Panjab University, Chandigarh has invariably failed to live up to the “Panjab” part of its name, and does not even make pretence to do anything for the cause of Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat. Some time back, some of the more informed academic dons at the PU had waged a struggle to turn it into a Central University. While their move may well have been prompted by the possibility of getting better funds from the cash-rich centre, they seemed to have overlooked how it would disconnect the prestigious academic institute from the aspirations of the people in the region.
Not long back, the then Vice Chancellor, Dr Arun Grover, peeved by this attitude, put up his nameplate outside his office in Punjabi. But it wasn’t just cosmetic — he allowed M.Phil. and Ph.D. thesis in any subject to be written in Punjabi, and worked towards getting prepared textbooks for B.A. and M.A. (Social Sciences) in Punjabi.
Punjabi University, Patiala had done some yeoman’s work in the past but then fell to that ultimate devil – mediocrity. Only in the past few years have we seen some visible efforts to engage young scholars and fill them with pride in their history, language, culture and traditions.
The Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, which once led the charge from the front, is now a marginalised campus in any serious reckoning of academic excellence, its bounty of shiny, meaningless trophies notwithstanding.
The private universities that mushroomed all over Punjab have simply been given the mandate of not having to do anything with social sciences, liberal arts or language. The cause of Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat could only be a rumour for them, if not an anathema.
Experts will help you recall that when the first ever linguistic survey of India was taking place, an entire anti-Punjabi lobby had argued that Punjabi was neither a language, nor did it have a fully developed script of its own and, in fact, it was a mere dialect of Hindustani. It finally took masters like Grierson to establish that it was a full fledged language.
Soon the debate was turned towards the available body of literature and it was argued that there just was not enough contemporary literature to justify inclusion of Punjabi as a language. Half a century down the line, the communal lobby was back. The 1941 census simply dropped the column of language in India, and the 1951 was a totally communal census which showed how it was possible to Muslimize the Urdu language and Hinduize the Hindi. In the bargain, some Sikhization of Punjabi also happened. The 1961 census was perhaps the most fraudulent in history.
It was in this matrix that Panjab University started acquiring an anti-Punjabi flavour.
Pre-Independence, the war was between Hindi and Urdu, and since Urdu was the language of power, most mercantile classes of Hindus also used Urdu, but as soon as India yanked itself off the yoke of colonialism, the language of power became Hindi at the Central level and a majority of Arya Samaj inspired Punjab’s Hindus quickly shunned Punjabi and stated their mother tongue as Hindi.
The communal press in Punjab played its own role, so Punjabi was being decimated in Punjab on the Indian side while those sons of Punjabi who migrated to Pakistan quickly adopted the language of power in their country, Urdu.
Punjabi was not even taught in Pakistani Punjab schools and, even though people used that language in their everyday lives (and how so beautifully), there was no clamour for Punjabi teaching.
Efforts of men Afzal Ahsan Randhawa and Amin Malik did keep the issue alive but achieved precious little.
It is in Punjab that we saw the real decimation of Punjabi. Except for some push in the late 60’s, sons of Punjabi Ma-Boli found themselves nudged away towards English or Hindi, thanks to the higher market value of private school education and low awareness levels among politicians about using the law to keep a language thriving.
The power of any language has to do with the language of power, and Punjab’s politicians forgot that their political existence was closely tied to this basic cultural construct. In an increasingly multi-lingual world, the importance of mother-tongue could not have been over-stressed.
A rather late and half-hearted move to make Punjabi compulsory in schools and office work hardly had any backers in the babudom. While we have seen some efforts on this front, much more needs to be done.
Since the two Punjabs have the potential to play a significant role in deciding the South Asian destiny by prompting and hastening any process of improvement in bilateral ties — the current atmosphere of hate notwithstanding — we must understand that only national boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by the departing colonial masters while linguistic/regional identities remained unchanged.
Still, the regional and linguistic identities have often remained territory-bound since territory presumably provides the physical and economic grounds for the growth of a distinctive cultural consciousness.
Shared relationship to a territory does not automatically produce a cohesive cultural or political community. What is needed is a determined pushback by Punjab’s academia and universities to retrieve the Punjabi character of the campuses. Also, the Panjab University, the Punjabi University, Patiala and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar must join hands to lead a movement to balance sensitivities of territoriality and the regional linguistic distinctiveness.
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