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).