No, opening of Sikh holy places or promotion of Punjabi culture isn’t fanning tensions in Pakistan

Ammara Ahmad responds to Prateek Joshi’s Scroll article.

ByAmmara Ahmad
No, opening of Sikh holy places or promotion of Punjabi culture isn’t fanning tensions in Pakistan

This is a response to Prateek Joshi’s article headlined “Pakistan’s bid to use Punjabi culture to deepen faultlines in India will only fan tensions at home” and published on the news website Scroll on December 4. 

I have been closely affiliated with the movement for the revival of Punjabi language, culture and identity (which we also call “Punjabiyat”, the term embracing the shared geography, language, heritage, history, and culture across religions of the land of five rivers) in Pakistani Punjab for the last three years. Joshi’s article is based on assumptions and sensational claims. It makes a complete hotchpotch of these very different terms to further a false claim. Neither the opening of Sikh holy places such as Kartarpur for international pilgrims nor the promotion of Punjabiyat, and Punjabi language and culture are currently fanning any “tensions” within Pakistan. The pilgrimage is being used to generate revenue and improve Pakistan’s image abroad, and the movement for Punjabiyat is still too young to pose a formidable threat to the Pakistani state’s narrative or actors. 

Joshi claims that for Pakistan, “the policy of using Punjabi culture as a strategic tool has alienated conservative groups at home”. 

Which “conservative” groups precisely? How have they been “alienated”, and where is the evidence? Are we forgetting the famed “mullah-military” complex and the assertion that Pakistan’s religious elite is usually in bed with its establishment? 

There’s little doubt that the history of combined Punjab and its three main communities – Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs – is deeply troubled and discomforting. But the symbolic breakthroughs made by Pakistan recently are far from causing any major resistance or receiving any noticeable threats because they have very powerful backing. 

The opening paragraph of Joshi’s article uses a video of young students struggling with Punjabi and makes a passing comment on the Punjabi’s troubles. Firstly, the receding cover of Punjabi in Pakistan is not just because of the state’s preference for Urdu, but also Punjab’s colonial legacy, its bloody partition and the lack of education at large. 

Secondly, the movement for Punjabi revivalism is local, indigenous and revolves around the promotion of its language and culture. The state is not supporting this movement and the regular Punjabi activist has no business with “deepening faultlines in India”. We are trying to save the culture and language of our ancestors from extinction. 

The Pakistani establishment is indeed riding high on the opening of the Kartarpur corridor. One can indeed interpret it as an attempt to forward some of its old strategic objectives on Pakistan’s eastern border. But opening this corridor or planting Ranjit Singh’s statue in Lahore’s Shahi Qila is not the equivalent of promoting Punjabi culture or Punjabi identity or Sikhism by any stretch of the imagination. Punjabi culture, as well as Punjabiyat, are much older and larger concepts that Sikhism is also a part of. 

Please don’t interchange these terms. Again, even endorsing Sikhism or discussing the former Sikh empire is not the same as promoting Punjabiyat or Punjabi culture. This shows the author’s lack of understanding (misintention perhaps) of both Indian and Pakistani Punjab.

The author quotes Ali Usman Qasmi, one of leading voices favoring Punjabi in the Pakistani academia and an organiser of the pioneering Punjabi Conference at Lahore University of Management Sciences: “An Islam-based identity with Urdu as its flagship has made such massive inroads that the successive generation of Punjabi activists has found it difficult to counter it.”

I disagree with this statement by Qasmi. This is not the front we need to fight on. Although a majority of the clerics have a strong command of Urdu, if you go to inner Lahore or the famed shrine of Hazrat Ali Hajveri in the heart of the city, Punjabi is used to preach, sing the praises of the holy Prophet, and even in written material. Countering Urdu is not the issue here, countering extremist mindset in Pakistan is the real challenge. So far no extremist religious group has threatened Punjabi activists or organisations. 

The main resistance to the adoption of Punjabi as the lingua franca in Punjab has come from Punjabis themselves who rightly believe that investing time and money on Punjabi will not pay off. Unlike Urdu and English, only a handful of universities have Punjabi departments and since Punjabi is not taught at the school level, there are few other jobs that utilise this linguistic prowess. The official languages are Urdu and English, and they are rigorously taught. Language activists often argue that if Punjabi and classical poets of Punjabi like Bulleh Shah, Mian Muhammad Baksh, and others were taught as part of the curriculum, their enlightened thoughts will counter the prevalent religious intolerance in Pakistan.

Lastly, one of the reasons for the lack of threat to the movement for Punjabi is that the movement has been slow to catch up. However, significant progress has been made. Since 2010, Punjabi language activists have been protesting on Mother Language Day annually and demanding that like in other provinces and regions of Pakistan, primary education in Punjab should be in Punjabi. The Lahore University of Management Sciences, Government College University, Kinnaird College and Lahore University have recently established Punjabi departments or started offering it as a subject. A bill will soon be tabled in the parliament and we are lobbying intensely for it. We expect resistance eventually, but so far no powerful lobby, no “conservative” or Islamist group worth their salt (and we have plenty of those in this country) have challenged us. 

The girls you see struggling to speak in Punjabi are from one of the few private schools that have allowed Punjabi to be taught. They are still young, learning fast, and many of them are passionate about carrying this baton forward. The language is taking baby steps to cover decades of discrimination. Since this is an “elite school” as the article rightly mentions, we expect these students to hold a powerful position later in life and remember their lessons in Punjabi when they make speeches in public or the parliament. Many of these students struggle initially but gain fluency within months. When the course started nearly a decade ago, parents were shocked and reluctant. But now it’s a matter of pride in their posh drawing room conversations. This video is a fruit of our passionate activism. Try to appreciate it from Oxford.

Photograph via Twitter/Ammara Ahmad.

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