Linguistic Bigotry: The Great Debate – II

NeechaN di ashnai koloN faiz kisay nahiN paya
kikar te angoor chRahia har gosha zakhmaya

(No one can benefit from people with lowly mentality. If the grapes’s vine is wrapped on a ‘kikkar’ tree, every bunch [of grapes] is damaged)




[Response to Linguistic Bigotry]


by Dr. Manzur Ejaz and Omar Ali


One common characteristic among all kinds of bigots is their combination of ignorance and arrogance. A Pakistani-American physician, Dr. Arif Muslim proved this once more by saying that Punjabi language is “jaisai GhoRae, gadhe, billi aur Kuttae ki boli, waisae hi Punjabi boli.”

The emotional shock one feels is that this bigot is placing the great thinkers, linguists and poets of Punjabi language, Baba Farid, Guru Nanak, Shah Hussain,  Demodar Das, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Mian Mohammad, Khawaja Farid and others, as well as a over a hundred million Punjabis, in the category of lowly animals. Whatever they wrote and whatever they speak everyday in millions of homes, turns out to be “GhoRae, gadhe, billi aur Kuttae ki boli.”

We should not make this an ethnic issue because the person who reported and protested the bigotry is an Urdu speaking physician himself. One can find such bigots among so-called educated Punjabis as well. In fact, these remarks would never be made in such a cavalier fashion if educated Punjabis had not encouraged and abetted such ignorance for decades. However, these remarks do demand a response to set the record straight.

The fact of the matter is that Punjabi language developed much earlier than other North Indian sister languages. Baba Farid wrote his deeply philosophical and sophisticated poetry in the 12th century AD. Baba Guru Nanak’s influential religious and philosophical treatise was created in the 15th to 16th century. Shah Hussain and Demodar Das belonged to the 16th century. Shah Hussain’s language is very close to modern day Punjabi. It means that by the 16th century Punjabi had matured enough that a standard language was in place. By that time no other North Indian language had reached that level. The first recognized Urdu poet, Wali Deccani (1667-1707), came much later.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the creation of great literature in all North Indian languages. The stalwarts of Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Shah Abdul Latif Bhatai, Mir Taqi Mir, Mir Dard, Momin and Ghalib, all belong to this era. It can be debated which of these language was more complete or standardized at that stage. I think all of them were rich enough to become a state’s language. However, it was the politics of the British Raj that created the wedge by allowing Urdu and Sindhi to become state languages and dumping Punjabi due to political reasons.

The next stage of these languages was to create prose and technical terminology to be used in the state’s institutions and for writing fiction etc. The British opened Fort William College, Calcutta, to develop Urdu and Hindi prose. Hundreds of munshis were hired to translate Persian prose into Urdu and writers were encouraged to create prose in that language. These translated books flooded all over North India through the printing press.

 By the late 19th century, the North Indian Muslim elite had firmly adopted Urdu as their preferred language and like the newly emerging bourgeoisie in other areas; they finally started to write some prose in Urdu. There is nothing particularly unusual about this process. If the emerging Punjabi bourgeoisie had found it useful to identify with Punjabi, they could no doubt have created more history, criticism, philosophy and even science in Punjabi. But as it happened, various factors conspired to direct this emerging bourgeoisie towards Urdu and Hindi instead of Punjabi.

After the annexation of Punjab in 1849, Urdu was imposed on Punjab. Urdu became the medium of education and functional state language at many levels. The white collar employees could make bread and butter either in English or Urdu. Therefore, the urban middle classes of Hindu, Sikh and Muslims adopted Urdu. As a matter of fact there were more Hindu and Sikh Urdu writers than Muslims because they constituted more of the urban elites:

Muslims were relatively socially backward and preformed lowly jobs in the cities and therefore had less impetus to use Urdu. But to the extent that a Muslim Punjabi bourgeoisie was emerging, they too adopted Urdu. As communal tensions increased in the Punjab (for reasons beyond the scope of this article) the Hindu bourgeoisie increasingly espoused the cause of Hindi, while the Muslim Elite increasingly identified with Urdu.

 Allama Iqbal personified this trend. In spite of coming from a Punjabi speaking family, he used Urdu as his preferred medium, a fact for which he was appropriately chastised by Tagore (who pointed out that its not for a writer to seek out a “developed language” and then use it, but its his or her job TO DEVELOP whatever language their community happens to speak).

In Pakistan, the development of Punjabi was further retarded by the fact that an illiterate military elite has run the country for decades and given their abysmal ignorance of all humanities and sciences, it is no surprise that they also proved totally ignorant of the research done all over the world about the importance of mother language in mass literacy. Instead, they uncritically accepted an ideological association of Muslim nationalism and Urdu chauvinism and actively discouraged the majority language of the nation for 6 decades.

In fact, not only has the language been discouraged, the Punjabi people themselves have been denigrated and stereotyped in the most ignorant fashion by rulers who are themselves mostly Punjabis!

But while Punjabwas totally neglected for five or six decades, with the beginning of 20th century the more aware section of the Punjabi intelligentsia, led by Mohan Singh, Amrita Pretam and Prof. Sharif Kujahi started creating modern Punjabi poetry and prose. Nanak Singh and many other novelists became popular in Punjabi population. Presently, this process is accelerating, and thanks to the untiring efforts of dedicated people like Najm Hussain Syed and Professor Asif Khan, the survival of Punjabi language is no longer in doubt.

PresentlyPunjabi has been declared the state language of East Punjab and bureaucracy is required to use Punjabi at all levels. In Pakistani Punjab, despite the active hostility of the state, hundreds of Punjabi books, on all aspects of life, are being written every year. Several Punjabi magazines have been started and more than one newspaper is now publishing in Punjabi.

Meanwhile, singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen and Pathaney Khan have popularized classical Punjabi poetry and introduced a new generation to their heritage. And on the net, Punjabi websites like Wichaar are combating the impression that Punjabi is only of historical interest by creating an active net community that debates politics, literature and even science, in Punjabi.  It is only a matter of time before Punjabi will be recognized as the state language of Pakistani Punjab. But, all this has happened in spite of the state’s discouraging attitude towards Punjabi and not with the assistance of the state and the elite as would usually be expected.

One last thing may be mentioned: Before any bigot declares Punjabi as “GhoRae, gadhe, billi aur Kuttae ki boli” they should look at the splendid translation of Quran done by late Prof. Sharif Kunjahi. If a language has the depth and expansive vocabulary to translate the Quran, it does not need a certificate of approval from anyone, especially someone who appears to be completely ignorant about the language and its history.


Next: Linguistic Bigotry: The Great Debate – I

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5 replies to “Linguistic Bigotry: The Great Debate – II

  1. Once at school in England our lady teacher was having a discussion with a group of English and Panjabi students.One English girl remarked that Asian women look strange wearing salwaars.I was asked to comment
    I said “it depends on who is wearing it”.They all laughed and also had to admit I was right.Same thing
    is said about turbans.Panjabi language has been treated like Cinderella.Reasons are numerous.One is its close proximity to Urdu and Hindi and instead of celebrating that fact people have for one ignorant reason or another usually sidelined it.When Bhai Samund Sing Ragi use to sing Divine Gurbani people use to stop in the streets to listen.Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan shook continents with his Panjabi
    Quwaalis.Due to many reasons the myths that people with a slave mentality develop about their Mother Culture continue to dominate the mind-set of many Panjabis.Lack of quality exposure in electronic media has further given strength to these perceptions.The examples you have high-lighted are excellent,if your message can reach the Panjabis of all ages it will
    go a long way to dipell ignorant misconceptions about our Mother Language….more later inshallah!

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