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Posted at: Jun 9, 2019, 7:22 AM; last updated: Jun 9, 2019, 8:32 AM (IST)

Punjabi fading in ‘Punjabi Suba’

A language needs a nourishing eco-system and economic value, some impetus at home and strong political will for promotion
Punjabi fading in ‘Punjabi Suba’
File Photo: The Tribune

Roopinder Singh in Chandigarh

Punjabi — people who write it do so in two scripts. From a base in two nations, Punjabi is now spoken in many pockets all over the world, and books in the language compete for international literary awards. However, it was a struggle to get Punjabi the recognition that it enjoys today, and any perception that another language is being imposed on the state can trigger an emotive reaction. Yet, Punjab did not react as much as Tamil Nadu did during the recent controversy over the draft National Education Policy (NEP).

A historical trip would be instructive. Even though Punjabi goes back over five centuries, it never enjoyed the patronage of power. A language of the masses, it was used by saints and faqirs alike to communicate with the common man as that was the only language he understood. Guru Nanak Dev and his followers used it extensively. His successor formalised the Gurmukhi script. Sufi poets like Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah composed devotional poetry in the language. Yet, it was not only a language of spirituality. Who can think of Punjabi and not go back to Waris Shah’s Heer or Fazal Shah’s Sohni Mahiwal? Punjabi literature has a rich tradition and is being enriched by the cross-cultural influences of the diaspora. 

Historically, Persian was the court language in the region, and it was so widely adopted that even the Sikh kingdoms used it for conducting the business of the state. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, however, ensured Punjabi was taught extensively in his kingdom. Adult education rose tremendously at the time, so much so that after the British annexed his kingdom, they undertook extensive efforts to discourage Punjabi and its teaching.

Punjabi was, however, the court language of Patiala.  Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala had the first typewriter for Gurmukhi script developed in 1910 and published the Patiala State Gazette in Punjabi. It was the Maharaja who underwrote the cost of printing the first encyclopaedia in Punjabi in the 1920s — Bhai Kahan Singh’s Mahankosh (64,263 entries). Punjabi shorthand was standardised and the language was promoted in other ways too.

In post-Partition Punjab, the battle for the recognition of Punjabi was fought by elected political leaders. Soon after Independence, voices seeking adequate linguistic acknowledgement arose from around the country. Eventually, the issue had to be addressed. The Centre constituted the States Reorganisation Commission in December 1953, and two years later, many states were reorganised linguistically, but, this exercise was confined mostly to the South. Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) was merged with Punjab at this time. The Commission’s failure to recognise Punjabi as a distinct language and its assertion that it was not the language of the majority in Punjab laid the groundwork for a divisive struggle for the recognition of the language.

The Punjabi Suba agitation followed. Led by the Akali Dal, it had strong sectarian overtones, even as the demands were couched in linguistic terms. The Akali Dal, and the Sikh sentiment it represented, wanted a separate Sikh-majority state. The Centre was determined not to allow that, and the more the Centre vacillated, the more determined the Sikhs of Punjab became. The States Reorganisation Commission had rejected the demand for a Punjabi-majority state saying that “the Punjabi language was not sufficiently distinct, either grammatically or spatially from Hindi and that the movement lacked the ‘general support of the people inhabiting the area’.” Sardar Hukam Singh, then with the Akali Dal, quipped: “While others got states for their languages, we lost even our language.”

The Punjabi Suba agitation was launched in 1955, with the Akali Dal filling the jails with over 50,000 protesters. Over 40 died; the atmosphere became heated; a Hindi language movement began. Eventually, the Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966 split Punjab by creating Haryana in the Hindi-speaking region of Punjab with the Union Territory of Chandigarh as the shared capital of the two states. Hindi, however, has a special place in Punjab. While it is not one of the 12 states where Hindi is the first language, the number of Punjabis that speak Hindi is much higher than the national average, even as it has a substantially lower base of native Hindi speakers.

The general neglect of primary and secondary education in Punjab has cost the language dear. It is neither taught well nor studied seriously. The quality of teaching the language and learning in schools, colleges and even universities is severely lacking. The declining number of students opting to study Punjabi beyond the compulsory level sets the stage for further deterioration. As a report in this paper pointed out: “Not only is the percentage of students studying Punjabi literature for graduate or post-graduate degrees down by nearly half in the past decade, hiring of regular teachers for the subject in colleges has been practically nil over the past 15 years.”

The adoption of languages is vitally linked with economic conditions, and in a Punjab reeling under debt and drugs, the diaspora is seen as a possible saviour. The promotion of Punjabi through children’s book as done by Gurmeet Kaur, or the $25,000 Canadian Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature, are two examples that come to mind immediately. There are many others, some endowed chairs in academic institutions even, but they remain peripheral.

Punjabi needs special attention and funds, but doesn’t get either. Hindi will continue to make inroads all over the country because it is a national language. In fact, recent reports indicate how its adoption has increased recently even in Tamil Nadu. English is the language of international opportunities, and they beckon all.

Politicians will continue to raise the issue of imposition of these languages, but they do so opportunistically. The political descendants of those who fought bitterly representing the Punjabi and Hindi camps in Punjab have for decades now sat together in a mutually beneficial political arrangement. The SAD and the BJP now sit in Opposition and would have grabbed this opportunity had it not been politically inconvenient for the BJP, which introduced the controversial draft in the first place. 

The impetus to learning and speaking the language will have to come from Punjabi families and the state government which has long been neglecting the vital role it needs to play in fostering the language. And who better to do so than the descendant of the family that contributed mightily to its development, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh? The politician in him would not miss the opportunity to score points with his voters, most of whom are Punjabi speakers.

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