This letter is a response to Prateek Joshi’s piece, which was published on December 4 (Pakistan’s bid to use Punjabi culture to deepen fault lines in India will only fan tensions at home). I have been closely affiliated with the movement for the revival of Punjabi language, culture, and identity – which we also call ‘Punjabiyat’, the term embracing shared geography, language, heritage, history and culture across religions in Pakistani Punjab – for the last three years.

This article is based on assumptions and sensational claims. It makes a complete hotchpotch of these very different terms to further a false claim. Neither the opening of Sikh holy places like Kartarpur for international pilgrims nor the promotion of Punjabiyat, Punjabi and Punjabi culture are currently fanning any “tensions” within Pakistan.The pilgrimage is being used to generate revenue and improve Pakistan’s image abroad, and the movement for Punjabiyat is still too young to pose a formidable threat to Pakistani state narrative or actors.

The article makes the following statement: “But for Pakistan, the policy of using Punjabi culture as a strategic tool has alienated conservative groups at home.” Which “conservative” groups precisely? How have they been “alienated” and where is the evidence? Are we forgetting the famed “mullah-military” complex and the assertion that Pakistan’s religious elite is usually in bed with its establishment? There is little doubt that the history of combined Punjab and its three main communities – Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs – is deeply troubled and discomforting. But the symbolic breakthroughs made by Pakistan recently are far from causing any major resistance or receiving any noticeable threats because they have a very powerful backing.

The opening paragraph uses a video of young students struggling with Punjabi and makes a passing comment on the Punjabi’s troubles. Firstly, the receding cover of Punjabi in Pakistan is not just because of the state’s preference for Urdu but also Punjab’s colonial legacy, its bloody partition and lack of education at large.

Secondly, the movement for Punjabi revivalism is local, indigenous and revolves around the promotion of its language and culture. The state is not supporting this movement and the regular Punjabi activist has no business with “deepening faultlines in India.” We are trying to save the culture and language of our ancestors from extinction.

The Pakistani establishment is indeed riding high on the opening of the Kartarpur corridor. One can indeed interpret it as an attempt to forward some of its old strategic objectives on Pakistan’s eastern border. But opening this corridor or planting Ranjit Singh’s statue in Lahore’s Shahi Qila is not the equivalent of promoting Punjabi culture or Punjabi identity, which we also call Punjabiyat, or Sikhism by any stretch of the imagination. Punjabi culture, as well as Punjabiyat, are much older and larger concepts that Sikhism is a part of. Please don’t swap these terms with each other. Again, even endorsing Sikhism or discussing the former Sikh empire is not the same as promoting Punjabiyat or Punjabi culture. This shows the author’s sheer lack of understanding – misintention perhaps – of both Indian and Pakistani Punjab.

The author quotes Dr Ali Usman Qasmi, one of leading voices favouring Punjabi in Pakistani academia and an organiser of the pioneering Punjabi conference in Lahore University of Management Sciences: “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”.

I disagree with this statement by Dr Qasmi. This is not the front we need to fight on. Although a majority of the clerics have a strong command on Urdu, if you go to inner-city Lahore or the famed shrine of Hazrat Ali Hajveri in the heart of the city – Punjabi is used to preach, sing praises of the holy Prophet and even written material is made available. Countering Urdu is not the issue here, countering extremist mindset in Pakistan is the real challenge. So far, no extremist religious group has issued threats to Punjabi activists or organisations.

The main resistance in the adoption Punjabi as a lingua franca in Punjab has come from Punjabis themselves who rightly believe that investing time and money on Punjabi will not pay off. Unlike Urdu and English, only a handful of universities have Punjabi departments and since Punjabi is not taught at the school level, there are few other jobs that utilise this linguistic prowess. The official languages are Urdu and English, and they are rigorously taught. Language activists often argue that if Punjabi and classical poets of Punjabi like Bulleh Shah, Mian Muhammad Baksh, and others were taught as part of the curriculum, their enlightened thoughts will counter the prevalent religious intolerance in Pakistan.

Lastly, a reason for this lack of threat to the movement for Punjabi is that the movement has been slow to catch up. However, one must state here that significant progress has been made. Since 2010, Punjabi language activists have been protesting on Mother Language Day and demanding that, like the other three provinces in Pakistan, primary education should be in Punjabi. Universities like Government College University, LUMS, Kinnaird College and Lahore have recently established Punjabi departments or have started offering it as a subject. The bill will soon be tabled in the Parliament and we are lobbying intensely for it. We expect resistance eventually, but so far, no powerful lobby, no “conservative” or Islamist group worth their salt have challenged us.

The girls you see struggling to speak in Punjabi are from one of the few private schools that have allowed Punjabi to be taught. They are still young, learning fast and many of them are passionate about carrying this baton forward. The language is taking baby steps to cover decades of discrimination. Since this is an “elite school”, as the article rightly mentions, we expect these students to hold powerful positions later in life and remember their lessons in Punjabi when they make speeches in public or the Parliament. Many of these students struggle initially but gain fluency within months. When the course started nearly a decade ago, parents were shocked and reluctant. But now, it is a matter of pride in their posh drawing room conversations. This video is a fruit of our passionate activism. Try to appreciate it from Oxford. – Ammara Ahmad

Response from the writer:

I had deliberately kept the original title as “decoding the new punjabiyat” to make it sound different as the new title does have a somewhat threatening tone. I thank Ammara for the elaborate response. I hope the response is communicated to her. Her statements make personal remarks, such as the word “misintention”, rather than giving an academic criticism.

She asked which “conservative” groups precisely? Answer: Speeches by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose party won 4% vote share in Pakistan’s recent elections and got two provincial Assembly seats from Sindh, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who declared the Kartarpur corridor as Qadiani corridor. One cannot get away by claiming these groups are fringe or irrelevant entities, especially Maulana’s JUI whose pre-2018 elections political prowess needs no introduction. The same goes for Khadim Rizvi’s November 2017 showdown.

I did not write Punjabi is under threat in its entirety but only certain of its aspects, such as the mainstreaming of Hindi as the official language has competed with other smaller dialects to their detriment in India, Urdu’s institutionalisation has its tale to offer.

On the politicisation aspect, could Ms Ammara answer what was the need to display an unexploded bomb in the Gurudwara premises, along with a signboard stating the IAF intended to destroy the Gurudwara in 1971? Add to this a promotional video of Kartarpur featuring Mr Bhindranwale. Here is a link to the Indian Foreign Office’s briefing protesting on the video.

Ms Ammara’s efforts are deeply appreciated and I wish her all the success.But let us not ignore the fact that Indo-Pak rivalry spills out in myriad ways, one of which I highlighted. I have gone to the extent of quoting how both nations tap each others’ diasporas to do useless propaganda activities. My article only addresses how two rival nation states engage with issues with multidimensional effects. – Prateek Joshi