Saturday, October 18, 2008

Punjabi Language, Punjabiyat and the Punjab Government

By Rana Nayar

Only last month, the Punjab government has successfully pushed through two Acts; the ‘Punjab Official Languages Act’ (2008), and the ‘Punjab Learning of Punjabi and other Languages Act’ (2008). While the stated purpose of the first is to make the use of Punjabi mandatory within the official circles, that of the second is to make Punjabi compulsory up to class X in both the government and private schools.
As this has been done in fulfillment of one of the electoral promises of the Akali Dal, understandably the Acts in question are being hailed as a major victory, especially by the ruling party. It is also hoped that these Acts shall promote the use of Punjabi in the official circles as well as educational institutions, for they carry the provision of punitive action against the defaulters.
Now that the bills have already become Acts, it would be churlish, if not entirely futile, to debate over their merits or demerits. But as these Acts are likely to have some far-reaching ramifications for the Punjabi language and Punjabiyat, both of which are very close to the heart of every true-blue Punjabi, among whom I also count myself, the present intervention becomes absolutely necessary.
Though I’m ready to express cautious optimism about the efficacy of these measures, I find it difficult to share in the enthusiasm, even euphoria of the ruling party. Rather I’m saddened by the fact that it has taken us some sixty-odd years to initiate such steps for the promotion of Punjabi language, that too, in the land of its birth. Even if one were to grant the fact that this couldn’t have possibly been done until the Reorganization of the States in the region, this measure has come a forty years too late in the day.
Of course, the successive governments in the Punjab do owe it to the people to explain why it took them so long to wake up to the importance of Punjabi language? To put the record straight, one must mention that it was the Lachman Singh Gill ministry that introduced, even passed a similar bill in 1967, of course, minus the punitive action. One wonders why the earlier efforts in this regard failed to produce the desired results. One is also tempted to ask, legitimately, if the Act of 2008 has managed to plug all the loopholes that the earlier one was riddled with.
Going beyond, one may also like to ask, if at all, there is one-to-one correspondence between the legislative measures and the promotion of language. To my mind, there are lessons to be drawn from the aggressive manner in which the Central government has sought to promote Hindi as an official language through a series of legislative measures. Though the ‘Official Languages Act’ was promulgated as far back as 1963, and has since been used to promote (read ‘impose’) Hindi across the length and breadth of this country, it has failed to wear down the resistance of the Southern States to the extent it was expected to. If anything, the resistance to Hindi has only grown, not lessened over the years.
In fact, if there is one thing that has worked to the advantage of Hindi down South, it’s not the Act of 1963, but the ever-growing popularity of Bollywood. It wouldn’t not be wrong to say, it’s Bollywood that has done much more for the promotion of Hindi in the Southern States than all the governmental efforts put together. Strange though it may seem, there is a very important lesson to be drawn from this: that the popular media such as films and television can perhaps do much more to enhance the acceptability or popularity of a particular language than legislative measures ever could.
This brings me to another point. If we were to look through the history of languages, we shall discover that whenever efforts were made to install a particular language as the official language, it lost out on its popular appeal. Languages always reside in the hearts and minds of the people willing to own them up, and not in the drab, official documents and records. Besides, people generally tend to offer resistance to whatever they perceive as an imposition, be it language, religion, or culture. The other Act that aims to make Punjabi compulsory in both the government and private schools may also have limited impact, as it would remain restricted to the literates.
Undoubtedly, no language can flourish without state patronage, but state patronage alone can not ensure either its survival or its continuation, and much less its promotion and popularity. To my mind, the Punjab government would do well to remember this simple lesson of history while promoting Punjabi language through state patronage. Moreover, it also needs to bear in mind that the promotion of Punjabi and/or Punjabiyat may not be possible, without raising the level of literacy from its current 69% to, at least, 90%, if not 100%. It has to be realized that those who are out of this loop may be able to speak Punjabi, but sadly enough, can not read or write their own language.
This only means that, as far as this goes, we need to adopt a two-pronged strategy. If on the one hand, we need to initiate and sustain a state-wide, adult education programme, on the other, there is an urgent need to tone up our system of elementary education, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas, where the learning/teaching of Punjabi leaves a lot to be desired. One only has to look at the primitive, pre-modern ways in which the Punjabi language is being taught in the government schools or relate to the deficient manner in which the children often display their reading, writing or other related skills to realize the grimness of the situation. The whole purpose of promoting Punjabi is likely to be defeated, if semi-literates are all we manage to produce in Punjabi.
Besides, we need to strengthen the library network in the small towns and villages of Punjab. Even in those areas where the literacy rates are somewhat better than what they are in other places, people do not have access to a well-organized library network, with the latest editions of ‘readable books’ in Punjabi. It is a well-known fact that often libraries, especially in the backwaters, are used as dumping grounds for eminently unreadable books and the books that people often want to read are simply not there. Absence of a well-knit library network is bound to work against the cause of both Punjabi and Punjabiyat. Somewhere the promotion of Punjabi journalism, films and television also deserves as much attention as some other measures do.
In a nutshell, the Punjab government needs to back up its effort at introducing the Acts of 2008 with a series of related measures, if it really is sincere about promoting both Punjabi and Punjabiyat. For if it fails to do so, it may legitimately be accused of playing politics, a folly that future generations may find rather hard to forgive us for.


  1. Coincidentally, we people had a major discussion on something similar being implemented on a national scale and something more, a few hours back. Anyway, whatever the government's intentions are, history shows that they've never been as sincere as portrayed. Will this not, in a way, cut the state and its more marginalised subjects off from the world in the name of promoting the language? Something close to the apprehensions you've expressed in the last few lines?

  2. It was good to know that you have had discussion on the same subject on which I wrote. Politicians have a way of miguiding common people by giving them 'notional' legislations, not the 'real' ones. I would like to believe, this is how the state keeps the people off its own questionable acts.