Amrita Pritam, the famous poet who fled Pakistan after the partition of 1947, writes in her famous poem Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shaah Nu 

“Lost is the flute, which once, blew sounds of the heart
Ranjha’s brothers, today, no longer know this art…”

On the eve of the partition of the Indian subcontinent, when the administrations and politicians were busy dividing the assets and territories, another important possession that was divided by Radcliffe’s Line was ‘Punjabi’. The arson and riots in the streets of Lahore and Amritsar took away not only the land of Mirza – Sahiba, Heer – Ranjha but also the script in which they were written.

Shaahmukhi: The Lost Letters

As the word name suggests, Shaahmukhi is referred to as the script of the Shaahs – the royals.[2]  However, this leads to a misconception that the language was used by the elite or the royal class of Punjab. Interestingly, it is assumed that such a name was derived from the remarkable personalities such as the famous poets of Punjab like Waris Shaah and Bulleh Shaah who wrote their compositions in this script. Both the Punjabi Scripts didn’t exist for a long period of time even after the origin of the language. Scholars opine that while the Gurmukhi developed from the proto-Sinaetic alphabet by the way of Brahmi script, Shahmukhi developed as a “side effect” of the Mughal Era education in Punjab. Though it was first written in 12th century by Farid al-Din Masud Ganj-i-Shakar, aka. Baba Farid, the introduction of Shaahmukhi in Mughal Era education was the earliest attempt to standardize the Punjabi language.[1] Gurmukhi was made coherent during the Sikh empire in Punjab and began to be associated with the religious lines. During the British era rule, the administration preferred to exacerbate these divisions for both political and administrative purposes by recognizing the less prevalent Urdu as the superior language for Muslim-dominated areas. The issue of national language after the partition of 1947 was another blow to the already lost language.

The National Language Conundrum

While there is much hearsay about the discourse related to national language in India, the pathway to the national language legislation in Pakistan remains unsung. On August 12, 1948, when Jinnah visited Dhaka, he addressed the crowds to declare that the lingua franca of the country was to be Urdu. This paved way for an exclusive approach with regards to the language which was worsened by the formation of Bangladesh on linguistic divides. As the largest linguistic Group – Punjabis, promoted primary education in Urdu, Shaahmukhi faced deteriorating circumstances even within the regional language framework.

Even though compared to twenty-two million Gurmukhi speakers, one hundred ten million speakers speak Shaahmukhi., Shaahmukhi is on the verge of extinction on both sides of the border. Gurmukhi, on the other hand, is prevalent in the Indian Punjab but is extinct in Pakistan. The hurdles to revive the glory of the script and reintegrate it with the linguistic discourse are many but still, the activists are trying to reinstate it.

Activism and Judiciary in Pakistan

As per Article 251 of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, Urdu was made the national language of the nation. Clause (c) of the same Article provides that the provincial governments can promote primary education in regional languages without any prejudice to the national languages. The deadline for using Urdu as the official language was set as 15 years from the year of commencement of the Constitution i.e., 1973. Unfortunately, none of these provisions have been implemented successfully by the governments. In 1973, the government under General Zia -ul-Haq promulgated the new constitution which made the study of Arabic compulsory and recognized Urdu as the only national language. However, after the reintroduction of democracy, several provincial assemblies paved way for the introduction of regional languages at the provincial level but the only province which couldn’t do so was Punjab.[2]

In 2011, a social activist and a politician, Nazeer Khat, leader of the Punjabi Language Movement, demanded legislation to make Punjabi compulsory at the primary education level. In 2014, National Assembly’s standing committee rejected the Bill introduced by legislator Marvi Memon on apprehensions of separatism.  It was in 2015 that in two different verdicts, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that the provincial government should bring a law to implement Punjabi language in the primary schools and the national government should implement Article 251 of the Constitution. Following the verdict, Senate’s standing committee again deliberated on the issue and passed a bill recognizing the regional language Punjabi as a national language. It seemed to amend clause (a) of Article 251 to insert the regional languages alongside Urdu.[3] The move was also applauded on the other side of the border. However, the bill never saw the light of the day.

It was under this backdrop that the Pakistan High Commission demanded the Canadian government to introduce Shaahmukhi as a script spoken by Pakistani Punjabis in the census. The other section termed it as ironic because the nation itself has failed to recognize Shaahmukhi officially. Recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has reiterated its earlier verdict by issuing the notices to the respective governments.

Protecting the Federal Polity in India

In order to revive the spirit of the language, it is important to acknowledge and recognize it. The Patiala University has made efforts to introduce a course on Shaahmukhi and remove the religious apprehensions surrounding it. Recently, there has been a new discourse on integrating Gurmukhi and Shaahmukhi in the literature and academics on both sides of the borders. However, after the introduction of the National Education Policy, 2020, the Central Board of Secondary Education has changed the status of the Punjabi language to a minor subject from its previous status of a major subject. This has resulted in a bone of contention between the constitutional Authorities. According to Section 3 (2) of the state legislation – The Punjab Learning of Punjabi and Other Languages Act, 2008 provides:

“No board or institution shall award matriculation certificate to any student unless he has passed the Tenth Class examination in Punjabi subject.”

This section is contradictory to the CBSE regulation which allows the students to choose between Hindi and Punjabi till class 10th. Education falls under the concurrent list[4] of the Indian Constitution and therefore the Central legislation would prevail and the abovementioned provision would effectively become inoperative. In the light of the political heat caused by the farmers’ protest and upcoming elections in the border state of Punjab, linguistic rights remain a sensitive topic.

Way Forward

The administrative agencies and societal structure, which explicitly aspired to make Urdu a lingua franca on the other side of the border, pose a hindrance to the promotion of the Punjabi language in the largest province. However, several non-state actors are making continuous efforts to prick the conscience of the authorities at the judicial and constitutional levels. On this side of the border too, there is an attempt to reinvoke the bonhomie between the Punjab of the rising sun (Charhda Punjab) and Punjab of the setting sun (Lehnda Punjab). At Patiala Agricultural University, there is a milestone that mentions the distance between Patiala and Lahore. But along with this milestone, the University has portraits of Punjabi poets from both nations that exhibit the bonhomie despite the physical distance.

Even though these efforts make us remember the treasures lost in translation, their revival won’t be possible without protecting and acknowledging them at an official level. In Pakistan, the government should implement the verdict given by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to introduce Punjabi in the primary schools whereas, in India, a combined committee or a council such as the National Council for the Sharada script can be made for both Shaahmukhi and Gurmukhi. Both the nations should learn from their respective histories that accommodation of linguistic diversity is much desired than its exclusion. Though dissimilar from each other, these alphabets bind the nations together and can be important in geo politics. However, it is imperative to note that the change cannot be expected from merely recognizing a language officially. The non-state actors and their efforts are sine qua non in the process of integrating the two branches – Shaahmukhi and Gurmukhi together for fostering their language. Initiatives as the course by Patiala University and translation software for both the scripts, inter alia,  may hopefully enable us to read the words of Waaris Shah in their original form again.

In the words of KBS Sidhu, an IAS officer, Statesmanship, not politics, is required at this stage.

[1] Purnima Dhawan, The Persianate World,  159 – 173, (University of California Press) (2019)

[2] Tariq Rahman, Language Policy and Education in Pakistan, Beacon House National University, 364, 364-381 (2008).

[3] The Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2017, (Substitution of Article 251).

[4] The Constitution of India, 1950, Schedule VII, List III, Concurrent List, Item 25, inserted vide The Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976, s. 57.

This article is authored by Kunal Yadav, a second-year student at the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law. 

The Language Rights Blog

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