Academy of the Punjab in North America (APNA)

A non-religious and non-political organization of all Punjabi's for the promotion of Punjabi language and culture

The Punjabi Movement


Professor of Linguistics and South Asian Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Excerpted from the author’s book LANGUAGE and POLITICS in PAKISTAN (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1996. Reprinted 1998; 2000. ISBN 0 19 577999 1

Chapter  11.



The activists of the Punjabi movement want Punjabi to be used for educational, administrative, and judicial purposes in the province of the Punjab. As the Punjab is the most populous and prosperous province of the country, notorious for its dominance in the army and the bureaucracy, many people find this language movement incomprehensible. Indeed, most Punjabis of the upper and the middle classes do favour Urdu, and submerge their Punjabi identity in the Pakistani one. What is difficult to explain is why the activists of the Punjabi movement do not do so. Would the Punjabi activists gain power? Considering that most of them are generally competent in Urdu (and some even in English), they could choose the easier way of joining the Punjabi elite rather than opposing it. Moreover, some of them such as Hanif Ramay—who was the chief minister of the Punjab under Z. A. Bhutto’s PPP rule in 1972-76 and is the Speaker of the Punjab Legislative Assembly at the time of this writing—possess political power; nor is it difficult for others to join mainstream politics and rise to eminence as Pakistanis (as Ramay asserts in his book: 1985: 29). Does the lure of the movement extend only to the less successful, as Christopher Shackle suggests?

It is much easier to become an office bearer in a Punjabi organization than in a respectable Urdu one; in a society where men love to toll off their sonorous titles, this pull should not be underestimated (1970: 259)

This hypothesis may explain why some young men preferred to join Punjabi rather than Urdu literary organizations in the 1960s when Shackle was in Lahore, but it does not explain why obviously talented people like Asif Khan, Shafqat Tanwir Mirza, and Najm 1-losain Syed—all men of letters in their own right—should join the movement. Moreover, a hypothesis based ultimately on snobbery does not explain why people should put their careers at stake or risk political persecution for a cause. Ramay, for example, says he was jailed and kept in the Lahore fort, which is notorious for torture. because of his espousal of the Punjabi cause (Ramay 1985: 149-50).

It appears then that this is a question that should be addressed in an account of the movement. Accounts of the activities of Punjabi organizations are available (Khan, A. 1994; Mirza 1994), but there is no scholarly account of the whole movement. Its historians have generally been activists who are polemical and resort to conspiracy- theory explanations, noting that Punjabi was never used by the British or the Pakistani governments in the domains of power, even in the Punjab itself.

Punjabi in the British Era

The British annexed the Punjab in I 849. The official language used by the Sikhs, whom they had defeated, was Persian, though religious schools did teach Punjab in the Gurmukhi script (Adm Rep-P 1853:98). The question of a language policy became evident as the vernacular terms used by the officers in correspondence were often unintelligible to their superiors (Letter of the Secretary, Board of Administration to Commissioners under the Board, I April 1849 in Chaudhry 1977; I). The Board proposed that Urdu should be used as the official language of the Punjab, since it was already being used in Northern India where they were established (Chaudhry 1977:3). The Deputy Commissioner of Dera Ghazi Khan said that, whereas the ‘Moonshees, Moolahs, and other educated persons write Persian’, not a man out of his ‘sudder establishment understands Oordoo’ (Letter to the Commissioner of Leiah, 24 July 1849 in Chaudhry 17). The Assistant Commissioner of Muzaffargarh also argued that ‘the native officers, both Sudder and Mofussil, composed chiefly of Mooltanee are unable to write Oordoo while with Persian they are familiar’ (Letter of 25 July i849 to Commissioner of Leiah, ibid. 17). The Commissioner of Multan, therefore, recommended the use of Persian since ‘in Mooltan none but the Hindoostanees who have lately been employed, are able to read the Oordoo without the greatest difficulty’ (Letter to Secretary of the Board of Adm, Lahore, 27 July 1949, ibid. 19). The Commissioner of Leiah Division did, however, recommend the use of Urdu to the Board of Administration, despite the problem of the clerical staff, in his letter of I August 1849:

Native Omla if they had a voice in the matter would give Persian the preference to Ciordoo and it is known how unpopular among that class the order was which substituted the latter language for Persian in all the courts of our old Provinces (Chaudhry 1977: 21).

In his opinion, the staff could learn Urdu in a few months. The Board, however, recommended the use of Persian for Leiah as well as Multan, Peshawar, and Hazara. For the divisions of Lahore and Jhelum, however, Urdu was recommended (Orders are in the form of a letter in Chaudhry 26-7).

The question is why did the British not recognize Punjabi as the vernacular of the Punjab? Why did they choose Urdu instead? Punjabi activists assert that this was done for political reasons or because of the influence of the lower staff who were mostly from northern India (Mirza 1989). The documents of that period, mostly letters of British officers, do not corroborate these assertions.

There were of course, many Hindustanis in the amlah till I 857, at which time they were suspected of being sympathetic to the mutineers and were consequently dismissed (Adm Rep-P 1853:100). In 1854 Sikhs were not recruited to the army for political reasons and there were not many Punjabis in the other services either. However, there was no bias against Punjahis as such, as the Report says:

There are sixteen [Hindustani] tehseeldars and fifty-three thanedars. We would gladly have filled these sixty-nine appointments with Punjabis exclusively, had fit men been procurable (Adm Rep-P 1953: 208).

But whether these Hindustanis actually influenced policy decisions is yet to be proved and is highly unlikely. It is, however, likely that the British officers, like their clerks, also knew Urdu and as Leitner, Principal of Government College, Lahore, reports (1882: ii), they found it more convenient to carry on administration with their existing skills. It is also possible that many among them shared the prejudices of Hindustanis. As Leitner, who was a supporter of Punjabi, wrote:

The fact is that the direction of the Educational Department has long been in the hands of men, both European and Native, connected with Delhi(Leitner 1882: 47).

But even if this is true, it only confirms that both Englishmen and Indians were prejudiced against the Punjabi language. This prejudice is further confirmed by letters. Letter after letter reveals that most British officers assumed that Punjabi was a rural patois of which Urdu was the refined form (for this opinion see letters in Chaudhry 1977: 52, 55, I 81, 183. 191, 208, 218, et passim. Also see Leitner 1882: ii and 29). There is no indication that Punjabi, written in the Persian script by Muslims, was considered politically dangerous.

The British officers were, however, against Gurmukhi because it was symbolic of the Sikh religious identity. In a letter of 16 June 1862, the Commissioner of Delhi wrote to the Punjab Government that, ‘Any measure which would revive the Goormukhee which is the written Punjabee tongue, would be a political error’ (Chaudhry 1977: 67). As Sikh children learned Gurmukhi in school (Leitner 1882: 33-7), it might have been considered politically expedient not to support it officially. There were, to be sure, popular folk songs against Mughal rule, which may be called anti-colonial (Saleem 1986; 16-23), but they were no longer a part of any active anti-British movement. Thus, there is no mention of this oral literature nor of any political apprehension from the Punjabi language or its literature, which was mostly mystical in the official records of that period.

Pro-Punjabi Movements in British Days

By 1854, the whole province of the Punjab (which included the present NWFP) used Urdu in the lower levels of administration, judiciary, and education. This position was challenged first by the British and later by the Hindus and Sikhs, while the Muslims continued to support Urdu.

In a letter of 2 June 1862, Robert Cust, a British officer in the Punjab, advocated the use of Punjabi written in the Gurmukhi script, on the grounds that it was the vernacular language which the British should support in principle (letter No. 318 in the Punjab Archives). This suggestion was repudiated by the other officers who felt that Punjabi was merely a dialect of Urdu. The Deputy Commissioner of Gujrat wrote to the Commissioner of Rawalpindi on 23 June 1862 that

Even a Punjabee villager will more readily understand simple Oordoo than indifferent Punjabee talked by us foreigners and by such of our Moonshees as may be Hindustanee (Chaudhry 1977: 52).

The Deputy Commissioner of Jhang also wrote to the Commissioner of Multan that the introduction of Punjabi would be confronted with the difficulty that, the ‘Hindustanee Amlah understand the language imperfectly’ while the Punjabis ‘among them are well acquainted with it colloquially’ but do not know it ‘as a written tongue’ (Letter of 24 June 1862 in Chaudhry 58). However, it was not the convenience of the staff which finally made the British officers dismiss the suggestion of Mr Cust. Their prejudiced views about Punjabi being an uncouth dialect, or patois as some of them called it, prevented them from taking the suggestion seriously.

By the I 880s, as we have seen, the Urdu-Hindi controversy had started agitating the minds of the Hindus and Muslims of the Punjab. Thus, when the Hunter Commission was formed to recommend educational changes in India, the question of the medium of instruction at the lower level had to be settled. The Sri Guru Singh Sabha (Sikh National Association) of Lahore petitioned Sir Charles Aitchison, the Governor of the Punjab, on 28 April 1882 to make Punjabi, in the Gurmukhi script, the medium of instruction at least for their community. The Governor, however, replied that such a step would harm the Sikhs. He said:

To exclude the children of the Sikhs from instruction in Urdu would be to place them under very serious disadvantages. Without a knowledge of Urdu it would be impossible to advance beyond the most elementary education, and to continue their studies in the middle and high schools. They would bc shut ou from access to an excellent, large, and daily increasing literature, and they would be placed at a great disadvantage with their countrymen in the business of life (Edn Comm-P 1884: 106-7).

The Governor’s point, that Punjabi would have a ghettoizing effect on its speakers, was valid on the assumption that positions of power and prestige would not be made available in that language. The Sikhs submitted memorials to the Commission in favour of Punjabi, while the Hindus submitted petitions in favour of Hindi (Memorials in Edn Comm-P 1884: 457-602). The Muslims, as individuals and in organizations, opposed Hindi and favoured Urdu (Memorial of the Anjuman Islamiaya [ ibid. 147; Fateh Beg, ibid. 209-lU).

In the Urdu-Hindi controversy, Urdu had become a symbol of Muslim identity while Hindi was the symbol of Hindu identity. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that Muslims chose to ignore their mother tongue(s). This attitude persisted till the creation of Pakistan and one finds many instances of Punjabi Muslims complaining in all forums, including the legislative assembly, that adequate arrangements did not exist for the teaching of Urdu to their children (for instance see LAD-Pun 5 and 22 March 1943: 3!, 426). The main positions were clearly delineated along communal lines: Urdu for the Muslims; Hindi for the Hindus; and Punjabi for the Sikhs. Thus, when the British did allow the Local Bodies to establish Gurmukhi classes in the late 1890s, most of the students were Sikhs (RPl-P 1897; 45). Yet, in fact, Punjabi was not popular even among the Sikhs, because it was not a bread-winning language’ (RPI-l’ 1899:42).

During the ongoing Urdu-Hindi controversy, the position of Urdu was challenged yet again. This time the challenger was not a Hindu or a Sikh but a British officer, J. Wilson, who was the Deputy Commissioner of Shahpur. He wrote a note in 1894 arguing that Punjabi was the vernacular of the people of the Punjab, so that one dialect of it should be standardized and used as the medium of instruction in primary schooling in the Punjab. He also argued that the Roman character, being a character developed by speakers of Aryan languages’ is more suitable for Punjabi than the Arabic character, which is of Semitic origin (Wilson 1894), He did concede, however, that Gurmukhi or Nagari is even more suitable for writing Punjabi than Roman but, since it would never be adopted by the Mussalman portion of the population (Wilson 1894: 172), the only practicable alternative was that of using Roman.

Wilson’s proposals were condemned even more savagely than those of Cust. Most of his colleagues were still of the view that Punjabi was a dialect or patois, despite Leitner’s details about Punjabi literature and the indigenous tradition of education in the province (1882). Indeed, some Englishmen even felt that Punjabi should be allowed to become extinct, Judge A. W. Stogdon, the Divisional Judge of Jullundur, wrote in his letter of 3 August 1895 that:

As for the encouragement of Punjabi. I am of the opinion that it is an uncouth dialect not fit to be a permanent language, and the sooner it is driven out by Urdu the better (in Chaudhry 977: 208).

Others felt that the cost of such a change would be exorbitant (Chaudhry 187) or that such a change would be a backward or reactionary step (Chaudhry 181, 183, 191,218), Still others pointed out that the political repercussions of such a change, in the context of the Urdu-Hindi controversy, could be alarming. The Commissioner of Rawalpindi wrote in his letter of 27 May 1895 to the Junior Secretary to the Financial Commissioner, Punjab, that the proposed change of’ script was especially problematic. In his words:

Under the change [ Roman] the Mullah might lose scholars and bigots might raise an agitation that Government was causing the Arabic (Persian) character to be disused in favour of English in order to help Christian Missionaries by discouraging the teaching of the Koran (in Chaudhry 1977: 240).

The same opinion was expressed in different words by other officers (for their letters, see Chaudhry 977: 268, 277, 317). The proposals were, of course, dropped.

Since the Urdu-Hindi controversy was part of Hindu-Muslim antagonism, any attempt at supporting the cause of Punjabi was interpreted by the Muslims as an attack upon them. Thus, when Dr P. C. Chatterjee, a Bengali Hindu educationalist. proposed in his convocation address at the Punjab University in 1908 that Punjabi should replace Urdu, the Muslims opposed him vehemently. On 29 December 1908 a meeting was held in Amritsar to condemn Chatterjee’s proposals.

Sir Muhammad Shafi, a prominent Muslim leader from the Punjab, condemned Chatterjees views and called him an enemy of the Muslims. It was especially pointed out that Chattérjee was a Bengali and not a Punjabi and thus, it was reasoned, his real interest lay not in promoting Punjabi but in opposing Urdu, which was now symbolic of Muslim identity and separatism (Barelvi 1988: 27). Such reasoning was based on the leading role of the Bengali Hindus in supporting Hindi against Urdu throughout the Urdu-Hindi controversy (Jones 1966: 383- 85). Thus, the support of Punjabi by a Bengali Hindu was perceived as an expression of his anti-Muslim bias. As mentioned in the chapter on the Urdu-Hindi controversy, the Muslim League condemned the demand for Punjabi in its December 910 session and Sheikh Zahur Ahmed gave the following highly provocative statement against it:

Delhi, the home of Urdu is in the Province of the Punjab and it would be a very sad day, indeed, if the high birth-place of Mir. Ghalib and Zauq should be vulgarized by the Babylonish jargon, by courtesy called Punjabi (Pir 1969: 196).

But such was the feeling against Hindus and Sikhs, with whom Punjabi was identified, that the Punjabi Muslims were not provoked.

Punjabi Movement Before Partition

As has already been mentioned, by and large it was only the Sikhs who promoted Punjabi language and literature and since the British started to enrol the Sikhs in the army after 1857. They unwittingly helped to shape an identity that was already recognisable to other peoples of northern India (Jeffrey 1986: 49). Thus, soon after the Hunter Commission, Punjabi was no longer officially discouraged. Even in 1877-78 ‘Punjabi, in the Gurmukhi character’ had been ‘introduced in the Oriental colleges’ (RPI-P 1879: 29) and by 1906-7 inspecting officers were ‘instructed to encourage the use of Punjabi colloquially in all Lower Primary classes (RPI-P 1907:24). However, the number of Gurmukhi schools rose slowly (RP 1911; 5; 1912: 28; RPI-F 1907: II). Under the Muslim-dominated provincial governments, the Sikhs complained that Punjabi Muslim ministers discouraged their children from studying Punjabi (see Sardar Lal Singh’s statement in LAD-Pun 6 March 1942: 407). Thus, while there were 1,245 Urdu medium primary schools in the major cities of the Punjab in 1940, there were only 13 such Punjabi medium schools (LAD-Pun 1 April 1940). In the same year, 13,342 students offered Urdu, 626 Hindi, and 96 Punjabi as their first vernacular in the Matriculation and Vernacular examination (LAD-Pun 1942: 354). Urdu was also most in demand for making adult literacy programmes, as 255,000 primers were printed in Urdu whereas the number printed for both Punjabi and Hindi was 35.000 (LAD-Pun 4 December 1941: 69-70). One reason for the lack of interest in Punjabi even amongst the Sikhs, was its ghettoizing effect. Ordinary Sikhs did not want to sacrifice social mobility to a linguistic symbol. However, identity-conscious Sikhs did promote Punjabi as we have seen.

The first daily newspaper in Punjabi was published by the Sikh Sabha of Lahore (Khurshid 1986: 381). The Sikhs also published a number of papers in the Gurmukhi script among which the Khalsa Samachar and Panj Darya are well known (Qaisar 1992: 18-9).

While the majority of educated Punjabi-speakers, both Hindus and Muslims, promoted Hindi and Urdu, among the Hindu organizations, the Sat Sabha, founded in 1866 and modelled after the Brahmo Samaj by its founder, Lala Behari La!, also used Punjabi for its work (Jones 1966: 380). Some Muslims also tried to promote Punjabi, though they were not part of mainstream Muslim political culture.

The first Punjabi newspaper in the Persian script was called Amrat Patreeka and was published in Jhelum in 1896 (Khurshid 1986: 381) by a Hindu called Bhola Nath. The first publication with which many Muslims were associated, and which was edited by a man who later became one of the leaders of the Punjabi movement in Pakistan, was Punjabi Darbar. This was published from Lyallpur by Joshua Fazal Din (a Punjabi Christian) (Khurshid 1986: 382). A Punjabi Society was established at Government College, Lahore in 1926. This Society staged many plays in Punjabi and promoted the language in other ways (Hameed 1964). Another private literary organization, the Doaba Kavi Sabha, was organized by Umar Din Ulfat Varsi in 1931 at Jullundur (Faqir 1956: 3), In general, however, educated Muslims associated themselves with Urdu rather than Punjabi. But this, as we have noted before, was because of political expediency. The Muslim intelligentsia had formed a pressure group against Hindus and Sikhs, and Urdu was part of this Muslim identity. Meanwhile, the common people of the Punjab, less conscious of lie exigencies of modernity, continued to enjoy oral Punjabi literature. The mosque schools taught moral stories in Punjabi and Punjabi stories were sold in the bazaars (Saleem PC: 8 December 1994).

The Beginning of Activity

Soon after the creation of Pakistan, Punjabi vanished as a university subject’ (Shackle 1970: 243). Because of its association with Sikhs and due to the state’s promotion of Urdu, Punjabi was relegated to the periphery. In 1948, however, some activity did begin when a meeting of some Punjabi intellectuals was held at the Dyal Singh College under he presidentship of Syed Abid Ali Abid. All the participants were distinguished men of letters, M. B. Taseer and Faqir Muhammad Faqir amongst others. They decided to work towards making Punjabi the language of education in the Punjab and to encourage publications in Punjabi. The first objective remained an aspiration but Abdul Majid Salik did start publishing the monthly Punjabi in 1951 (Qaisar 1992:20). Its editor, Faqir Muhammad Faqir, was successful in persuading eminent Punjabi literary figures, who had made their name in Urdu literature, to write for it. The Punjabi League and the Punjabi Cultural Society were formed in early 1952 and a number of minor Punjabi organizations, such as the Punjabi Morcha (Punjabi trench), created in 1954 by Sardar lqbal Dillon (Int: 23 November 1994) proliferated. But none of these organizations were able to get Punjabi accepted as even an optional language in the University of the Punjab in 1953 (‘Editorial’ Punjabi March-April and November—December 1953}.

The first significant event of this period was the Punjabi Conference held on 9 March 1956 at Lyallpur. It was sponsored by the Punjabi Bazm-e-Adab (literary society) and its main purpose was consciousness-raising ( Punjabi, March 1956: 3-5). This Bazm-e-Adab was the Pakistani version of Umar Din Ulfat Varsi’s organization, which has been mentioned earlier. Having migrated from Jullundur to Lyallpur, Varsi organized his society under an acceptable Persian name (Faqir 1956: 3). The major impediment to the acceptance of Punjabi, as perceived by Punjabi intellectuals, was that most literate Punjabis (and perhaps also the illiterate) exhibited various degrees of cultural shame about their language. In his presidential address at the conference, Abdul Majid Salik pointed to this and the fact that Muslim Punjabis had always served Urdu. He was, however, quick to add that the progress of Punjabi should not be at the expense of Urdu which should remain the national language of Pakistan (Salik 1956: 8).

The Conference demanded that Punjabi be used as the medium of instruction at the lower level. This was accepted in principle, although no real change was made. In fact, since all the provinces of West Pakistan had been amalgamated into One Unit by this time, the ruling elite was less supportive than ever of the indigenous languages of the former provinces.

Punjabi During Martial Rule

According to Shafqat Tanwir Mirza, an activist of the Punjabi movement and later the editor of the Urdu daily Imroze, Ayub Khan’s martial law was anti-Punjabi. In his words:

To support Punjabi language and literature was labelled a anti-state act and in 1959. under Ayub’s martial law. the Pirnjabi Majlis, a Lahore based literary organisation was declared a political party and banned. So much so that from 1959 to 962, no one dared to form a literary organization in Lahore lest it be declared a political organization (Mirza 1985: 43).

This was true as far as the political aspects of the movement were concerned, but after 1962, it appears that the state did make some concessions to the cultural aspirations of Punjabi intellectuals. Radio Pakistan started its Punjabi programme Ravi Rang’ in 1960, and the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, Lahore, agreed to teach Punjabi from the sixth to the twelfth classes (Rasalu Int: I February 1993). The monthly Punjabi Adab also began publication and there was a literary efflorescence in which some outstanding works on the Punjabi identity were produced (for resistance literature in Punjabi, see Saleem 1986).

Among the most significant works on the Punjabi identity is Najam Hussain Syed’s ‘Dullah di Var’. The ‘var’ is an epic poem, a ballad of resistance or the versified narrative of an armed conflict’ (Malik, F 1988: 22-3). Dullah (or Abdullah) Bhatti of the poem’s title was a rebel against the Mughal emperor Akbar (1554-1605) and was the subject of many a folk song in the Punjab (Saleem 1986: 17-20). The significance of Najam Syed’s poem is explained by Fateh Muhammad Malik:

Najam has picked up this legendary figure from folklore and made him a major symbol of Punjabi identity, He has portrayed Dullah as a working class revolutionary. Dullah’s struggle has been projected in proletarian colours. His rebellion is not only aimed at the change of the government but also at the change of the exploitative socio-economic system (Malik, F 1988: 31)

The other folk heroes who resisted exploitation and foreign dominance were Ahmed Khan Kharal (1803-1857), Nizam Lohar (nineteenth century), and Bhagat Singh (1907-1931), who were all anti-British (Ramay 1985: Ill-3D).

Another Punjabi writer who used the symbols of Dullah Bhatti and Shah Hussain ( a famous saint of Lahore (Krishna 1977: 12-26), was (Major) Ishaque Mohammad (1921-82). In his play Quqnus (phoenix) he uses these two figures to signify a distinct Punjabi identity which, unlike the Punjabi elite, resists exploitation. Ishaque’s play Musalli was perhaps the most well-known anti-colonial work.  In this, the original pre-Aryan inhabitants of the Punjab are shown to be marginalized (Ishaque 1972; 1976). As the plays of both Syed and Ishaque were inspired by socialist thought, and as Ishaque was the founder of the leftist Mazdoor Kisan Party (Afzal 1987: 115). the literature of the Punjabi Movement was labelled as being leftist or anti-Pakistan (Malik, S. t985: 245).

The Punjabi Group of the Writers’ Guild was formed in the early 1960s with Shafqat Tanwir Mirz.a as its first secretary. The Punjabi Adabi Sangat, the Punjabi Majlis of Government College Lahore, the Punjabi Adabi League, an irregular private society of Lahore, Majlis Shah Hussain, and a number of smaller organizations provided forums for the activists of the Punjabi Movement to interact with each other. The Sangat met at the YMCA at Lahore on Sunday evenings, though, according to Shackle, its attendance was thin, while that of the Halqa-e Arbab-e-Zauq, an Urdu literary forum, was much greater. The Punjabi Majlis, which had a majority of left-leaning intellectuals (Saleem 1986: 35). nevertheless welcomed everybody, while the Halqa was selective (Shackle 1970: 248-51). The Majlis Shah Hussain, which was formed in 1962 was perhaps the most dynamic of the Punjabi institutious’ in the late sixties (ibid. 252-3). In 1962. the Punjabi Guild arranged a literary and musical function on ‘Mela Charaghan’ (the fair of the lamps) which marks the death anniversary of Shah Hussain (Malik. F. 1988: 18). It also began publishing a monthly magazine called Lahran in 1965. Another magazine called Haq Allah started publication in 1962, but only lasted until 1965 (Khurshid 1986: 384).

The main purpose of the Punjabi organizations was to make the Punjabi language the focus of the Punjabi, as opposed to the Pakistani, identity. The Punjabi Group of the Writers’ Guild, under the inspiration of Shafqat Tanwir Mirza, held symposiums on the future of Punjabi writers (PT 22 February 1962) and was actively concerned with consciousness-raising. As this assertion of the Punjabi, rather than the Pakistani identity, was seen as being ethno-nationalistic, it was condemned as being anti-Pakistani. Thus, in a speech Syed Abdullah, Principal of the Oriental College of Lahore and a great supporter of Urdu, accused the Punjabi activists of being anti-Pakistan and anti Islamic (PT 15 March 1962). Altaf Gauhar, a senior bureaucrat, believed that the Punjabi-Urdu controversy which was going on in Lahore could harm national unity (CMG 20 April 1963). Hamid Ali Khan, the representative of Punjabi in the Central Language Board, declared that he loved literary Punjabi but condemned political Punjabi’ (Chikna Choor 1963: 3). By ‘political Punjabi’, he meant the demand for making Punjabi the language of basic schooling, administration, and the judiciary in the province.

The term ‘political’ also referred to the opposition to Urdu (and in some cases mother-tongue speakers of Urdu), by some of the activists of the movement. The older generation of Urdu speakers did look down upon Punjabi which they, like the British, regarded as a rustic dialect. However, the younger generation is generally bilingual in Urdu and Punjabi though, like mother-tongue speakers of Punjabi,. it too regards Punjabi as a rustic and ghettoizing language (Mansoor 1993: 108, 121). As the older generation of Urdu speakers supported Urdu against Punjabi in the sixties, the Punjabi activists were often critical of them. This was one political aspect of the movement, which raised government apprehensions. What alarmed them most, however, was the interest the Punjabi activists took in the development of Punjabi across the border, in India. Some activists, like Dillon of the Punjabi Morcha, were so appreciative of Sikh culture, that government officials and Pakistani nationalists feared they would undermine the two-nation theory on the basis of which Pakistan was created (Dillon Int: 23 November 1994).

Finally, on 6 April 1963, the Punjabi Group of the Writers Guild was banned, on the grounds that it had started the Punjabi-Urdu controversy, which could harm the interests of Urdu and strain relations between the supporters of Urdu and those of Punjabi. Moreover the Group had discussed the Gurmukhi script and been in touch with the Sikhs. For some time, the issue was hotly debated. The greatest opposition to Punjabi was articulated in the Urdu Tarweej Conference of 26- 28 April 1963. and the usual allegations against the Punjabi Group—that of being anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam—were repeated (Yar, M. 1963: 49-54). After this, the Punjabi Movement became very subdued on the political front, though its literary and cultural activities continued.

The 1969 Educational Policy and the Movement

Air Marshal Noor Khan’s proposals of 1969 were anti-English and were welcomed in pro-Urdu and anti-elitist circles. However, they were opposed by the supporters of the indigenous languages of West Pakistan. The activists of the Punjabi movement also opposed them. Rather surprisingly, a retired lieutenant general, Bakhtiar Rana, also urged the government to accommodate Punjabi in the new educational policy (PT 7 August 1969). The Punjabi Adabi Sangat presented a Memorandum to Nor Khan, proposing that the following steps be taken:

1. Open the doors of our seats of learning to Punjabi by:

a. Adopting it as a medium of instruction at the primary level.

b. Making it an elective subject up to the secondary classes.

c. Establishing separate departments for it in higher academic institutions.

d. Creating a separate chair for it in the Punjab University and other universities to be opened in this area.

e. Using Punjabi as the medium of instruction for the adult literacy programmes in the province.

2. Encouraging Punjabi writing by enabling the libraries to buy books in the language (Memorandum 1969).

Safdar Mir, an eminent journalist and a supporter of Punjabi, pointed out that whereas Sindhi and Pashto could be used at the primary level under the proposed policy, Punjabi was not even mentioned. This’, in his view, ‘aroused the suspicions and apprehensions of the protagonists of the Punjab’ (Zeno 1969). A number of organizations—Punjabi Adabi League, Punjabi Durbar, Majlis Shah Hussain, Punjabi Society, Majlis Mian Muhammad, Majlis-e-Bahu, Majlis Waris Shah, Majlis Shah Murad, and Rahs Rang (a drama group in Lahore)—supported these demands for Punjabi. Dr Waheed Qureshi of the Oriental College and Lieutenant General Rana also demanded the establishment of a Punjabi Department at the University (Memorandum 1969: 13-7; also see Mirza 1969). Despite all this opposition, however, the New Education Policy of 1970 did not deviate from its proposed policy of not altering the position of Punjabi.

Activities in the 1970

The 1970s opened with one positive achievement for the Punjabi movement: The setting up of the department of Punjabi at the Punjab University under the chairmanship of Najam Hussain Syed. However, Najain’s secular and leftist reputation made the department suspect in the eyes of his ideological opponents. During Ziaul Haq’s martial law, when these opponents came into power, syllabi were changed, the literature of the Sikhs was tabooed, and the faculty was purged of certain members. This was, and remains, an impediment to the study of Punjabi literature and its interpretation (Humayun 1986: 227-33).

In 1970, the Punjab Adabi League translated the Quran into Punjabi (NT May 1970). General Rana himself organized the Punjabi Ittehad Tehrik (Punjabi Unity Movement), which was reported to have over 1000 members, and published a weekly called Punjab di Avaz (the voice of the Punjab) The Tehrik reiterated the demand for using Punjabi in education, administration, and the judiciary at the lower levels.

After the emergence of Bangladesh in December 1971, the Punjabi movement became somewhat subdued although these were the best years for the production of consciousness-raising literature. The relationship between identity and literature also received direct expression at different forums. No less a personage than the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz said at a convention of the Sangat that only Punjabi could express the true self most authentically. Ustad Daman, the Punjabi poet made much of Faiz’s remarks, concluding that speaking Punjabi was tantamount to telling the truth (PT 13 January 1972).

Another important issue was language planning. The issues of choosing a script and making dictionaries available had to he addressed by the Punjabi activists and they used the newspapers to express their views. The main issues involved changes in script and the compiling of a good dictionary. After a long debate (see PT 10 and 17 September and 5 October 1912) the script was not changed. However, even now there are people who want to use the Gurmukhi script for writing Punjabi (Dillon Int: 23 November 994). This perhaps, is a reaction to the perceived dominance of Urdu which shares its present script with Punjabi. But this is a minority opinion since many Punjabi activists do not want to abandon the Arabic-based Urdu script, which symbolizes their Muslim identity. A good dictionary, however, was published by the Urdu Science Board in 1989 (Bukhari 1989).

The 1980s

As we have seen earlier, Genera! Ziaul Haqs military regime was not sympathetic to the indigenous languages since they were regarded as symbols of ethno-nationalism. On 2 January 1985 however, a Charter of the Punjabi people was signed by 139 prominent people. A press conference was addressed by Masood Khaddarposh, Convener of the Punjabi Forum, and Fakhar Zaman, a well-known writer and former senator. Besides the activists of the Punjabi movement, leftist members of the PPP like Mairaj Khalid and Mubashir Hussan also signed the Charter (M 3 January 1985). The prominent English language journalist and editor of the left-leaning weekly Viewpoint, Mazhar Ali Khan. also signed the Charter. In short, the opposition to General Zia’s right wing government took this opportunity to support Punjabi and the multi nationality thesis. The Charter did not make any new demands; its main thrust was to make Punjabis proud of their language and cultural identity (Charter-P 1985). The most significant step in that direction was the Punjabi Conference of 1986.

This conference took place in Lahore from 25-9 April. in the wake of the lifting of the martial law. The new-found freedom encouraged Fakhar Zaman to arrange the conference and invite participants from India and other countries of the world. The delegates from India, however, were denied visas, so that Amrita Pritam, the famous Punjabi poetess, could not preside over the Conference as originally intended. The supporters of Punjabi protested ever this (Shah, B. 19S6), and like most other ethno-nationalistic debates, this matter took on the character of a left-right debate. The right wing writers pointed out that well-known leftists: Abdullah Malik, the famous Urdu novelist; Tariq Ali Khan, the Trotskyite student leader of Ayub Khan’s days now living in London; Ajmal Khattak of the ANP; and Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo had either participated in or sent messages to the conference (Rahman, A 1986; Qasmi 1986). Even Benazir Bhutto, Ziaul Haq’s main political opponent with known liberal views, sent a message (Qaisar and Pal 1988: 9). The atmosphere of the Conference was undoubtedly progressive and anti-establishment. The religious faction was accused of censoring Punjabi literature (Humayun 1986: 227-33). Aftab Naqvi, a college lecturer, was hooted when he emphasized the Muslim identity if Pakistani Punjabis (Naqvi 1986; 118-19) and it was proposed that the Punjabi movement should try to ally itself with the working class, rather than the middle class, which had always been indifferent to it (Saqib l986: 127). Among the resolutions passed by the delegates, the most important one was, predictably, that which pertained to the use of Punjabi in the educational, administrative, and judicial domains (Qaisar and Pal  1998: 457-84). The delegates also supported the ethno-nationalist movements in the other provinces of Pakistan, as well as the socialist revolution in Afghanistan One typical comment by the right wing press about these activities was:

This is not serving ones mother tongue. This is only finding ways for the progress of socialist thought and politics under the banner of progressivism (Rahman. A. 1986).

On 8 May a procession was brought out in Lahore under the auspices of the Punjabi Writers Board, The Punjab Naujawan Mahaz, etc. All the other Punjabi organizations participated and chanted slogans: ‘Punjahi Parho, Punjabi Likho’ (read Punjabi, write Punjabi) (M 9 May 1986). While the Punjabi activists asserted their distinctive identity (Zeno 1986). The supporters of the Pakistani identity, like Fateh Muhammad Malik. argued that this identity was in a hierarchical and not a mutually exclusive relationship with the Pakistani identity (Malik, F. 1988:20-35).

As in the cases of the other language movements, Punjabi language planners are also motivated by the imperative of creating an authentic Punjabi identity through language planning. Many Punjabis, and not only the activists, complain that ordinary spoken Punjabi is too full of Urdu words to be authentic (Agha Babar in Zaidi, M. A. 1993). This appears to be a threat to the Punjabi identity, because of which some Punjahi activists use words of indigenous origin, even at the cost of intelligibility, in their writings (though to a lesser extent in conversation). Examples of new coinages and words commonly used are given below.

The Punjabi daily Sajjan (l989-90) used many such words. A critic of such usage claimed that it became so unintelligible that it lost readers. It was also argued that some of these words were Sanskritic or Hindi rather than the well-known Persian or Arabic equivalents already in use (Iqbal 1991: 12).


Word commonly used               Punjabi coinage            Meaning


Lafz                                         akkhar                         word

Sailab                                      harh                             flood

aqvam-e-muttahidda              1k muth qauman         United Nations

salana                                      varhe var                    yearly

khususi                                    achecha                       special

taqreeb                                    ikath                            gathering

bhejna                                     ghalna                         to send


(Khalid 1993)

The stress on indigenization appears anti-Islamic to its critics because it involves purging the language of its Arabic and Persian roots, Thus the use of the word chinta for worry rather than fikr is reminiscent of the Urdu-Hindi controversy, when the supporters of modern Hindi substituted this word for worry, while the supporters of Urdu retained the Persian fikr.

The Present

During Benazir Bhutto’s first tenure, Nawaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of’ the Punjab, used Punjabi nationalism to confront the centre, Fakhar Zaman, a supporter of thc PPP, called this policy ‘Punjabism’ and stigmatized it as a’political stunt’ (D 20 December 1988).

The 1990s have seen the rise of younger people to the forefront of the movement. Saeed Farani Kammi (1990) and Nazir Kahut (1992) have written books which, though polemical and based upon conspiracy theories, contribute towards making educated Punjabis conscious of the need to take pride in their language. Alyas Ghumman writes on technical and scientific subjects in Punjabi (Ghumman Int: 31 January 1993) while a number of journalists bring out the fortnightly Ravel and the monthly Maan Boli. The attempt to bring out a daily, Sajjan, failed after twenty-one months (3 February 1989 to October 1990), but it inspired Punjabi activists because the journalists who worked in it devoted themselves selflessly, on a voluntary basis, and kept publishing the daily, despite a crippling lack of funds (Qaisar 1992; All, N. 992). Thus, Sajjan became a legend which inspires the Punjabi movement even now.

The PPP came to power again in 1993 and Fakhar Zamman became the Chairman of the Academy of Letters, while Hanif Ramay became the Speaker of the Punjab legislature. Fakhar did give the indigenous languages, and especially the theme of anti-establishment resistance importance at a national conference of writers held in Islamabad between 9-11 October 1994, but the Punjabi Sangat’s major demand, that Punjabi should be made the medium of instruction at the primary level, has not yet been fulfilled (Mirza 1993).

Reasons for the Movement

We have seen that Punjabi is given very little patronage by the state and has never been the medium of instruction or the language of administration in Pakistan, despite the fact that the apparatus of the state is dominated by Punjabis. This is explained by some people with reference to character qualities; that the Punjabis are generous and therefore tolerant of Urdu; that they are ashamed of their language and impressed by Urdu; that they are insensitive to cultural imperialism. But such explanations only indicate the emotional attitude of the speaker. A more likely explanation is that Urdu serves to extend the power base of the ruling elite. Indeed, as Shafqat Tanwir Mirza argued in a recent interview, Punjabi is given less importance than other ethnic languages, so as to impress upon their supporters that the sacrifice of one’s mother tongue, which only the Punjabis give so willingly, is the real criterion of Pakistani nationalism (Mirza 1994; 91).

But these rational, instrumentalist explanations do not explain the behaviour of the activists of the Punjabi movement, nor the Punjabi speakers emotional response towards their language. We have seen how all activists claim that Punjabis despise their language or, at best, hold it in affectionate contempt. A survey of students attitudes, referred to earlier, concludes that:

 The majority of Punjabi students (59%) display negative attitudes to Punjabi. They generally do not approve of studying Punjabi and there is no commitment to practice. It is also considered economically unimportant (Mansoor 1993:119).

A similar survey of attitudes towards Punjabis settled in England also suggested that it was ‘poorly evaluated even by its users ‘(Mobbs 1991,245). But does this mean that the Punjabis consider their language a social stigma as the Lapps do theirs? (Eidheim 1969). For the Lapps the fact that they ‘habitually use Lappish in their daily life’ was secret, and some families even made the drastic decision to prevent their children from learning Lappish’ (Eidheim 1969: 43; 55).  The Punjabis do not appear to shun Punjabi in private domains to that extent, but educated ones do teach Urdu and English to their children and consider these languages more sophisticated and cultured than Punjabi. However, unlike the Lapps who are a minority vis & vis the Norwegians, the Punjabis are a self-confident majority. Perhaps it is their confidence in all other spheres of life which makes them negligent of their language. They do, however, enjoy Punjabi songs and jokes. Moreover, written tales in prose and verse in this language arc still in circulation at: the popular level. This is regarded by some intellectuals as part of the resistance to alien cultural domination (Saleem PC: December 1994). However, it does not seem to be part of an active anti-establishment resistance movement, rather an indication that Urdu is still alien for popular Punjabi culture. Punjabi is certainly a marker of intimacy and informality. This means that the language is taken for granted as an intimate part of identity though it has not been used to create a pressure group to obtain more goods or power, i.e.. for instrumental reasons.

This is understandable, because Punjabis already have power which ethnicity would only threaten. This is why the Punjabi movement mobilizes people not for instrumentalist but for sentimental reasons. The pre-modern sentimental attachment to a distinctive way of life, conveniently symbolized by Punjabi, is really what is at stake. The domination of Urdu, no matter how useful for the elite, does take away the language and literature of the Punjab from the Punjabis. The activists feel that this is a price which should not be paid; the others do not take it seriously. Hence, the movement is a weak, middle-class phenomenon, concentrated mainly in Lahore. It is unique among all the language movements of Pakistan because it is the only one which is not motivated by rational, goal-directed, instrumentalist reasons. But for all that, it is a modern phenomenon. Had the use of Urdu and English in the domains of power not alienated the Punjabi intelligentsia from its cultural roots—something which could only have happened under modern conditions of formal schooling, ubiquitous media, and the constant use of other languages—the Punjabi language movement would not have started at all.