Recently a school notice has been making the rounds on social media. In it, the headmaster of a posh school in Sahiwal has warned children against using foul language at school. While there is nothing wrong with that, it’s the definition of foul language that has caused a stir; the notice defines it as “taunts, abuses, Punjabi and the (sic) hate speech”. In response to the backlash the school has issued a disclaimer and apology of sorts, and it seems likely that this was a mistake.
However, it would be wrong to assume that calling Punjabi a “foul language” is that big an issue in Pakistan. Tune into late-night comedy shows such as ‘Khabardar’ and the same is being done under the guise of comedy. You are likely to hear the very popular hosts of such shows scolding their colleagues for speaking Punjabi or Punjabi accented Urdu. The irony is that these shows make money by doing comical skits in Punjabi. Yet, despite that, their scripts disparage Punjabi as an uncouth (read ‘paindu’) language.
It is obvious from the popularity of the show that it’s largely Punjabi audience agrees with Punjabi being a language that is mostly appropriate for insults and jokes. But is that really true?
Punjab has a rich culture which has spread outside the confines of Punjab. Take bhangra for instance, its music and dance steps have become a staple for weddings from Muzaffarabad to Mumbai and Peshawar to Calcutta. Similarly, Punjabi literature and poetry can stand its own against the literature and poetry of any other language. This is the language chosen by the likes of Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Munir Niazi and many other literary giants, surely their contribution can’t be termed uncouth and lewd.
But despite having all that, Punjabi as a language is suffering in a country where Punjabis account for almost half the population. This neglect is evident from the number of newspaper and periodicals published in local languages in Pakistan. Latest statistics from Pakistan Bureau of Statistics show that for 2011 both Pashto and Sindhi had 17 newspapers and periodicals each but Punjabi only had seven. Consider the populations of speakers for each of these languages and in proportionate terms the share of Punjabi comes across as even smaller.
I strongly agree with the position that this is a consequence of our national obsession with defining Urdu as our only national language. It has somehow become a proof of patriotism to prefer Urdu to regional languages. I am no linguist but I think that this has greatly affected languages that are linguistically closer to Urdu, because for the speakers of these languages switching to Urdu is relatively easy. Punjabi isn’t the only one; Hindko too has suffered in a similar manner, where it is common to see educated Hindko-speaking parents preferring Urdu over Hindko when it comes to raising children, as speaking Hindko is often seen as a sign of a lack of education as well as a lack of sophistication.
Aside from losing out on the literary front, Pakistan has also failed to cash in on the benefits of Punjabi and other local languages in primary education. Research shows that children at primary level learn much better when taught in their native languages. These benefits aren’t obvious when one considers children from the middle or upper class households in Pakistan.
It is safe to assume that a child from that demographic would have educated parents who are fluent in Urdu if not English as well. The child would also have the benefit of pre-school preparations whether through educational toys or TV shows. When such children start school, they carry the benefits of their privileged birth and are well prepared for learning in Urdu or English.
In contrast, a child from the more underprivileged sections of our society usually is born to parents whose language fluency is limited to their local languages. Such children are likely to not have had much exposure to either Urdu or English during their pre-school years. The main asset that such children bring to school is an understanding of their local language. Under our current education system we rob such underprivileged children of their one advantage, and instead make them learn a new language and also expect them to learn science and math in that same new language. And the level of difficulty is even higher for children whose native languages, in linguistic terms, are farther from Urdu, for instance Pashto, Brahvi, Sheena etc.
In post 18th Amendment Pakistan, provinces have the freedom to make changes regarding education within their domain. The ANP government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa introduced native languages as a medium of instruction at primary level in almost all the local languages in the province. However, the recently elected PTI government decided to roll back those changes and instead introduced English as a medium of instruction in order to implement the standards of Aitchison College. It was lost on the policymakers that to implement the standards of Aitchison, you just don’t need a curriculum but also teachers who are as qualified as those at Aitchison – along with a privileged upbringing for the children, which is the hallmark of the children studying at Aitchison.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa CM Pervez Khattak once said “when I hear about education in Pashto there is an explosion in my head”. It is obvious that denigrating local languages comes with little political consequences because such acts have become somewhat of a proof of patriotism. This has to change.
The lesson that we should have learnt from the fall out of the Bangla bhasha debate is that for our unity we need to celebrate our diversity rather than negate it. And for that to happen it is essential that the provincial identity and language of our majority ethnicity be recognised and respected. Only then would the championing of smaller ethnic identities not be seen as a threat to our national identity but rather a source of its strength.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He blogs at iopyne.wordpress.com and tweets iopyne. Email: iopynegmail.com