Saturday, January 28

Punjabis and Their Identity

Punjabiyat will not die away or remain forever hostage to communalism on the Indian side or self-denial on the Pakistani side, asserts Ishtiaq Ahmed, an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University

Individual and group identities are formed in relation to other individuals and groups. Therefore identity is both self-defined and other-defined, besides being multi-dimensional. Identity satisfies psychological or emotional needs and is needed for finding anchor in the social world as well as for building solidarity. Almost all individual and group identities contain multiple elements; something which makes possible adjustment to the circumstances, but also introduces a degree of unreliability since identity responses can be capricious and unpredictable and therefore easier to manipulate by ruling elites. One can, however, argue that identity is not something merely subjective and objective criteria can also be employed to define it. Thus the speakers of a language can be categorised according to an objective criteria ? all those who speak a particular language belong to one group. The problem is that such objectification may not be the primary element in the self-definition or other-definition of all those who speak that language. Religion, sect, caste or biradari could be even more important.
No other linguistic nationality displays this malaise of conflicting dimensions more than speakers of the Punjabi language. The Punjabis and their cultural-geographical space, Punjab, have been fractured many times in the modern period beginning with the British conquest in 1849. At the beginning of the 20th century revivalist movements emerged among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, and although all three communities spoke Punjabi at home, Muslims began to declare Urdu as their mother tongue; Hindus identified themselves with Hindi, and Sikhs with Punjabi. The communalisation of Punjabi identity culminated in the division of Punjab in 1947. The Hindu-Sikh majority East Punjab was awarded to India and the predominantly Muslim areas in the western districts were given to Pakistan.
In 1956 the former princely states of Patiala, Faridkot, Kapurthala and others were amalgamated into East Punjab, but this did not satisfy the Sikh leaders of the Akali Dal who began to campaign for a compact Punjabi-speaking province. In reaction Punjabi Hindus, under the influence of various communal parties as well as the Congress Party, declared Hindi and not Punjabi as their mother tongue. It resulted in the Punjabi Suba agitation launched by Master Tara Singh and later Sardar Fateh Singh. In 1966 Mrs Indira Gandhi conceded the demand of the Sikhs. Accordingly only Punjabi-speaking areas remained in East Punjab while those areas in which Hindi was the main language were awarded to Haryana and some to Himachal Pradesh. Such redrawing of borders did not satisfy some Sikh nationalists who launched the Khalistan movement in the hope of establishing an independent Sikh state. The Indian state reacted with all the might at its disposal and between June 1984 and early 1990s the Khalistanis and the Indian police and security forces were embroiled in terrorism against each other which resulted in the deaths of more than 60,000 people. At present it seems that the Indian government has brought the situation under control.
The Pakistani Punjab emerged as the dominant province in the Pakistani dispensation, although the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs were initially overly represented in the government as well as the state machinery. During the mid-1950s West Punjab ceased to exist and the whole of West Pakistan was ruled from Lahore, the capital of Punjab. This was not liked by the smaller provinces and that scheme had to be abandoned after the fall of Field Marshal Ayub Khan from power in 1969. After the secession of East Pakistan, the Pakistani Punjab became also the numerically preponderate province. Under General Ziaul Haq the Punjabi presence in the economy, politics and military became even greater. The intriguing aspect of this success story is that the Pakistani Punjabis were able to achieve pre-eminence through a negation of Punjabi culture. In the 1980s an attempt was also made to bring out a daily newspaper in Punjabi, Sajjan. It was published for a while but went out of print because neither the government nor the private sector helped it through advertisements and public notices.
Thus all governments, including those of Punjab, curbed Punjabi literacy and instead promoted Urdu as the medium of instruction and expression in school. Until the early 1990s, members of the Punjab Assembly were forbidden to address the House in Punjabi. This ban was removed by Hanif Ramay who at that time was the speaker of the Punjab Assembly. Some valiant champions continue to propagate the cause of the Punjabi language but this is confined to small intellectual circles. They have been demanding that Punjabi be taught in school at the primary level, but no government has accepted this idea.
Ironically despite much emotional emphasis on Urdu the Pakistani power elite relies on English to maintain an exclusive control over the state. Urdu serves as the cement on the broader literary and cultural level in all urban areas of Pakistan and Punjabis are as good as its native speakers, the Mohajirs, in using it. There is therefore no objective advantage in cultivating Punjabi because English and Urdu are more effective than Punjabi as means of domination. The Punjabi language therefore is relegated to informal day-to-day communications and is likely to remain so unless something dramatic happens to alter that situation. Therefore, in my opinion, a study of identity in general and the position of language in particular should be located within existing power relations and material conditions.
However, I am convinced that Punjabiyat will not die away or remain forever hostage to communalism on the Indian side or self-denial on the Pakistani side. In the years ahead, the people of the old historical Punjab are likely to realise that they need to cooperate in order to make efficient use of the water resources in the region, benefit from trade and particularly if they want to avoid extinction because any future war between India and Pakistan will always inflict irreparable damage and loss on this region and its people. Such a realisation will surely create the awareness in favour of beginning a dialogue between them. That dialogue can only be conducted in Punjabi, both in the spoken and written form because trust and confidence can best be built in a language which goes to the heart. We only have to start singing Heer Waris Shah from our border post at the Wagah and let?s see how the fellow on the other side responds.

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