International Mother Language Day

Today is International Mother Language Day! To mark the occasion we have released an article documenting:

Punjabi is an Indo-Aryan language and is the native language of Punjab – a land that was divided between India and Pakistan during the partition of India in 1947. Today, it has approximately 130 million speakers, the vast majority of whom can be found in North India and Pakistan. It is also widely spoken amongst the Punjabi diaspora around the world. It is the 10th most spoken language in the world.

Punjabi is a phonetic language and is written predominantly in three different scripts: the Persian script (sometimes referred to as Shahmukhi) which is used mostly in Pakistan; Sikhs use the Gurmukhi script; and less common is the Devanagari script which is associated with Hindu Punjabi’s.

Historical context – The struggle for recognition (1947-1966)


It may be surprising to some that despite Punjab being a region that has a specific rich cultural heritage (language, music, art, recreation, religion, dress, traditions, stories and folklore, poetry, scripture, and literature) that stretches back over five hundred years, the language was never officially recognized in India until 1947.

Despite its wide use, Punjabi was never recognized as an official language by the Mughal Empire (who preferred Persian) or the British Raj (who preferred Urdu).

Following the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, in December 1953, the central government of India set up the States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) to recommend the reorganization of state boundaries. Two years later in 1955, many states were reorganized linguistically. This exercise however was mainly confined to the states in the South like Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra. The Patiala and East Punjab States Union state (PEPSU) was merged with Punjab at this time.

The commission asserted that Punjabi was not a distinct language and that it was not the language of the majority of the people in Punjab. The SRC had rejected the demand for a Punjabi-speaking majority state and suggested that “the Punjabi language was not sufficiently distinct, either grammatically or spatially from Hindi and that the movement lacked the ‘general support of the people inhabiting the area’”.

In response to the commission’s ‘findings’, The Punjabi Suba movement was launched in 1955. Led by the Akali Dal Party, proponents of the movement demanded the creation of a Punjabi ‘Suba’, or Punjabi-speaking state.

Sardar Hukam Singh, who was a leading member of the Akali Dal party commented that: “While others got states for their languages, we lost even our language.” During the protest, 57,129 protesters were jailed and around 243 people died (Akali Dal records).

After much struggle, political turmoil, and resistance, the movement resulted in the introduction of the Punjab Reorganisation Act in 1966. The act resulted in the formation of the state of Punjab in its current form. The state of Haryana and the Union Territory of Chandigarh were also created and some Pahari-majority parts of East Punjab were also merged with Himachal Pradesh.

One nation, one language?

One of the core policies of the current Indian administration has been to focus on promoting Hindi as India’s common language. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Secretary Amit Shah have continued to push Hindi as the ‘one’ language of India since the party won the national elections in 2014.

This idea of ‘one nation, one language’ made national headlines on September 14th, 2019 when at an event to mark Hindi Divas (also known as National Hindi day) Amit Shah claimed that Hindi is the country’s ‘uniting’ language, because the majority of people speak it. Shah tweeted that: “India is a country of different languages and every language has its own importance but it is very important to have a language of the whole country which should become the identity of India globally”. To try to appeal to Indians to increase their use of Hindi, Shah suggested that it was the aspiration of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel to have one common language for the country.

As noted in the previous section, language politics within India has historically been violent and painful – the 1950s and 60s saw the fervent resistance to the imposition of Hindi. This resistance continues today. Not only in Punjab, but in states throughout India. States in the South such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, like Punjab, have also historically resisted the imposition of Hindi.

In direct response to Shah’s comments the Kerala chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan said that “The claim that Hindi can unite the country is absurd” and that Shah’s comments “…can only be seen as a battle cry against people who love and treat their mother tongues as their own mother.”

Since the BJP came into power in 2014 there have been numerous attempts made by them to promote Hindi as India’s common language.
In 2014, the Home Ministry ordered that “government employees and officials of all ministries, departments, corporations or banks who have made official accounts on social networking sites should give priority to Hindi”. After being heavily criticized, the order was later revoked.

In June 2019, India’s Human Resources Development Ministry unveiled the draft of a new educational policy that sought to make Hindi mandatory in all schools across India. The government soon dropped the provision that stipulated that Hindi had to be one of the languages that students should study in Grade 6 after protests from political parties.

The BJP’s efforts to promote Hindi abroad are also noteworthy. According to data from the Anadolu agency, the government has spent 484 million rupees ($6.4 million) on promoting Hindi at the UN and world capitals to make Hindi an official UN language. (Currently, there are six official languages of the UN. These are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). In March 2018, the Indian government signed a 2-year memorandum with the UN secretariat with the aim being to increase the Hindi content produced by the UN.

Looking specifically at Punjab, upon inspection it becomes evident through the examination of governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies that efforts have been made to exclude Punjabi from both public and private life.

Shamandeep Singh, founder, and CEO of the Sikhi Awareness Foundation (SAF) draws attention to the oppression of Punjabi in private schools. Citing his own first-hand experience, he comments that “working in the education sector, I’ve come across many cases where children were asked to speak either Hindi or English in school. If they couldn’t or refused, they were told to stay home.”

Similar comments have also been made by parents of children who attend private schools. Dipin Chawla from Phagwara told the Times of India that “Both my daughters are made to speak either English or Hindi in school. They now speak Hindi at home also even though we talk to them in Punjabi. Children are following the trend as they feel it would not be good to speak in Punjabi”.

In the same article, Meera Javed, Jalandhar’s Apee Jay School’s principal, admitted that Hindi is preferred to Punjabi and suggests that “in any case, students will get fluent in Punjabi at home”.

H.B Kaur, the principal of Swami Sant Dass Public School notes that the usual trend is to prefer Hindi over Punjabi. “The biggest issue with this trend is that schools are creating inferiority complex amongst students about their mother tongue.”

Linguistics professor J.S Paur suggests that “though Shiromani Akali Dal spearheaded the agitation for the Punjabi Suba, it did little for promotion of Punjabi language”.

The Punjabi Government’s Education Department wrote to the Council Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) in 2019 and requested that they adhere to the guidelines of the ‘Punjab, Punjabi and Learning of Other Languages Act’ (2008). This act stipulates that it is mandatory to teach Punjabi as a compulsory subject in schools in Punjab up to class X. It had been brought to the attention of the state department that many of the private schools in the state who were affiliated with the CBSE and the ICSE were not adhering to the provisions of the act.

In March 2020, a resolution was passed by the Punjab Assembly to make Punjabi mandatory in all schools from class 1 to 10. While government schools had been providing compulsory Punjabi lessons from 2008, private schools had not been.

This resolution aims to make these same lessons compulsory in private schools too. On the resolution, Shamandeep Singh, a keen advocate commented that: “As somebody who champions early childhood development and the preservation of the Punjabi language, I applaud this belated decision by the Punjab Government”.

While it is yet to be seen what the impact of this resolution will be, it is most definitely a step in the right direction.

A recent example of legislative discrimination against the Punjabi language can be seen as recent as September 2020 when Punjabi was excluded from Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill that was passed in the same month. It is estimated that 13 lakh Punjabi speakers reside in the area. In a debate on the bill, Minister of State for Home Affairs, G. Kishan Reddy articulated that it was a long-standing demand of the people of Jammu and Kashmir that all of the languages spoken in the region should be included in the list of official languages.

He stated that: “The J&K Constitution included Punjabi and the first Chief Minister of J&K was a Punjabi… it hurts the feelings of those who are settled there. I would urge the government to reconsider because language is the basis of the cultural heritage of the community.”

Other examples where Punjabi has been neglected in the state itself, albeit more subtly, can be seen in the omission of Punjabi from road signs and inauguration plaques.

(Members of the Malwa Youth Federation deface road signs in Bathinda on Saturday. A TRIBUNE PHOTO)

In October 2017, members of various youth foundations defaced road signs as part of a campaign called ‘Save Punjabi’.

Organizations such as the Malwa Youth Federation went around the city of Bathinda and blackened the English and Hindi signboards using black paint. When the police tried to intervene, they began a road blockade agitation accusing “the administration of being hand in glove with the Central Government and working towards promoting English and Hindi in Punjab.”

Youth leader Lakha Sidhana told the Tribune India that “Despite the fact that Punjabi is our mother tongue, it has been relegated to the third place on signboards after English and Hindi. It is also shocking to see that at some places, the boards don’t even use Punjabi. The language is not being given the respect and importance that it deserves”.

Dal Khalsa vice-president, Baba Hardip Singh agreed with Sidhana and stated: “If we lose our touch with our mother tongue, we will also be out of touch with our history, culture, traditions, literature, and values. We will not let this happen as it is not good for the present as well as the future generations.”

The Tribune India reported that “after lifting the blockade, the protestors convened a meeting. It was decided that in case the state government failed in getting the Central Government departments to give due respect to Punjabi at public places and keeping it on a pedestal higher than that for English and Hindi, the organizations would continue to blacken the road signs”.

In a similar vein, at the inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor in November 2019 (The Kartarpur Corridor is a visa-free border crossing and corridor, connecting the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan to the border with India) Punjabi was omitted from the official inauguration board while Hindi and English were included.

Punjab cabinet minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa commented that “It is highly unfortunate that the inscription on the inauguration board was in Hindi followed by English while Punjabi, which is the state’s official language, has been ignored which amounts to blatant injustice with the state”.

Is Punjabi under threat?

While the government’s apathy towards Punjabi is evident, Punjabi is not recognized as an endangered language by The United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In response to reports that Punjabi was endangered, the UNESCO office in Delhi commented that: “The second (and latest) edition of the Atlas (Atlas of endangered languages) does not list Punjabi as an endangered language.”

UNESCO is responsible for research into the status of languages across the world and articulates that “a language is endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next and if a language loses all its speakers, it becomes an extinct language”.

They note that “language endangerment may be the re­sult of ex­ter­nal forces such as mil­i­tary, eco­nomic, re­li­gious, cul­tural or ed­u­ca­tional sub­ju­ga­tion, or it may be caused by in­ter­nal forces, such as a com­mu­ni­ty’s neg­a­tive at­ti­tude to­wards its own lan­guage. In­ter­nal pres­sures of­ten have their source in ex­ter­nal ones, and both halt the inter-generational trans­mis­sion of lin­guis­tic and cul­tural tra­di­tions.”

Concluding remarks

While Punjabi is not under direct threat, it is clear that attempts to subvert the Punjabi language continue to be made.

The government of Punjab should work with UNESCO to review governmental and institutional attitudes and policies towards Punjabi.

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