In mid-November, a video appeared on social media showing schoolgirls from elite Lahore Grammar School in the Pakistani province of Punjab speaking to the camera in Punjabi. But the difficulty they displayed in formulating even basic sentences pointed to the fact that they rarely used the language either at home or outside. The clip encapsulated the challenges that spoken Punjabi is facing in the urban areas of Pakistani Punjab.

Among the factors behind the gradual retreat of the language in Pakistan is the institutionalisation of Urdu as the official language at the expense of Punjabi, and pressures that the right-wing forces have exerted on those aspects of Punjabi culture that are believed to overlap with the Hindu/Sikh traditions.

In an article in Dawn, Ali Usman Qasmi, an Associate Professor at Islamabad’s Quaid e Azam University noted that Pakistan’s project after Independence to impose “an Islam-based identity with Urdu as its flagship has made such massive inroads that the successive generation of Punjabi activists has found it difficult to counter it”.

Paradoxically, even as Punjabi culture is under pressure at home, Pakistan has used this “Punjabiyat” as a strategic tool in its rivalry with India. Evidence of this is found in the events leading up to the opening on November 9 of a 4.7-km visa-free corridor for Sikh pilgrims from India to the gurudwara across in the border in Kartarpur. It was also apparent in the decision to inaugurate a statue of the Sikh king Ranjit Singh in Lahore on his 180th death anniversary in June, and to issue a coin commemorating Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary in November, underscoring the fact that the founder of Sikhism was born in the city of Nankana Sahib which is now in Pakistan.

Unusual trajectory

Broadly, two factors explain the dichotomous trajectory of Punjabi culture in Pakistan. The first stems from Punjab’s demographic, economic and political preponderance in Pakistani national life. About 60% of Pakistan’s population lives in Punjab and the province contributes more than 50% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. More than half of the seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly come from Punjab and the continuing colonial-era pattern of recruitments gives the Pakistan Army its dominant Punjabi identity. Not unsurprisingly, the fact that Punjab determines the fate of any national political leadership fans a sense of alienation among the non-Punjabi ethnicities – irrespective of the government’s policies.

Secondly, despite Pakistan’s unease in embracing Punjabi culture at home, its recent celebration of the Sikh icons and shrines subtly aims at reinforcing internal fault lines in India. To recall, the proposal to open Kartarpur corridor was strategically timed in the latter half of 2018, months before the Indian elections. This put the Narendra Modi government in a difficult position: a refusal to open the corridor would anger millions of potential pilgrims, but accepting the plan would be resisted by hawkish circles which fear that this easy movement could fan sentiment in favour of the Sikh separatist dream of obtaining a homeland called Khalistan.

The statue of Ranjit Singh in Lahore. Credit: Government of Pakistan via Twitter

To add to Delhi’s dilemma, a Pakistani minister even claimed last year that his country was more keen than India to open the corridor. This also explains some delay the Indian side took in finalising the modalities after the ground-breaking ceremony in November 2018. Disagreements over the number of pilgrims to the visiting days to the identity documents required dominated the discussions. India postponed a round of talks in April to emphasise its objection to a Khalistan movement sympathiser being appointed to the Pakistani committee to facilitate the pilgrimage.Some of India’s anxieties were proven right when a signboard titled “Miracle of Waheguru Ji” was seen in the gurudwara complex. It claimed that the Indian Air Force had tried to bomb the shrine during the 1971 War but the missile had been deflected because of a miracle.

Internationalising fault lines

Over the past few years, mainstream media and social media forums in both India and Pakistan have increasingly engaged in highlighting the fault lines prevailing in their opponent’s territory. This has been complemented by an indirect outreach to diasporas with an intent to internationalise such fault lines, which is substantiated with an increase in public demonstrations by members of the Sikh, Kashmiri, Baloch and Pashtun diasporas living in Europe and the US.

But for Pakistan, the policy of using Punjabi culture as a strategic tool has alienated conservative groups at home. It also unsettled ethnicities that share an uncomfortable history with the Sikh empire, such as the Pashtuns, who found themselves in incessant wars with Ranjit Singh in the late 18th and early 19th century. Besides, the killings of two revered revivalists, Shah Ismail and Syed Ahmed Barelvi at Balakot, by Sikhs in 1831 stand in contrast to the building blocks of the Pakistani nationalist narrative that claim these Islamic revivalist movements of the 19th century as the precursor to the idea of Pakistan.

Further, the history of the violent absorption of Multan into the Sikh empire in 1818 means that Pakistan’s Punjabi outreach causes discomfort among South Punjab’s Seraiki circles, where politico-economic disparities vis-à-vis mainland Punjab have only amplified a distinct consciousness tied around a separate linguistic identity.

For Pakistan, this embrace of Punjabi culture has been a tightrope walk. At home, there are curbs on many celebratory aspects of Punjabi culture, such as flying kites on the spring festival of Basant. Islamabad knows that its attempt to fan Khalistani separatism as it reclaims Sikh heritage has the potential to exacerbate the grievances of its own smaller ethnic groups. Their strategic aims notwithstanding, these paradoxical impulses nevertheless come with their share of domestic costs attached.

Prateek Joshi is a Dphil candidate at the University of Oxford. His research looks into the historical evolution of Indian foreign policy.