The Status of Punjabi after 1947

Reorg of Punjab 1966
Reorganisation of East Punjab after 1966. © Pippa Virdee 

Punjabi is an Indo-European (or Aryan) language and is the native language of Punjab, a land divided between India and Pakistan. It has approximately 100 million speakers, largely in north India and Pakistan but it is also widely spoken amongst the Punjabi diaspora around the world.

The Partition in 1947 not only divided the province of Punjab but it also divided the language, and this has been the source of much tension in post-47 in both India and Pakistan. Being a phonetic language, Punjabi was/is written largely in three different scripts: the Persian script (sometimes referred as Shahmukhi) is used mostly in Pakistan; Sikhs use the Gurmukhi script and less common is the Devanagari script which is associated with Hindu Punjabis. Punjabi interestingly was never given official state patronage; this is true for the Mughal period, Ranjit Singh’s reign and also under the British. The preferred state or official language was Persian and Urdu. Farina Mir argues that part of the problem under the British colonial period was the plurality of the scripts used to write Punjabi; all three scripts (Indo-Persian, Gurmukhi, and Devanagari) were used but none of them dominated (Farina Mir, The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab, London: University of California Press, 2010).

It is not until after 1947 that Punjabi begins to get official state patronage, at least in India that is. It is officially recognised as one of the 22 official state languages in India. In West Punjab (Pakistan), Punjabi is confined largely to an informal language with no official status despite being spoken by the majority of people. And even though the number of Punjabi speakers in Pakistan has been declining over the decades, Punjabi is still the most widely spoken language. East Punjab after the Partition in 1947 was a fragmented province of its former self. It consisted of territory that was an amalgamation of divided Punjab, Patiala and East Punjab States Union (the former princely states), and the Hill States to the north of the province. By the 1950s, a Punjabi Suba (province) movement had started which hoped to create a Punjabi-language state, taking inspiration from the linguistic reorganisation taking place in other parts of India. This is eventually achieved in 1966, with the Punjab Reorganisation Act that created a new state of Haryana and also transferred territory (such as the Hill States) to Himachal Pradesh. Leading up to this though was of course an enormous amount of discussion and political agitation, so, it is interesting to see some of the initial correspondence between Bhim Sen Sachar, Chief Minister of East Punjab and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India and Nehru to Vallabhbhai Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister on the question of introducing Punjabi as the medium of instruction in schools. The two letters provide a glimpse into the discussions taking place in 1949.

BS Sachar to Nehru, 9 July 1949 (JN SG 26-I):

‘In my letter [of] 13 May, I referred to the two outstanding demands of the Sikhs, namely (I) representation in services, and (II) Punjabi in Gurmukhi script as the medium of instruction and court language…No compromise on them was considered possible…since then, I have had informal discussions on the language controversy with the Governor, my colleagues, various leaders of public opinion and the general view of government is as below. Before the Partition, Ambala division, excepting Ropar and Kharar tehsils of the Ambala district, spoke Hindustani, while Punjabi was spoken in the rest of the Punjab, barring Kangra district. After it, nearly a million displaced persons from the West Punjab moved into the Ambala division and, therefore, it cannot now be said that all the people [there] speak Hindustani. Nevertheless, the distinction which held good before exists even now, to a lesser a degree. With the gradual elimination of English and Urdu from the province, the question [of] their [replacement] has assumed great importance…the present controversy is not over the language [Punjabi] spoken but the script [Devanagari or Gurmukhi] in which it should be written…The unanimous demand of the Sikhs is that Punjabi in Gurmukhi should be adopted all over the province as medium of instruction, as the official and court language. This would not be acceptable to Hindus in general and especially to the Hindustani-speaking region of the Ambala division and Kangra district of the Jullundur division. It will be unfair to force it on them…The best solution would be to recognise the province as consisting of two distinct linguistic regions, Punjabi and non-Punjabi. Government would agree to the following: (i) Punjabi in Gurmukhi should be the medium of instruction in the Punjabi-speaking region of the province, up to and including the 5th class; (ii) In the Punjabi-speaking region, Hindi should be compulsorily taught as a second language from the 4th class; (iii) Reversal of the same arrangement in the non-Punjabi region; (iv) English and Urdu should for the present continue as the official and court languages. There are differences of opinion on two points: (i) whether girls’ schools should be allowed the option; (ii) whether the existing boundaries of the Jullundur and Ambala divisions should be regarded as correctly [representative]. The Sikhs would not agree to distinguish girls’ schools from boys’ schools…whereas Hindus should be in favour of it…The Sikhs would include the whole of Jullundur division and the whole of Ambala district in the Punjabi-speaking region whereas Hindus would like to exclude Kangra district and three tehsils, Ambala, Naraingarh and Jagadhari, of the Ambala district from it…No agreement on [these] appears to be possible…would be grateful [for your] decision on them’.

Nehru to Patel, 22 July 1949 (JN SG 26-II):

‘Giani Kartar Singh came to see me this morning…on the language issue in East Punjab…I told him that there is no point in our considering the [matter] unless we knew that the parties concerned would abide by our decision…He said that an agreement had been arrived at between the Hindu and Sikh Ministers and the Governor agreed…(1) Punjabi in Gurmukhi, (2) two linguistic areas, (3) Punjabi compulsory from 1st-5th standard in Punjabi area, Hindi vice-versa, (4) from 4th standard upwards, the other language should be compulsory…There was no agreement on the delimitation of linguistic areas. More especially, the Pahari Ilaqa – Sikhs considered as Punjabi areas…another point was Hindus wanted option to be exercised in regard to languages, the Sikhs did not…I made it quite clear that our general policy was against compulsion in regard to choice of the mother-tongue…I further pointed that Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati were well-developed languages…He confessed that Punjabi was not suited for higher education [but] should be used up to the Matriculation… [But] that there was a great deal of feeling behind the Sikh demand…I think some facts have to be obtained about the linguistic divisions of the province but the issue is quite clear…If the Punjabis want two linguistic divisions, they might have them but I just do not see how we can do away with the option of a parent to decide which shall be the mother-tongue…’

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