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The romantic idea of identity

To talk of Punjabiyat has now become a ritual performed by romantic writers and opportunist politicians in the so-called ‘World’ Punjabi meets held in East Punjab and abroad.



Amarjit Chandan

To talk of Punjabiyat has now become a ritual performed by romantic writers and opportunist politicians in the so-called ‘World’ Punjabi meets held in East Punjab and abroad. 

The word Punjab was first used in Akbarnama. In the Mughal empire, Suba Lahore was the only province which had Five Doabs. Without dal and vao it turned in to the Punjab.

Punjabiyat — Punjabiness — a compound word having its origins in Arabic and Farsi, is the password to go into any aspect of Punjab’s distinct language, cultural identity, history, culture, literature, nationality/ nationhood and so on.

The term Punjabiyat was first coined and used perhaps by Professor Attar Singh, who visited Lahore in 1974 along with Giani Zail Singh, the then chief minister of East Punjab. It is likely that the concept evolved in discussions with the Punjabi activists here. There are two insightful essays on the concept in Attar Singh’s book Sumdarshan (1982). Soon after, the term was picked up by Professors Pritam Singh and Vishwa Nath Tiwari.

In the Bhutto era, Punjabi intellectuals of Lahore started using the terms Punjabiyat or Punjabi shanakhat i.e. identity in response to the other three nationalities’ — Balochis, Pakhtoons and Sindhis — assertion of their distinct national identities. West Punjabi leftist and liberal intellectuals — Eric Cyprian, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza, Ishaq Mohammad, Hanif Ramay —  did not and could not go further to the extent of assertion of Punjabi nationality. They all ignored the glorious role of the Sikh resistance against the Mughals and foreign invaders. It would have gone against the two-nation theory (TNT), the very basic tenet of the Islamic Republic. In East Punjab, the Punjabi intellectuals face the same dilemma. The notion of Punjabi nationality goes against the idea of the Indian state and nationhood.

Spoken Punjabi in East Punjab has been vulgarised by the media and Bombay films and the decay in the writing standards of the users of Punjabi — especially in academia and journalism — can be attributed to Doordarshani Hindi and English as it is reflected in all the Punjabi newspapers in East Punjab. The concept of mother language as a medium of instruction is losing its meaning. A Punjabi mother who talks to her children in Urdu/Hindi, their mother tongue for all intents and purposes is Hindi/Urdu.

Unless Punjabi is linked with finance, commerce and trade (as business is a potent tool to preserve and popularise language), it is bound to become an archaic language of the scriptures meant for the esoteric discussions.  I’d extend Guru Baba Nanak’s maxim na ko Hindu na Musalman to Punjab na ko Hindu na Musalman na Sikh, Punjab Punjabian da. Is it another wishful thinking that the Punjab belongs to Punjabis of all the denominations? No present day Musalman, Sikh or Hindu ruler will buy this idea. East Punjabi Sikh politicians of all shades ruling over just 15 per cent area of the undivided land would not agree to the idea of reunification or even an India-Pak confederation.

If Partition had not happened, Sikhs would have never ruled the present day East Punjab. Punjabi Muslims are content where they are. They got the Islamic Republic on a platter. The TNT, the very ideology of Pakistan i.e. Pakistaniyat, is incompatible with the idea of Punjabiyat. The idea of Khalistan implies that the first partition in 1947 and further divisions of East Punjab were justified. They tend to confuse the vague Punjabi term qaum (org. Arabic) for religious meaning as nation; which is also used for species, ethnicity, class, caste, clan and gender. 

We have lost the case for Punjabi both in East and West Punjab. For historical reasons and the internal dynamics of the Pakistani state, Punjabi will never be accepted here at the state and popular level. In East Punjab now Punjabi is the language of the poor.


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