Language, Identity and Expression

I never thought that I would have to defend my Seraiki identity in the UK, of all places. The occasion was a Punjabi poetry evening organised by a friend at a University of London college. I introduced myself as a Seraiki which made a panelist at the event – an old Sikh poet – enraged. Pointing his finger at me, he accused me of conspiring to “break Punjab into small pieces”, ignoring the fact that the Sikhs have failed in saving their part of the province from bifurcation. Another participant, who was Pakistani, said I should re-think the proposition that Seraiki was an identity independent of Punjabi.

Spoken by approximately 20 million people in Pakistan and 70,000 people in India, Seraiki is an ancient tongue. According to Karthik Venkatesh, writing in the Indian journal Mint, the language was derived from Prakrit of ancient times using Brahmi script, which changed to Arabic naskh and then Persian nastaleeq, depending on the Seraiki area’s conquerers and their influence. The British military historian Richard F. Burton while writing about Sindh talked of Seraiki being widely spoken, though not recognised everywhere by this name but variously as ‘Jatki’, ‘Riyasiti or ‘Multani’. This changed in 1972 when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government agreed to abandon all other terms and adopt the uniform ‘Seraiki’. Although in Pakistan, which is its main hub, it is spoken in four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan – the primary area for political contestation is Punjab as Seraiki is dominant in the South and South West of the province where it can be consolidated in terms of political identity. While the political identity of all other major ethno-cultural groups was recognized at the time of Partition in 1947, it was not to be so for Seraikis. They had a reprieve in that the princely state of Bahawalpur became a province and central to this identity. This proved to be short-lived: when all provinces that had been merged into One-Unit by General Ayub Khan were restored to their original position in 1969, Bahawalpur was not. That year, people protested and around 50 people died in the violence.

Pakistan’s early leadership saw the country’s distinctive ethno-cultural identities as a ‘menace’ and tried to replace them with religion

A few voices such as Taj Langah continued to campaign for political formalisation of an independent identity, a strong movement could not be built. The common man demonstrated his identity by the popular vote in Bahawalpur against the PPP and for restoration of the province, but the elite went the other way, and gained representation in power structures, ignoring the popular will. Even today with growing urbanization, which is not necessarily a sign of socioeconomic growth, no one is really investing in the politics of the emerging Seraiki middle class which is one of the reasons for their inclination towards religious zealotry. The PPP government (2008-2013) initiated a move for establishing a South Punjab province which was scuttled. Though launched half-heartedly, it was the first time that this identity was recognised.

This is why the national resource distributive system correctly appears to the novelist Mohsin Hamid as a caste system. In a talk given at the Lahore Gymkhana in May this year, the author analysed the ethno-linguistic identity issue in the country as a caste system that divides. But the problem here is not of people subscribing to their separate identities, as Hamid believes it to be, but certain groups and institutions monopolising the state and its resources. The replacement of kleptocracy with equitable distribution would have helped people look more logically at the issue of identity. Whenever people remind the powerful of their share, they tell them that ethnicity is a bad principle. One of the reasons that today Seraiki speakers in Punjab insist upon formal recognition of their ethno-linguistic identity is because the disparity amongst different parts of the Punjab is phenomenal. South and South West Punjab have some of the largest household sizes in the country (average 7.0 – 7.5) but the lowest density of housing units with water supply, gas and electricity. This area also has a comparatively larger number of older people and fewer educated youth as compared to Central and North Punjab. The comparative deficiency of clean water, health and education facilities is also visible. As for the educated, life isn’t very different. Being part of Punjab means that there is no separate quota for Seraiki areas. An analysis of three years of civil service recruitment data (2009-2011) indicated that on average it is just 4-5 Seraiki speakers who got selected during this period. When television channels are run in Seraiki, it is non-Seraiki speakers who manage them. The prejudice against Seraikis extends to academia. Incidentally, all groups tend to adopt this reductive approach. I remember being denied the top position in a think-tank in Islamabad despite being selected unanimously; in my case the Pakhtun lobby ganged up!

Nawab of Bahawalpur Sadiq Muhammad Khan with the Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Socioeconomics is just one aspect of identity politics. There is a deeper angle that we ignore, which pertains to language being intrinsic to human expression and identity. Language is more than communication skill. An individual’s linguistic-cultural-ethnic identity is often older than their country. It certainly spans centuries and is an expression of a person’s social and cultural DNA. It is a map of an individual as part of a community. Even if a person’s ethnic identity does not merge with the larger political state identity, the former is not a challenge to the latter. My being Seraiki does not make me less of a Pakistani. But none of Pakistan’s national songs make me feel as rooted as when I hear these verses (wrongly attributed to Khwaja Ghulam Farid, though in that poetic tradition):

Rohi di ajab bahar disey

Jithan mein nimani da yaar wasey

Uthan ashiq lakh tey hazar wasey

Rohi baranyon cha watan

Rohi’s [name of the desert] spring appears so wondrous,

It is here that the lonesome me can see love

It is the land which abounds with romance,

You, my love, have made the haunting Rohi home for me

The way this Seraiki watan touches my soul is incomparable to anything else. It anchors me in my land as a person in a way that nothing else does.

In Pakistan’s case, its early leadership saw the country’s distinctive ethno-cultural identities as a ‘menace’ and tried to replace them with religion, a shared value which cannot override people’s identities without engendering violence. Our leaders also used language as a tool to create a single cultural identity, an effort that failed in 1971 and continues to do so. This is because a language can become a means of connectivity between diverse cultures but cannot override them. The Punjabi elite and middle class of West Pakistan had voluntarily sacrificed their identity in 1947 and accepted the supremacy of Urdu. They could not understand why the Seraikis, Sindhis, Pakhtun and Baloch clung to their ethno-linguistic identity.

Taj Langah came to be known as a great advocate of an independent identity for Seraiki-speaking people

?I was born in the 1960s into a Punjabi-Seraiki household, and was denied the privilege of knowing both languages. In those days, being cultured meant speaking Urdu with the right accent. My mother was constantly on the lookout for an Urdu-speaking nanny for me so that I would speak Urdu with a Lucknow/Delhi accent. I grew up in the company of Urdu writers like Salahuddin Mehmood and Mukhtar Masood who hid their Punjabi identity behind their Urdu. While my parents spoke to each other in Seraiki, the entire household spoke to me in Urdu. Luckily, my mother could never find a reliable nanny and those we had from the village inadvertently cultivated the sapling of Seraiki in my subconscious. The down side was my initial social discomfort with the language. When it came to marriage, I was uncomfortable with the idea of romance in a language spoken with minions.

My mother’s issue was not to establish Punjabi dominance at home but like so many of her kind, she had accepted the supremacy of Urdu. She had accepted Seraiki language and culture like many Punjabi women married into elite Seraiki families, to the extent of speaking it occasionally. I was lucky that the two crucial Punjabis in my life, my mother and my husband both volunteered to learn the language. However, despite such sanctions my language reached out to me even when I didn’t go out searching for it – we connected before my teens, and we haven’t let go of each other since. I write in English and Urdu but it is Seraiki that touches the inner core of my being.

Every year, some 1,500 poets gather at Taunsa for three nights of singing and poetry recitation – a rapturous celebration of Seraiki culture

We now find that English is increasingly replacing Urdu as a preferred mode of communication. It is probably this abandonment of one’s own linguistic heritage for something foreign that instilled a lack of appreciation of primordial identity in an urban Punjabi-Lahori man like Mohsin Hamid, who considers people’s attachment to their ethno-linguistic bearing as symbolizing a lack of confidence. In the same speech in Lahore he was of the view that “once they (people) start believing in themselves they will not require additional identities.” One would like to remind the author that national identities matter all over the world. These are not crutches but a universe of imagination – stories and songs passed on to you that you then mix with your own harvest of experiences. So, when we say ‘lost in translation,’ it doesn’t just mean words but an entire galaxy of expressions, dreams and imagination.

Urdu literature suffers because it has been captured by a language elite that acts more like police than facilitator

I often wonder why Pakistan’s modern literature written both in English and Urdu doesn’t give you the zing that some of the best works coming out of other parts of the world do. In the last three decades some of the best experimentation resulting in fabulous fiction has come out Latin America, Eastern Europe, North East Asia and the Middle East that have experienced decades of violence or sociopolitical turbulence. Didn’t we have periods of intense agony in our history? We’ve suffered the breakup of the country, authoritarian rule, terror and torture – looking at most of the new Pakistani fiction, it seems we have missed the bus in terms of recording our diverse experiences despite having undergone them. This may be partly because (this applies to both India and Pakistan) the literature written in English comes from a certain class that remains on the edges of people’s lives. It is a pretense of egalitarianism and consciousness of political correctness that forces most to adopt an Orientalist approach in fiction, writing stories that sell in the international market.

Indeed, some of the poetry and prose written in the Indian Subcontinent’s numerous national languages have great gusto but we hardly get to hear of it. The approximately 1,500 poets that gather at Taunsa every year for three nights of rapturous sessions of singing and poetry recitation belong to a different world. They create works that are simple, complex, passionate, politically incorrect, rebellious or even wild. At all times, they are real and unfeigned.

This is unlike Urdu literature in Pakistan, which suffers because it has been captured by a language elite that acts more like police than facilitator. It suffers from an environment where those who critiqued literature and were inheritors of the Urdu language heritage adopted inflexible perimeters to judge. Incidentally, the measurement bar was not literature itself but ethnic identity. Therefore, no novelist and short story writer could ever surpass Quratulain Haider, or in later days, Intizaar Hussain. A huge contribution to Urdu literature was made by people who were not from the Ganga-Jamuna heartland and whose mother tongue was different, but this fact remains largely unrecognised. Their writings are not explored and presented to the younger generation because of an inherent ethno-linguistic (often mixed with gender) bias. It was after much drumbeating about writers and poets of a certain ethnic identity that some space was grudgingly created for the novelist Abdullah Hussain in his last years. Privately, the festival elite looked down upon his work for using Punjabi terms in an Urdu novel.

A map of the Seraiki region in Pakistan

In a place where there is systematic gagging of voices, state torture, brutality, radicalism, love, passion, friendship and much more, how is it that great fiction is not being written? It’s because we have been alienated from our own languages, the words of our souls – we’ve become mute because we speak in false tongues. To find our voices again, we must let our diverse ethno-linguistic identities bloom, we must recognise our diversity and allow each group to sing and fly.

Note: This article originally published here.