“If culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside,” suggests Khaled Hosseini, the famous Afghan-born American novelist. In strictly formal contexts, as well as amongst middle-classes and upwards, the fact that the use of Punjabi language has been increasingly diminishing over time in Pakistan, is a startling reality. A two-way onslaught from both, the colonial legacy of British English, and linguistic Mughal imports via an eclectic Urdu tradition, has reduced the indigenous language of the Punjabis to the laity and working classes. Before taking this argument any further, it must be stated that the majority of the Punjabi populace still converses in different dialects of Punjabi in their daily lives, which normally amalgamate into different variants every 20-odd miles, according to conventional wisdom. We, as Punjabis, find ourselves in an extremely dangerous predicament if a whole language, and its vast cultural heritage is removed from formal, professional and educational arenas where formidable power rests, and, is predominantly, contested. My focus in this article is the limited audience that can read and express their thoughts primarily in English and Urdu only, and thankfully, it is safe to say, that they would form a minute percentage of the overall population of the Punjab. But they wield a disproportionate amount of coercive power, both of an implicit, and explicit nature, often deciding which way the wind blows. And they generally feel embarrassed about conversing in Punjabi or taking ownership of their Punjabi roots.

It is almost sickening to watch wealthy Burghers employ Punjabi (sometimes in comically inaccurate fashion) as a medium to articulate expletives, misplaced aggression or street machismo. Apparently, for them, the only times the language becomes relevant is during fits of irrationality and that is not sheer coincidence. Punjabi is often employed via slips of tongues when tense situations turn masquerades of civility haywire. Beneath the veneer of formality dictated by Urdu and English, lie shades of Punjabi accents that teachers, and parents, filled with inferiority complexes and eccentric mannerisms of high society, attempt to normalize and civilize. In households, parents attempt to avoid any utterance of Punjabi, because that could have a negative influence on a child’s personal growth. It seems like the upper classes have forgotten how to articulate love, peace, empathy or compassion in Punjabi, as an intense ghettoization has been operationalized. In the meanwhile, it seems like the most intimate contact Burghers have with the Punjabi language is in the form of Coke Studio renditions of folk songs, where folk artists are cynically employed as backing singers, supporting contemporary artists. If the same Burghers are asked to listen patiently, and absorb the rich traditions of the “kafi” singing tradition, or the Heer, for that matter, in their pure authentic style, they find it too primitive, or lacking modern edginess. Sure, hybridity in culture is a foregone conclusion in an increasingly globalizing world order, but that ought not to happen at the expense of one form over the other.

In private, as well as public schools, Punjabi is not taught formally even as a language, and generations after generations are clueless about the vast heritage and cultural richness of Punjabi traditions, customs and folklore. We are continually losing out on the deeply political and revolutionary narratives of wise resistance that formed the basic essence of the verses of legendary poets and story-tellers such as Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Waris Shah, and Kabir Das, amongst others, which were deeply imbedded in the socio-cultural contexts of their times. And more often than not, the greats preached partaking in an active this-worldly struggle, rather than encouraging apolitical flights away from the world, as neo-Sufi hipsters would have you believe. We attempt to find meaning in the liberal and modern narratives of the West, completely missing out on the pluralism and respect for diversity and tolerance that has been a hallmark of Punjabi ethos, choosing sheepishly to look away as though it never existed. Contemporary works of Punjabi poetry and prose do exist, such as those bestowed upon the readers by the septuagenarian Najam Hussain Syed, whose contributions are celebrated all-over the Punjabi-speaking world, and can pave ways for new generations to be humanized in local narratives. It was quite astonishing for me to observe that some nouveau-riche academics from top state-of-the-art universities who were working within the ambit of Punjabi literary criticism were not well versed in speaking colloquial Punjabi.

The newly formed Pakistani state’s attempt to find a cohesive narrative, and a lowest common denominator by employing Urdu as the national language, failed remarkably in the erstwhile East Pakistan. The Bengalis remained fiercely committed to their native language as Urdu was alien to them in most ways, especially script wise. This lead to the overwhelming victory of the United Front in the 1954 East Bengali Legislative Elections where the once-mighty Muslim League was completely routed, underestimating the ethno-linguistic grievances of the majority wing. Henceforth, the West Pakistani establishment, dominated by Punjabis and Pukhtoons, feared testing their wits against the electorate, and the 1970 General Elections, the first held in Pakistan on adult franchise basis, spelled the death knell for the old federal formation. This is by no means an attempt to reduce the genuine credentials of the Urdu speaking political movement that played an integral part in the Pakistani state building process. Most Urdu-speaking migrants who participated in the nationalist struggle for securing the economic rights of Muslim-majority areas post the British exodus came from UP and Bihar. But without taking a hostile nativist pro-Punjabi stance, one must reconcile with the reality that Urdu found itself in the ascendancy in Pakistan due to various historical factors, including the predominance of Urdu-speaking citizens in the civil bureaucracies at the nascent stage of state formation, and remnants of Mughal-era lingua-franca. Many sections of the Urdu speaking populace continue to hold supremacist positions regarding their mother tongue looking down upon Punjabi. , Punjabi, as a language has suffered immensely, something that is partially the Punjabis fault of their own creation, because a collective realization for linguistic rights never emerged, while an organized struggle was deliberately suppressed. The citizens of the “supposedly” weaker units according to the “dominant” Punjabi conscience, including Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh, honor their indigenous languages, including Pushto, Balochi, Sindhi, amongst many others, whether by instilling them in their syllabi, employing them as a medium of instruction in educational institutes to varying degrees, or conversing confidently in their native tongues amongst themselves even in mixed linguistic settings, with genuine pride and humility. There is also the presence of an ages-old Seraiki movement, vouching for a Seraiki province based on linguistic grounds in South Punjab, which the PML(N) cynically stifled during, and after, the passage of the 18th amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, by myopically refusing to break the Punjab province on such “frivolous” grounds. Next door neighbor India managed to secure harmony in her federating units by continually amending the constitution to facilitate the creation of sub-federal states on ethno-linguist grounds, starting with the States Reorganization Act of 1956. Surely, there are no perfect societies, but, it goes without saying, that fools are those who do not learn from the positive deeds of even their supposed adversaries.