Everyday experience bears testimony to the truth of the ancient Arabic adage – the speech of the ruler is the ruler of speech. When British colonialists occupied the Subcontinent, the English language inevitably became the socio-cultural emblem of power; a tool that enabled the ‘native’ to get closer to power, or at least achieve the semblance of power. Persian, the lingua franca of the old elite, was gradually replaced by English, spoken by the new foreign elite.
Colonial language policy was underpinned by economic, political and cultural considerations
There were the class relationships to be maintained to extract maximum economic surplus, political domination of the white elite and a display of socio-cultural superiority of the European way of life, a model to be emulated by the ‘natives’.
The British did not occupy the subcontinent in one go, the process spread over hundreds of years. The first task they set themselves was to change the indigenous knowledge based education system. The crucial element of this was and is language, the tool through which knowledge is imparted. The first step was to undermine the status and significance of the old languages that were officially patronised and religiously venerated like Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian.
Persian being the court language suffered a great setback; it was simply thrown out of the echelons of power. In its place, English was declared the language of power. However, official business could not be carried out without the help of the compliant old and new emerging elite, so the new language policy envisaged two types of schooling in a broader colonial framework.
European schooling was introduced with English as the medium of instruction for the local elite. And schooling for commoners, though based on the European model, had elements of tradition; it employed regional/local language as the medium of instruction with English as a subject. In short, the colonial rulers introduced English at the higher level of administration, and at middle and lower levels, encouraged the use of local languages, such as Bengali in Bengal, Hindi and Urdu in Uttar Pradesh and Sindhi in Sindh.
Unfortunately, the colonial bureaucracy adopted altogether a different policy in the Punjab
It imposed two foreign languages - English and Urdu - on the people, with far reaching socio-cultural consequences. Punjab was the last sovereign kingdom to fall in 1849, ten years after the death of the politically conscious ruler and military strategist Maharaja Ranjit Singh. There were two groups with opposing opinions on the question of language in Punjab - the minority group advocated for the use of Punjabi, whereas the other group was in favour of employing Urdu. Though their arguments were flimsy, born of their poor knowledge of Punjab’s literary and cultural history, they won the day due to a host of factors - political, administrative, and strategic.
J Wilson, deputy commissioner of Shahpur, which was the district headquarter of Sargodha at the time, writes in his notes - “I wish to draw attention to what I consider to be serious faults in our system of primary education in the Punjab— it fails to attract more than a small proportion of the boys we wish to educate, and especially of those belonging to the agricultural classes, in which I include not only land-owners and tenants, but also artisans and village menials. To the ordinary Punjabi village boy, Urdu is almost as foreign as French would be to an English rustic.”
He also addressed another objection against the use of the Punjabi - “It may be objected that there is no one Punjabi language, but several dialects. This is true, but it was also true of all written languages before the particular dialect ultimately adopted became specially favoured by the literate.”
He wrote this in 1894, but the decision to use Urdu and English was taken and imposed long before that, without proper debate.
However, the Director of Public Instruction Punjab, wrote to the Secretary of Government, Punjab in 1862 - “There can be no advantage in the substitution of Punjabee for Urdoo —Punjabi is merely a dialect of Urdoo and varies considerably in different parts of the Province. As a written language it makes its appearance in the Goormookhee character, a bastard form of Nagree, almost as bad as the Kuyasthe of the N.W. Provinces which is fast dying out. It has no literature of its own.”
Well! You can imagine how knowledgeable and well-instructed was this director, who declared Punjabi a mere dialect of Urdu, not knowing that Punjabi is much older than Urdu and had written literature of its own spread over at least 800 years, at the time he was expressing his lofty opinion.
The script Punjabi used was actually Arabic based. Guru Arjun and his companions evolved Gurmukhi letters for sacred literature as late as the sixteenth century, so it surely was an outlandish example of colonial ignorance and ‘Hindustani prejudice’.
This prejudice was internalised by the Punjabi upper classes, who turned against their own language, which has a literary history longer than that of English.
Geoffery Chaucer, the father of English literature, was born in 1343 and died in 1400 while Baba Farid, the great pioneer of Punjabi literary tradition, was born in 1173 and breathed his last in 1265. Ginan, the Ismaili religious hymns, were composed in the local language in the 10th
Those who claim that there was no political motive behind the rejection of Punjabi and imposition of Urdu would be well-advised to glance through the letter the Commissioner of Delhi wrote to the Punjab Government in 1862. It said - “Any measure which would revive Goormukhee, which is the written Punjabi tongue, would be a political error.”
He was not wrong. It would certainly have been a political error to encourage the ‘revival’ of Punjabi because it would have subliminally evoked the Punjabi identity and history, which could presage serious problems for the colonialists who made every effort to denigrate what was indigenous.
The issue of the Punjabi language needs to be understood and analysed in the context of colonialism in the subcontinent.
While it was not a court language in the pre-colonial era, it was employed for academic, artistic and literary expressions. It carried no socio-cultural stigma born of class distinctions, but had literary prestige. The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar composed poetry in Punjabi, though it was not his mother tongue. Punjabi was used proudly by clergy, Sufi-saints and secular literati.
The colonial administration in the Punjab created the a language policy in favour of Urdu for administrative convenience, fear of nationalist feelings associated with Punjabi, and to create a new type of educated person loyal to the white master. What above all had the greatest impact was the gradual change in the mode of production introduced by the colonial machine.
Punjabi was kept out of new schools where two foreign languages, English and Urdu, were imposed. The colonial administration offered a clear choice to the Punjabis. If they wanted jobs, they had to get educated in the new schools, instructed in the new languages. Punjabi did not enable them to make a living, and how can a language be owned and used if learning it disempowers them?
While the roots for the oppression of Punjabi were laid down long ago, we are to this day continuing the movement for the preservation of Punjabi in a nation that still holds Urdu above all languages. The Bengali language movement of the 1950s is a constant source of inspiration for our struggle for the restoration of rights of Punjabi, and every International Mother Language Day, we salute our Bengali brothers and sisters and remember their sacrifices.