was propagated as the language of the Muslims and likewise Hindi was propagated as the language of the Hindus. The Sikhs have always propagated Punjabi as the language of ALL PUNJABIS. In fact in order to nail the lie that Sikhs had a religious motive for promoting Punjabi, the Akali Dal in the 1950s was quite willing to have Punjabi in devanagri (Hindi) script rather than Gurmukhi (the script of the Sikh scriptures) in order to have Punjabi as the sole official language of East Punjab. I think that both the Punjabi Muslims and the Punjabi Hindus have to do a lot of introspection and now start to make up for the damage that they themselves have caused to their own mother tongue.

  • Thank you Mahmood Awan Sahib for pointing out our follies and our misconceived approach towards our mother tongue Punjabi. The indifference to the mother tongue Punjabi is fast growing with mothers preferring their tiny tots to converse in Hindi and English. The role of so called Public Schools and media in promoting English and Hindi need hardly be stressed. Besides there are visible attempts by various state sponsored agencies including Universities to overload Punjabi language by importing words and phrases from Sanskrit so as to make Punjabi of West Punjab look different from Punjabi of East Punjabi.
    Thank you once again for creating awareness regarding Punjabi – our mother tongue

  • Although I am Nair; my family.. right from my great grandfather were settled in Lahore before the Partition. We still speak Punjabi at home and with our Punjabi friends. In my opinion, the topic you chose was right but your research didnt seem complete. Here are the reasons..

    1) You have used the word ‘brutal attack on Golden Temple’ so easily without trying to understand the need for the attack. At the time Pakistan was helping Sikhs to create a new state Khalistan and all of the terrorists were hiding inside the sacred temple and there was no way but to go ahead with operation blue star. Again, there are many things that can be challenged even in this narrative but I guess and I hope the context of your article wasn’t to fuel another enmity between 2 Indian communities.
    2) During and before the partition, muslims chose Urdu as their official language in order to create a special identity for themselves that would act as a common thread to create a concept of Pakistan. Similarly, Hindi (and not Hindu) leaders used Hindi language to promote their ideas and principles over larger Indian population. Both of these communities did little to resist this. In fact number of muslims who could speak Urdu at the time of partition was negligible than those who could speak Punjabi; so it seems very strange why nothing was done in west Punjab during the independence movement.
    3) Article doesnt address 33% of the issues – the Punjabis from West – the Pakistan. You have failed to write a single reason why Punjabi was never chosen as a official language, why did every Punjabi scholar at the time gave in to the concept of Urdu – language of muslims; the idea floated by Jinnah, what were other reasons that have stopped Punjabi to become popular in Pakistan?

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