Resisting Linguistic Hegemony: The Legacy of Punjabi Language


It was only from the year I was in Class 3 that we finally settled in Delhi. In the few years before that I had lived in many places in India and outside, like Ferozepur, Kartarpur, Yol Camp (Dharamshala), Boston and Kanpur, depending on where my father was studying, posted or teaching. My School vacations would usually be spent in either my hometown Kartarpur, (a small town in Jalandhar district, not to be mistaken with Kartarpur corridor) or Shimla, at my maternal home.

My grandmother, Biji, was my grooming and grounding factor in all this moving around. An avid reader, she would read out to me Punjabi texts – on Sikhism, stories, poems, or just her experiences. At times I would listen intently, and at times she would read even if I was busy doing some other stuff. She taught me to read and write Gurmukhi. A gold medal winner at her school in Quetta (Pakistan), she unfortunately had to abandon her studies after class 5, as her mother passed away and moved back with her father and younger sister to their hometown near Jalandhar. She has been was one of the most rational person, well read and ahead of her times. It was her vision and foresight that made her educate her children, both her daughters and son, even after she had lost her husband in 1947, and was keen that they move out of the small town in Punjab elsewhere in the country to achieve more. The collective effort of Biji and my Father inculcated my interest in reading and history in general.

My Father with his school and college years spent in Kartarpur, (Doab heartland) speaks proper Doabi Punjabi and of course had learnt Urdu and Farsi at school. He still struggles with his Hindi. My mother, although from Majara, (another Doab region), was from the second generation in Shimla – her grandfather having moved there for contracting works during British times when Shimla was being ‘built’. She, like her siblings and cousins, studied in convent schools. Though they spoke Punjabi at home, but down two generations it was a Hindi-Pahari-Punjabi mix, and medium of learning was entirely English. My sister and I grew up in Delhi and by our time Punjabi was rather diluted at home. At school it was Hindi and Sanskrit, the latter I barely scraped through. In Hindi, I would end up with big red circles, around words which were probably more Punjabi.

Besides listening to my grandmother’s readings, I read English classics, moving up from Enid Blyton, which my mother would get for me. My father and I were regular visitors at the Delhi Book Fair. College years were in Ahmedabad. Gujarati was not that difficult to understand, and after 5 years could read basic signs. After that 3 years in UK for a Master’s degree. It was in UK where I again heard what we call theth Punjabi. It was like being transported back to Punjab.

Southall, a suburban area of London was the Punjabi heartland and home to the largest Sikh Community, nicknamed “Little India”. However, from here too, the third generation, as also from Birmingham and other towns with a large South-Asian population, are beginning to move away as they study, work and marry in other places.

In 1950, the first group of South Asians arrived in Southall, recruited to work in a local factory owned by a former British Indian Army officer. This South Asian population grew, due to the closeness of expanding employment opportunities such as at Heathrow Airport. According to the Commission for Racial Equality, over 55% of Southall’s population of 70,000 is Indian/Pakistani. In the 2011 census, of the total population of Southall, 76.1% were Asian, 9.6% were black and 7.5% were White, with the remaining 6.8% of the population divided between Arabs, mixed individuals, and other ethnic groups. In terms of religion, the most common religious affiliation is Sikhism, with 35.4% of the population. This is followed by Islam at 24.9%, Hinduism at 18.6%, and Christianity at 12.9%.

There are ten Sikh Gurdwaras in Southall. The Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, which opened in 2003, is one of the largest Sikh gurdwaras outside India, and it won the Ealing Civic Society Architectural Award in 2003. There are two large Hindu ‘Mandir’ temples, the Vishnu Hindu Mandir and the Ram Mandir. There are also six Mosques. In addition, the signs on the main railway station are bilingual that is, in English and Gurmukhi, clearly acknowledging the community presence.

After returning from UK, I lived in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) for 10 years, but could not pick up Kannadiga. Part of this was because I never really made an effort as most were able to converse in English or broken Hindi. When I left Bangalore my son had just completed Class 1 and was not yet introduced to Hindi, which was taught from Class 2 onwards. Because of this he had to go to an International school in Delhi where Hindi was not a pre-requisite. He did learn Hindi at school, though with great difficulty and most of it he picked up at home, and having learnt some from our Bengali maid, he never got the gender right. This forced him to opt out of Hindi and learn German instead, and later Japanese in the US during his college years. So Punjabi never featured.

In 2007 we visited Vancouver and were pleasantly surprised to see all signs at the airport in English, French, Chinese and Gurmukhi. Sikhism in Greater Vancouver, is one of the main religions across the region, among the Indo-Canadian population. The Sikh community in Vancouver is the oldest, largest and most influential across Canada. By 1995, Vancouver had one of the two largest Sikh populations in the world that are not in India. By 2011, there were 155,945 Sikhs in Greater Vancouver, representing 6.8% of the region’s population.

In 1981, Verne A. Dusenbery of Hamline University, wrote that the maturation of Punjabi Sikhs who were children of immigrants, the increase in immigration, and the rise of gora (White) Sikh converts from Canada and the United States changed the character of the Vancouver Sikh community in the period 1971-1981. By 1977, Vancouver’s Sikh community, along with that of the Greater Toronto Area, were one of the two largest Canadian Sikh communities.

Kamala Elizabeth Nayar, a sociologist, discusses three generations of the Sikh diaspora, a subset of the Indo-Canadians, in Greater Vancouver, in her book, ‘The Sikh Diaspora in Vancouver: Three Generations Amid Tradition, Modernity, and Multiculturalism’, 2004.

Nayar argues that “interaction between tradition and modernity” is the root of intergenerational conflict in the Vancouver Sikh community. Several second generation persons interviewed by Nayar argued that the multiculturalism policy encourages racism. The third generation interviewees are critical of aspects of Canadian Sikh culture, and they argued that the multicultural policy isolates them into a “Punjabi Bubble”. Nayar herself argued that the policy prevents the Sikhs from becoming a part of mainstream Canadian society. Dusenbery described Nayar as “a sympathetic advocate for the “modern” and “integrative aspirations” of the third generation Punjabi Sikhs. Though he also argued that Nayar’s analysis may incorrectly make recent Punjabi Sikh immigrants “stand-ins for all immigrants from “traditional,” “agricultural,” or “preliterate” societies, who presumably experience the same problems of “adaptation to modernity.””

The generational differences and issues highlighted among the Sikhs of Vancouver are also true for migrations within the country and outside, the latter of course markedly more apparent.

Besides UK, USA, Canada, considerable Sikhs are settled in Kenya, Thailand, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. However, in Afghanistan the numbers are dwindling with many having moved further West due to the raging conflict since last few decades. Afghanistan has had essentially the Khatri community, as traders on the Silk Route, as also the Nankpanthis (followers of Guru Nanak who at one time were included in the broader definition of ‘Sikhs’).

Sikhs were taken by the British as soldiers and as workers to various parts of the world, including Iraq, where till very recently a small Sikh community existed. The colonial period saw large scale migration within Punjab due to the creation of canal colonies in western Punjab. The majority of colonists hailed from the seven most densely populated districts of Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Jullundur, Hoshiarpur, Ludhiana, Ambala and Sialkot, and consisted primarily of Jats, Arains, Sainis, Kambohs and Rajputs. The movement of many highly skilled farmers from eastern and central Punjab to the new colonies, led to western Punjab becoming the most progressive and advanced agricultural regions of the province. The period also saw significant numbers of Punjabis immigrate to other regions of the British Empire. The main destinations were East Africa – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, Southeast Asia – Malaya and Burma, Hong Kong and Canada.

The migration, from East Punjab, which started due to Sikhs being part of the British army and also their workforce got impetus with the Green Revolution and fueled by the events of the 1980s in Punjab.

Sikhs have been migrating to East Africa since 1890’s. Significant Indian migration to modern-day Kenya began following the creation of the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895, which had strong infrastructure links with Bombay in British-ruled India. Among the local Indian ethnic populace, the vast majority of administrative roles were filled by Konkani Goans, Parsis and Gujaratis, whilst the ranks of the British officered police and army mainly consisted of Punjabis.

The history of the Sikhs of East Africa begins in about 1890’s with the Railway – though detachments of Sikh Regiments had seen service in certain parts of East Africa in previous years. The Sikhs who were brought over from India to build the old Uganda Railways were skilled workmen – carpenters, blacksmiths and masons. Called the ‘Lunatic Line’, the British had recruited several thousands of Indians including Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to lay a 576 kilometer treacherous track from North-west Mombasa – which passed through a semi-desert region – to the highlands rising up to 10,000 ft on the equator and down to the bed of the Great Rift Valley, before reaching Victoria. They were quick to adapt themselves to the specialised requirements of the Railways and many became fitters and turners and boiler-makers. A number of policemen, ranging from inspectors to constables, were also sent from India to become the vital instrument of maintaining law and order. Kapur Singh became the first Indian Inspector of police in 1895. As per the folklore, one Kala Singh who had come from Patiala to Kenya had co- founded a company by the name Munshiram, Kala Singh and Company. In spite of non- prevalence of roads at that time, Kala Singh managed to penetrate the most forbidden areas of the Maasai reserve through sheer determination and courage. And so, Kala Singh came to be known as Kala Singha to all Africans and the name became attached with all turbaned Sikhs. Sikhs also made their presence felt in the field of sports and are considered the most ‘sports-minded’ people in East Africa till date. Joginder Singh, the first Asian driver to win the Safari Rally thrice, was fondly known as the ‘Flying Sikh’. The Sikhs also excelled in wrestling, volleyball and formed the bulk in hockey contingents in the earlier Olympics – comprising eight in 1956, nine in 1960 and six in 1964. The most outstanding player was Surjeet Singh Deol (senior), who captained Kenya during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

My great grandfather too had spent a few years in Nairobi. While a number of Sikhs opted to return to their homeland when the railway was completed the majority remained in Kenya, sparking a wave of free immigrants from all walks of life who brought with them particular skills which have since been linked inextricably with Kenya’s subsequent development. The first Gurudwara was set up in Nairobi, the foundation of which was laid by one Sardar Kishen Singh in 1909. The second Gurdwara to be built was the Makindu Sikh Temple in 1926, about 100 km from Nairobi on the Nairobi-Mombasa road. And as is the case with immigrant populations, Sikhs in

Kenya, who are 70% of the Punjabi population, continue to speak Punjabi as well as English and Swahili, the most common regional language of Kenya. The present generation speak mostly Swahili and English, though they are able to understand Punjabi as spoken at home.

Sikhs had also started migrating to Thailand as far back as 1890 and by 1911 there was a sizeable community in Thailand. Younger generation of Sikhs living in Thailand has started adopting Thai names along with their existing names for the sake of their national identity and keep themselves on government records and at the same time remaining attached with their roots. Once on a flight to Bangkok, I had come across a Sikh group traveling back from India who spoke fluent Thai. Almost 70% of Sikhs in the country now have Thai names and speak Thai language.

Closer home Punjabi is a spoken language, including several dialects, in Northern India and across much of Pakistan. It is not a language only spoken by Sikhs but Hindus, Muslims and Christians as well. In fact a larger part of Punjab is in Pakistan. This was primarily due to the fact that Muslims were in majority in Punjab (although it was home to Sikh majority) before the Radcliffe line was drawn.

Many of the Punjabis and Sikhs living in other regions of India, for generations, have adopted local languages, though they may also be speaking Punjabi. Punjab as a state, more so as a nation, came into being under Maharaja Ranjit Singh after he captured Lahore in 1799. The Lahore Darbar (incorrectly referred to as the Sikh Empire as per British terminology) extended from the Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in the east, and from Mithankot in the south to Kashmir in the north. After British annexed Punjab, Kashmir was separated, rather sold to Gulab Singh, one of the Dogra rulers who were responsible for the fall of the Empire. The fact is, Kashmir and Ladakh became part of India due to efforts of the Lahore Darbar. The year 1947 saw further division of Punjab into East and West, with India getting 46% and Pakistan getting 54% of Punjab.

In 1941, Muslims constituted an absolute majority at 53.2%, whilst the Hindu population was at 29.1%. The period between 1881 and 1941 saw a significant increase in the Sikh and Christian populations, growing from 8.2% and 0.1% to 14.9% and 1.9% respectively, with a palpable decrease in the Hindu population, which to large extent has been attributed to the conversion of a number of lower caste Hindus to Sikhism and Christianity. As per 2011 census Sikhism is at 57.69%, followed by Hinduism at 38.49% and Islam at 1.93%.

During the time of Lahore Darbar, Persian was the Official language which was abolished in 1837. In September 1849 a two language policy was instituted throughout the province. In 1854, the Board of Administration abruptly ended the two language policy and Urdu was designated as the official language of government across the province. “Urdu, and initially Persian, allowed the ‘Company’ to recruit experienced administrators from elsewhere in India who did not speak Punjabi, to facilitate greater integration with other Indian territories which were administered with Urdu, and to helped foster ties with local elites who spoke Persian and Urdu and could act as intermediaries with the wider populace.” This is essentially what is being followed in Kashmir now with the push for Hindi. It is imperative to mention that Punjabi, now associated with Punjab and the Sikhs, is a language spoken in the entire region of what was the erstwhile Lahore Darbar, including NWFP, Kashmir, Ladakh, Sindh, Balochistan, Haryana, and Himachal.

In events preceding the partition, Punjabi Muslims claimed Urdu as their language and Punjabi Hindus as Hindi, leaving Sikhs to claim Punjabi as their own as they set out to carve the Punjabi suba. The year 1966 saw further division of Punjab on linguistic basis. This lead to formation of separate state of Haryana and mountainous regions were merged with Himachal Pradesh. As of 2011 census, Punjabi speakers in India are at 2.74% (2.57% in 1971) and in Pakistan at 44.11% (57% in 1951). The difference of course is not entirely comparable due to the difference in size of the two countries.

Punjabi is the most widely spoken language in Pakistan, the 11th most widely spoken language in India and the third most-spoken native language in the Indian subcontinent. It is the third most spoken language in the United Kingdom after the native British languages and Polish. It is also the fifth most-spoken native language in Canada and the twenty-sixth most spoken language in the United States, and tenth in Australia.

The major dialects of Punjabi are: Majhi, Doabi, Malwai, Shahpuri, Puadhi, Jatki (Jangli/ Rachnavi), Jhangochi (Jhangvi), Chenavari, Bagri, Hindko, Potohari, Dhani, Dogri, Kangri, Bilaspuri, Bhateali, Gojri, Saraiki. Standard Punjabi, sometimes referred to as Majhi in India or simply Punjabi, is the most widespread and largest dialect of Punjabi. It first developed in the 12th century and gained prominence when Sufi poets such as Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah, among others began to use the Lahore/Amritsar spoken dialect with infused Persian vocabulary in their works in the Shahmukhi script. Later the Gurmukhi script was developed based on Standard Punjabi by the Sikh Gurus.

In Jammu and Kashmir, Urdu has been the official language, since 1889 when Dogra ruler Pratap Singh adopted Urdu as the official language of the princely kingdom of J&K, replacing Persian which had enjoyed that status for more than three centuries. The same was carried forward by J&K’s constituent assembly while adopting the state constitution. Now after 131 years Urdu will not be the sole official language. The spoken languages include: Hindi, Dogri, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Urdu, Bhadarwahi, Kishtwari, and Ladakhi, Poguli, Rambani, Burushaski, Shina, and Gaddi. Under the sixth schedule of the constitution of the erstwhile state of J&K, Kashmiri, Dogri, Balti (Pali), Dardi, Punjabi, Pahari, Ladakhi and Gojri were regional languages of the state. Reflecting the history of the area, the Kashmiri vocabulary is mixed, containing Dardic, Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Persian elements. Other important spoken dialects are Kishtwari, Poguli, and Rambani.

The BJP-led Central government adopted Hindi, Kashmiri, Dogri, Urdu and English as official languages. Surprisingly, Punjabi has been left out. This of course was without consultation of the locals. The class hegemony seems to triumph the linguistic aspirations. The principles of impositions it seems are being engineered from the higher echelons. The aspiration of a due-space is being pushed to wall by adopting preposterous diktats, in a rather unprecedented and unfortunate manner.

Soon after the Union cabinet’s decision, different political and ethnic groups in J&K have demanded the inclusion of Gojri, Pahari and Punjabi in the proposed Bill. The All Party Sikh Coordination Committee also slammed the Centre over the exclusion of Punjabi from the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill, calling it an anti-minority move. “Exclusion of Punjabi from the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill 2020 is an anti-minority move,” APSCC chairman Jagmohan Singh Raina said in a statement.

Raina said Punjabi was a part and parcel of the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir before the abrogation of Article 370 provisions. “Punjabi was a recognised language duly certified by the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir.” The Sikh leader said the move had “badly bruised the sentiments of the minorities, more so those belonging to the Sikh community”. He added that Punjabi was a popular language in Jammu and Kashmir spoken by lakhs of people.

As per the Jammu & Kashmir official portal, percentage of Sikhs in Kashmir is 0.88% while in Jammu it is 3.57%. Sikhs had claimed minority status in J& K post abrogation of  Article 370 provisions. However despite the Sikhs being only 4%, Punjabi is spoken and understood by almost 70%, as claimed by Punjab BJP chief Ashwani Sharma. Dogri and Pahari being dialects of Punjabi.

Although formerly treated as a Punjabi dialect, Dogri is now considered to be a member of the Western Pahari group of languages and is recognized as a separate language.

On 2 August 1969, the General Council of the Sahitya Academy, Delhi recognized Dogri as an “independent modern literary language” of India, based on the unanimous recommendations of a panel of linguists. Pahari, of course is a term used for several of the Hill area languages including Himachal, Punjab and J&K. Languages included under “Pahari” are: Pahari-Pothwari, Western Pahri (Dogri, Kangra) in Himachal, Bilaspur hill regions of Punjab, Eastern (Nepali, Jumla, Palpa) and Central (Kumaoni, Garhwali, Doti). Pahari in J&K, spoken in Rajouri and Poonch regions, is distinctly a Punjabi dialect. When I first heard it in Gulmarg, and I knew it was Punjabi but of course with several words that were not familiar. Most Punjabis, including Sikhs of J&K speak Pahari and I know many Kashmiris who speak Pahari too. In Jammu it is Dogri and/or Punjabi, having been a part of Punjab since 1808. As per 1961 census, 55% were Dogri speaking and 22% Punjabi.

As much as regional identity is an important fact so is migration. Migration has led to diaspora communities forming strong ethnic identities in the countries they live in, though down 2-3 generations these do become less rigid. However, the nuances of the mother-tongue remain just as smells of food that we have grown up eating. Julie Sedivy, author of ‘Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics’, writes: “When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it. (“ persistence-of-first-languages).

Personally for me although I speak, read, and write Punjabi, however, since it is now very diluted, I do miss out on the understanding of several words while reading books and poetry in Gurmukhi, though not grappling with the gist. I think the spoken language from birth makes more of an impact than what is a learnt language – I am realizing this now while learning Urdu. While I may soon be able to read and write, I don’t think I can say I have learnt the language till I am able to speak as well. As of now I think, talk and walk the English.

Punjabi, spoken by Sikhs and others, therefore remains an important language of J&K and needs to be recognized. However, this is a two way process. While the government needs to recognize the Punjabi community (as even in UK and Canada) to include the language, the community itself needs to make efforts to preserve the tangible and the intangible. It is only after the recent bill was passed that they have come together. There

are so many remnants of the Lahore Darbar and later times that should have been recognized and conserved and preserved. Dogri got recognized as a separate language due to the efforts of the community, but of course for reasons not difficult to understand, just as Punjabi Hindus who had always spoken Punjabi and continue to do so, claimed Hindi as their language. Exclusion of Punjabi from official languages of J&K is also not that difficult to understand considering the current Center vs Punjab (& Sikh) and J&K Conundrum.

Jaspreet Kaur, architect and urban designer, New Delhi



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