On October 12, as the world celebrated Global Dignity Day – which stresses on the right of each individual to live a life dignity – so did students of the Beaconhouse School System, the largest private school network in Pakistan.

Its social media pages were filled with pictures of celebrations at its several hundred branches in the country as well as UK, Malaysia, UAE, The Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Oman.

Just a couple of days later, however, the school was in the midst of a controversy where it displayed everything but dignity.

The incident began with a circular to students’ parents by a branch of the school located in the city of Sahiwal in Pakistan’s Punjab, about 170 kilometres from Lahore. Titled “School Discipline Policy”, the circular laid down the rules and regulations of the school. One of these was that foul language was not allowed within its premises – a fairly standard rule for an educational institution. However, it went on to elaborate that what constituted foul language was: “Taunts, abuses, Punjabi and hate speech.”

The notice went viral on social media – perhaps put up there by a parent who highlighted the choice use of words by a school considered elite.

Punjabi literary organisations and members of the civil society were up in arms against Beaconhouse and on October 20, dozens of activists gathered outside the school chain’s head office in Lahore to protest against its derision of the Punjabi language and culture.

The rise to fame

Ironically, Beaconhouse’s head office in located on Guru Mangat Road – named thus after a historical village (that has now been absorbed by the ever-growing monster that is Lahore) which draws its fame from Guru Hargobind, the sixth guru of Sikhism. Guru Hargobind once stayed at here and his devotees later built a gurudwara in the village.

There is a peculiar symbolism here – on the one hand, the history of this village is associated with the growth of Sikhism, a religion that elevated Punjabi to the status of a divine language, and on the other, the area now hosts the head office of a school that has deemed Punjabi to be a “foul language”. It is this contradiction that sums up the history of Pakistan’s Punjab of over the past few centuries.

It was in undivided India’s western Punjab region, which went to Pakistan after Partition, that the first known Punjabi poet lived and preached in the 12th and 13th centuries. Known as Baba Farid Ganjshakar (treasure of sugar), a title bestowed upon him for his sweet use of language, the Muslim saint rebelled against the literary establishment of his era that was dominated by Persian and Arabic by chose to write his poetry in vernacular Punjabi.

While several had written folk poetry in Punjabi before him, he was the first to use the language for literary purposes, which paved the way for its development.

Almost two centuries later, Punjab gave birth to Guru Nanak (in present-day Nankana Saheb in Pakistan), the founder of Sikhism. Following the literary footsteps of Farid, Guru Nanak chose Punjabi as the language of his spiritual message. His message was carried forward by the subsequent Sikh gurus.

About 200 years later, at the time of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru, Punjabi had become a sacred language and Baba Farid and Guru Nanak had become saints. Their words were enshrined forever in the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s main religious text that is considered by millions as the 11th and eternal guru for it contains the Shabad (word), or essence of God – captured in Punjabi.

Somewhere around the time of the fifth guru, Arjan, came Shah Hussain of Lahore, the mystic Sufi poet who was said to be in love with a Hindu boy, and wrote verses in Punjabi for his beloved, his god.

Using the symbols of two characters of a tragic Punjabi love story, he expressed his love for god, his Ranjha, as a true devotee – as Heer. Wearing red clothes, he danced and sang on the roads of Lahore during Emperor Akbar’s reign in the 16th century. He angered religious orthodoxy, defied societal norms but remained unscathed. He was accused of many things, but never of using degraded language. His Punjabi poetry is still sung on the streets where once he danced.

Then came Bulleh Shah, the mystic 18th-century poet from Kasur, whose very name symbolises Punjabi literature. As he edged closer to his death, he reminded his devotees that he would he would live on in through his poems. Even today in Kasur, Bulleh Shah dances every Thursday when Qawwals from around the country come to his shrine and sing his songs.

Fall from grace

But the sweet words of Farid, the sacred language of Nanak, Shah Hussain’s love and the eternal poetry of Bulleh Shah have today been called a “foul language” in their home.

The school, on its part, eventually apologised and clarified that meant Punjabi curses, not the language – but it was too little too late. It also claimed that it was being targeted unfairly.

Perhaps they are right. The civil society has targeted this particular school but not the social phenomena that gave birth to this circular. For decades now, Punjabi has been ridiculed in its home. It has been seen as the language of the uncouth, an uncivilised language not worthy of sophisticated society. Perhaps no other school or university may have circulated such a circular, but the sentiment is shared by many.

I too went to a school like Beaconhouse. While our school administration never categorically asked us not to speak Punjabi, it was understood that this was not the language to be used in a formal setting. Middle-class parents all across Punjab prefer teaching their children Urdu and English as opposed to Punjabi, because of its perceived backwardness. There is no Punjabi newspaper in the entire Punjab Province and Punjabi literature is almost non-existent. Many Punjabi speakers can read and write in Urdu but find it hard to read the language. The classical Punjabi of Nanak and Shah Hussain is lost those who speak the language today.

To some extent, a shift away from regional languages is not uncommon in countries that were colonised. The British education system, which the Pakistani state subsequently inherited, instilled this inferiority complex within the Punjabi speaker. While English was portrayed as the language of the educated, Punjabi was regarded as that of the backward. This preference for the English language and education is also seen in India.

But the story of Punjabi in Pakistan’s Punjab is peculiar. Other parts of the country were also colonised and also imparted the British education system. But there is no such resentment towards the language of Sindhis and Pathans. Regional newspaper and literature continue to survive in Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Punjabi is frequently used on national television as a comic interlude. A popular TV show features Punjabi speakers being taught the correct pronunciation of Urdu, not very different from the racism seen in the British show Mind Your Language of the 1970s and ’80s.

There is a reason why the school did not feel the need to add the word "curses" to Punjabi. Popularly, Punjabi is imagined to be a language of curses.

Price for prominence?

For years now, I have been trying to find the answer to why Punjabis have abandoned their language. There are two hypotheses. One lays the blame on colonial policy of divide and rule. In the Raj-era, Muslims identified with Urdu, Hindus with Hindi and Sikhs with Punjabi as their mother-tongues. After Partition, with the exodus of the Sikhs and Hindus, the Punjabi Muslims began identifying with Urdu instead of Punjabi, regarding Punjabi to be the language of Sikhs.

The other theory is rather intriguing. Punjab today enjoys a unique position in the political landscape of Pakistan, dominating its political class, bureaucracy, and elite. All other provinces in the country share resentment against Punjab, which is seen as a state that enjoys a certain hegemony.

Interestingly, throughout history, the so-called nationalists of Pakistan’s Punjab have called all the other provinces “anti-national” at some point – Bengal in the 1960s, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa after Partition, Sindh during the 1980s and Balochistan today. It has always been Punjab that has seemingly upheld the standard of nationalism and decides who is deviating from it.

And therein lies the tragedy of Punjabi. In order to become this symbol of Pakistani nationalism – represented by Urdu, the national language – it has had to jettison its own culture and language. There was no room for multiple regional identities alongside national identities. In order to become more Pakistani, Punjab had to become less Punjabi.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities