ethnic nationalism

Pakistani scholars come to grips with another ethnic ideology: Punjabi nationalism

Many have spoken about the hegemony of the Punjabis in Pakistan. But few have noticed the voices highlighting the threats to Punjabi culture.

Ever since Pakistan’s tumultuous birth in 1947, much has been said and written about the topic of ethnic nationalism(s) in the country. This has always been a thorny and controversial subject because elements advocating the importance of exhibiting nationalism based on the linguistic and cultural injunctions of an ethnic community have always been dealt with suspicion by the state of Pakistan.

If we keep aside the fact that more than 97% of Pakistan’s population is Muslim, this same population is then not a homogenous lot. In fact, even within its religious homogeneity, there are sectarian, sub-sectarian and intra-sectarian divisions, with some of the groups rather antagonistic towards one another.

Pakistan is made up of various ethnic groups that have their own languages, historical trajectories, and cultural traditions. Picturing such a diversity as a threat (to the unity of the country), the state of Pakistan, right from the word go, has launched various projects to concoct ideas of a unified nationalism to overcome and neutralise identities based on ethnic moorings.

Naturally, such projects have created tensions between the state and various ethno-nationalist groups who accuse the state of Pakistan of trying to whitewash their centuries-old ethnic heritages with (what these groups believe is) an artificial ideology invented by the state.

What’s more, the antagonistic ethno-nationalist groups have for long maintained that the state enforces such an ideology to safeguard the political and economic interests of the ‘dominant ethnic communities’.

Forgotten in the narrative

Till the late 1960s, the so-called dominant ethnic groups were supposed to be the Punjabis and the Urdu-speakers (Mohajirs) who had a monopolistic influence on the workings of the armed forces, the bureaucracy and large economic enterprises (and thus politics).

In this situation, ethno-nationalism in Pakistan was thus mostly the vocation of non-Punjabi and non-Mohajir ethnic groups, mainly Bengali, Sindhi, Pakhtun and Baloch.

According to the narrative woven by some prominent Sindhi and Baloch ethno-nationalists, after the separation of the Bengali-majority East Pakistan in 1971, the state began to gradually co-opt the Pakhtuns who then began to replace the Mohajirs as the other dominant ethnic elite (along with the Punjabis).

By the 1980s, Pakhtun nationalists had lost considerable appeal among the Pakhtuns but the same decade saw the emergence of "Mohajir nationalism".

Ethno-nationalists have continued to accuse the Punjabi-dominated state of usurping the economic and political interests of the non-Punjabi communities, sometimes in the name of Pakistani nationalism and sometimes in the name of religion.

Academics studying the phenomenon of ethno-nationalism in Pakistan usually stick to tendencies such as Sindhi, Baloch and Pakhtun nationalisms (and, in the past, Bengali nationalism, and now even Mohajir nationalism).

Nevertheless, what gets missed in the more holistic study of the issue is a nationalism that is actually associated with what is usually decried to be a hegemonic and elitist ethnic group: the Punjabi.

A recent phenomenon

This is not due to there being not enough activism and literature available on Punjabi nationalism as there is on other ethno-nationalist tendencies in the country.

The Punjabis have for so long been seen as the dominant ethnic group, very few scholars have actually got down to studying curious occurrences such as Punjabi nationalism.

Also, compared to other ethno-nationalisms in Pakistan, Punjabi nationalism is a more recent phenomenon.

According to cultural historian, Alyssa Ayres (in her book, Speaking Like A State), Punjabi nationalism largely emerged in the 1980s. Part of it was a reaction to the emergence of the Saraiki language movement that looked to separate the Saraiki-speaking areas of the Punjab from the rest of the province.

Till the late 1960s, Saraiki was considered to be a dialect of Punjabi, but Saraiki nationalists disagree and treat their language as a separate linguistic entity.

Ayres suggests that many Punjabi intellectuals considered the Saraiki movement as "yet another attack on Punjabi". They bemoan the way Punjab as a whole has been lumped together as a hegemonic province. They complain that a Punjabi actually has to let go of his culture and adopt alien languages (English and Urdu), if he wants to escape economic marginalisation.

Just as the purveyors of Sindhi, Baloch and Pakhtun nationalism of yore, ideologues and advocates of Punjabi nationalism too emerged from progressive backgrounds.

They did not attack the non-Punjabi ethnicities for denouncing Punjabis; instead, they turned in anger towards the elite sections made up of fellow Punjabis. They accused them of neglecting the Punjabi language and forgetting the Punjabi culture – first to appease the British, and then to the state-backed promoters of Urdu – just to maintain their personal influence and power.

Still a literary pursuit

Though literature in this context had begun to trickle out in the 1970s, it was the publication of three books between 1985 and 1996 that finally gave Punjabi nationalism its most cohesive literary shape.

The first was Hanif Ramey’s Punjab Ka Muqadma (The Case of Punjab). Ramay was a founding member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and a leading ideologue behind the party’s populist concoction called Islamic Socialism (late 1960s).

In his 1985 book, Ramay suggests that the Punjabis turned against the Bengalis to safeguard the interests of those who had imposed Urdu ("a foreign language") upon them (the Punjabis).

Ramay continues by claiming that had the Punjabis continued to respect and love their own language, they would have understood the sentiments of East Pakistan’s Bengalis, and would not have turned against them.

The book was promptly banned by the intransigent Zia regime.

The ban did not deter Syed Ahmed Ferani from authoring Punjabi Zaban Marre Gi Nahi (The Punjabi Language Will Not Die) in 1988. This is an even more radical expression of Punjabi nationalism. Here Ferani describes Urdu as "a man-eating language" that made Punjabis kill fellow Punjabis and then people of other non-Urdu ethnic groups. This book too was banned.

The third major work in this context is a novel authored by Fakhar Zaman called Bewatna (Stateless) in 1995. Zaman, another former PPP man in Punjab, wrote an allegorical lament about how (he thought) the Punjabis (by adopting alien languages and cultures) have become aliens on their own soil. The novel, too, was banned.

Unlike certain more radical branches of non-Punjabi ethno-nationalisms, Punjabi nationalism (so far) has not been separatist and has remained largely a literary pursuit, only calling for the Punjabi language to be given its rightful place.

This nationalism’s scholars constantly evoke tales associated with various Punjabi Sufi saints and anti-colonial heroes to emphasise the point that the Punjabi culture was spiritual (instead of orthodox) and chivalrous (instead of hegemonic or exploitative).

In a landmark decision, the Lahore High Court (in 1996), overturned and lifted the ban on all three books.

Echoes of this nationalism can still be heard in the Punjab, though. In a TV talk show about three months ago, the current Defence Minister and a senior member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N), Khawaja Asif (who hails from the Punjab city of Sialkot), lamented that all kinds of "alien cultures" have been imposed on the Punjab.

He specifically mentioned the erosion of Punjab’s original culture and traditions that were being replaced by a culture imported by those (including fellow Punjabis) who have for long resided in Arab countries.

And though Khawaja Asif never called himself a Punjabi nationalist, his lament did bear the tone first set by Punjabi nationalists.

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