Plight of Punjabi language in India

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I vividly remember it was in grade six when we were required to select our second language in school; Hindi being the first and compulsory language. Fortunately, the Rajasthani town where my school was located had a considerable number of Sikhs, and thus the Punjabi was also taught there, but in Gurumukhi script.

My Sikh friends, therefore, would choose Punjabi and Hindus, Sanskrit. I, being a Punjabi Hindu, should have ideally gone for Punjabi instead of the ancient language, but I was made to choose the latter. In retrospect, I cannot but regret the fact that I was made to choose between Sanskrit and Punjabi, both being my own languages.

A different script for Punjabi i.e. Gurumukhi seemed an impediment and sounded a bit alien to me, for heretofore I had learnt only Devanagari and Roman scripts like the majority of Indians. In an ideal world, the choice should have been between Punjabi and English, the latter being a foreign language.

“We have to adopt one language, one script, one literature, one ideal and one nation, but the adoption of a single language precedes all the other unities so that they can communicate with and comprehend each other,” Bhagat Singh wrote.

However, for decades, learning English has been a compulsion here, as one’s livelihood depends on one’s proficiency in the language. Despite securing our ‘so-called freedom’ in 1947, we have somehow kept our slavery intact.

Today, English is a language of classes instead of masses.

“We have this great Indian inferiority complex. Those who speak Indian languages are seen as inferior beings and are discriminated against. In fact, English is the reason behind our backwardness. According to a study, only 10 per cent Indians know English; rest of 90 per cent literate Indians study in Indian languages. English is there because the state favors it and discriminates against Indian languages,” Sankrant Sanu – an entrepreneur, writer and researcher based in Seattle and Gurgaon, tells NewsGram in an interview.

But at the same time, being connected to one’s roots and learning one’s own language is important (duh).

As this Punjabi poem goes,

O rahiya rahe jandya, sun ja gallan meri

Sir to pag tere balait di, ihnun fuk muatara la.

(O passerby, listen to me. Burn that foreign turban which thou art wearing on thy head, And take to ‘Muatara’.)

Until the cataclysmic partition of Punjab in 1947, three views prevailed in the state. Muslims were staunch supporters of Urdu that was also the language of the court; Sikhs favored Punjabi in Gurumukhi script while the Hindus rooted for Hindi in Devnagari script. It is a matter of great regret that in order to secure a separate identity and homeland for Muslims, our Punjabi Muslim brothers apparently abandoned their own language.

Indian freedom fighter Shaheed Bhagat Singh had an interesting take on this issue. He believed that most important thing before us was to make India a unified nation, but this could not be done all at once.

“For this we have to move step by step. If we cannot adopt one language for the whole of India at the moment, we should at least adopt one script,” he wrote in an article for Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan in 1923, elucidating why Punjabi should be taught in Devnagri script.

Bhagat Singh believed the Urdu script based on the Persian language could not be called a perfect one. As per the Indian freedom fighter, idealists’ vision of turning the world into one single nation, one global nation was a good idea. But, we have to realize that ideal in our own country.

“We have to adopt one language, one script, one literature, one ideal and one nation, but the adoption of a single language precedes all the other unities so that they can communicate with and comprehend each other. A Punjabi and a Madrasi must not sit together mute at a gathering, but try to communicate their ideas and emotions, and this should be done in our own language, Hindi, rather than in an alien language like English.”

Remember that Bhagat Singh expressed these views in 1923, stressing upon the need to have one script for all the Indian languages. Alas, 24 years later India was divided along the lines of religion. Muslims rooting for Urdu got their Land of the Pure i.e. Pakistan, with Punjab witnessing unprecedented violence. Thousands of people – Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims – were rendered homeless, butchered and raped as they tried to flee their homelands.

That was apparently the final nail in the coffin of Punjabi in Pakistan. Today, there are about 10 crore Muslim Punjabis in Pakistan who speak Punjabi but disown it for obvious reasons. Those who speak Punjabi are seen as inferior beings. Besides Pakistanis write Punjabi in Persian script and use a highly Arabised version of it. For them, Urdu is their mother tongue. Moreover, Punjabi is not even taught in their schools and those who wish to learn it are required to hire private tutors, to the extent that language is on the verge of extinction in the Islamic Republic.

A Muslim Punjabi in Pakistan I interviewed for the purpose of this article told me how her father hired a private Sikh tutor to teach her Gurumukhi script.

“In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, they teach Pushto, in Sindh they teach Sindhi and in Balochistan there are multiple races so they teach Brahvi Persian Pushto. But, alas, in Punjab they don’t teach Punjabi in schools.”

In India, there are about 3 crore Sikhs and as many Hindu Punjabis. Unfortunately, the majority of Hindu Punjabis disown it as their mother tongue and prefer Hindi or Sanskrit over their own language. Therefore, it is a pity that out of total about 16 crore Punjabis in India and Pakistan, only 3 crore Sikh Punjabis own it as their mother tongue.

Bhagat Singh had a solution to secure justice for and promote the Punjabi language in the country. He believed that Gurumukhi script was even more incomplete than Urdu.

“But when we already have a scientific and perfect Hindi script, what is there to feel hesitant about adopting it? The Gurmukhi script is only distorted form of the Hindi script.

“Right from the start all the rules are same, then, how much will we be benefited by our immediate switch over to this. The Punjabi language will start developing immediately by adopting this perfect script… We shall plead with the supporters of Hindi that, ultimately and certainly, only Hindi will be the language of the whole Bharat, but it will be more convenient to propagate it from now on. Punjabi will become like Hindi by adopting the script and then all the differences will disappear and it is desirable that common people could be educated which is possible only through our own language in our own script.

(Image courtesy: sikhsocietyflorida)

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  • deepak

    it is better if all Punjabis irrespective of their religion accept Punjabi in its current form than making experiment with different scripts.
    By your logic then Roman should be the script we Punjabis should try becauue then not nationally but internationally people can learn Punjabi.
    Language is only language when its has it own script and grammar. Gurmukhi is perfect script for Punjabi.It gives its identity. it is matter of only mindset. Gurmukhi originated in india. it is as Indian as any other Indian script. then I don’t know why you guys only relate it to Sikhism ( even Sikhism is 100% Indian religion)
    In villages of Punjab there is hardly any difference between culture and language of people from different religion. It is only educated person like you create differences based on religion and make Language part of that.
    Time is changed now even Punjabi Hindus has accepted Punjabi as their mother tongue in its current form. You may be still living in 80s.

  • M.joshi

    Devanagari is not fit for the Punjabi language.it is a complicated script. It does not have all Punjabi sounds.Gurmukhi script is much easier than Devanagari. It is a perfect script for Punjabi.Punjabi is never written in Devanagari script.All Punjabis should Learn this script.

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  • deepak

    it is better if all Punjabis irrespective of their religion accept Punjabi in its current form than making experiment with different scripts.
    By your logic then Roman should be the script we Punjabis should try becauue then not nationally but internationally people can learn Punjabi.
    Language is only language when its has it own script and grammar. Gurmukhi is perfect script for Punjabi.It gives its identity. it is matter of only mindset. Gurmukhi originated in india. it is as Indian as any other Indian script. then I don’t know why you guys only relate it to Sikhism ( even Sikhism is 100% Indian religion)
    In villages of Punjab there is hardly any difference between culture and language of people from different religion. It is only educated person like you create differences based on religion and make Language part of that.
    Time is changed now even Punjabi Hindus has accepted Punjabi as their mother tongue in its current form. You may be still living in 80s.

  • M.joshi

    Devanagari is not fit for the Punjabi language.it is a complicated script. It does not have all Punjabi sounds.Gurmukhi script is much easier than Devanagari. It is a perfect script for Punjabi.Punjabi is never written in Devanagari script.All Punjabis should Learn this script.