Monthly Archives: December 2017

Punjabi Hindus and their distaste for the Punjabi language

Image result for Master Tara Singh and C. Rajagopalachari imageAbout the image: After independence, Master Tara Singh (Hindu convert to Sikhism and a politician) with other Akalis began agitation for Punjabi (Sikh majority) Suba. C. Rajagopalachari (Tamil Brahmin), former Prime Minister (PM) of Madras Presidency during British Raj and founder of Swatantrata Party with center right as its political ideology, visited him to show solidarity with the demand. Rajagopalachari during his tenure as PM made Hindi mandatory in all government schools of Madras Presidency, for which he had to pay politically dear costs.


While growing up in Punjab, I spoke in Hindi at home. Used Punjabi to communicate with neighbors, maternal and paternal uncles and aunts, grandparents. Were my parents Hindi speaking? No, they can very well read, write and speak in Punjabi. As a matter of fact, their Punjabi is as good as their Hindi. Why were we speaking Hindi at home?

Once in my childhood, a neighborhood aunty asked me why do I speak in Hindi. My answer was that Hindi is our national language. She hit back saying -Punjabi is your mother tongue. I had no answer for it. The memory is still fresh.

Born in Hindu middle-class (technically it is a Hindu-Sikh family) household, I moved between two languages. I learned Punjabi in 2nd Standard. We spoke in Hindi at home. My family subscribed to Hindi daily- Punjab Kesari. I was a fluent Hindi speaker and became a reader of it once I learned reading and writing in Hindi in 5th standard. All this doesn’t answer the question- why were we talking in Hindi at home?

To my understanding, the answer to this question is in the post-independence history. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and many other Hindu right-wing outfits believed in the idea- Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan. This was promoted aggressively. This idea never played well in Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra and in Southern states, even if they were Hindu majority. Somewhere it resonated in Punjab.

During the independence struggle, Sikhs made a demand that there should be an autonomous region kept aside for Sikhs in the North West of India. They can practice their faith unhindered in a largely Hindu India. Post-independence with the change in circumstances and a secular constitution, this demand was re-worked. Demand for autonomous Sikh province became the demand for autonomous Punjabi Suba (province). In the 1960s the union government agreed to the demand and merged Sikh majority areas of Punjab and princely states of Eastern Punjab to create Punjab province. Many Punjabi speaking cities and districts like Una, Kangra, Solan and Ambala, Kurukshetra, Karnal were allotted to Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. Both states have Hindi as their official language.

In the minds of Punjabi Hindus, Sikh suba became Punjabi suba. Further, Guru Granth Sahib was written in Gurumukhi. Gurmukhi is the script of Punjabi language. It is a different matter that not all the text in Guru Granth Sahib is in Punjabi. Even if Punjabi Hindus bowed in front of Guru Granth Sahib, they identified themselves as Hindus.  The entry to Sikhism was restricted. It was not as easy as it was for Master Tara Singh (politician), Nanak Singh (writer), Bhagat Puran Singh (social worker) or Surinder Kaur (singer) to move from Hinduism to Sikhism.  Neither Sikhism nor Hinduism remained as eclectic as they were before. There were clear demarcations. Sikhs by default had Punjabi as their own. It was their sacred language and it is their mother tongue which helped them to transform from Sikh nation to the Punjabi nation. Hindus in this juggernaut subconsciously and subtly decided to ally themselves with the larger (imaginary) Hindi speaking nation- India. They became Indians and left their Punjabi existence behind.

Dayanand Anglo-Vedic (DAV) educational institutions and Punjab Kesari newspaper had an important role to play in it. Jalandhar a Hindu majority city in Punjab reflects this Hindi nation making in Punjab. Before partition, Jalandhar was a city with the substantially large Muslim population. After partition, it became Hindu majority with re-settlement of refugees from Western Punjab. After partition, it was the ad-hoc capital of Punjab, till Chandigarh was under construction. The city boasts of a significant number of DAV and Arya Samaj related institution- from DAV school to DAV college. Kanya Mahavidyalaya, Hansraj Mahila Vidayalay, Sain-dass Senior Secondary School. They are all there.  It is home to Hindi daily- Punjab Kesari (the media house has Urdu and Punjabi dailies too, not that popular as Punjab Kesari). The number of Hindi dailies having their office or printing press in Jalandhar have increased over a period. There is a right-wing Hindu newspaper called: “Uttam Hindu” being published in Jalandhar from past many decades.  A substantial number of signboards in the city are in Hindi. Very rarely one will come across the name of temples written in Gurumukhi script. It is either in Hindi or in English. These all institutions and their actions played an important role in defining the identity of Hindus. They with their work made Hindi- lingua franca of Punjabi Hindu middle class. Majority of urban Hindu Punjabis studied in these institutions. They read Punjab Kesari and alike Hindi newspapers. They sang bhajans and Aarti in Hindi. There are Punjabi Bhajans too, but not as popular as the Hindi ones.  Many of these institutions were affiliated with Arya Samaj in their formative years.  All these institutions look up to the idea of the Indian nation. A unitary Hindu majority state with Hindi as its national language. RSS had a role to play in formulating the Hindi-Hindu identity in Punjab but not a vital one. It is these institutions which promoted the Hindi nationalism amongst Hindus, with very little or no guidance from RSS.

On the other side, Khalsa colleges (headed and managed by the Sikh elite) were the main competitors of Arya Samaj and allied institutions. They were Punjabi in their outlook and orientation. DAV colleges were looked as the urbane spaces whereas Khalsa colleges were for Pendu (rural) students. When I was to enroll for eleventh and twelfth standard schooling, I chose Lyallpur Khalsa College. Many around me asked about my choice – why Khalsa College when DAV is way better. I have never understood the difference between the either- how is DAV better than Khalsa, except that one has and had an ‘urbane’ outlook and in the other, there were students coming from rural areas and most of those students were Sikhs.

I don’t think I have fully answered the earlier posed question. Let’s go back to it again. Hindus roughly form 45 percent of the population of the state and Sikhs are in majority with 55 percent population. For illustration purpose, let’s take an example of Gujarat. In Gujarat, Gujarati Hindus don’t have a competing religion with as many followers as is the case with Punjab. They are not insecure about their language and mingling of their religious identity with language. There are Muslims, a majority of them Sunnis. They speak in Gujarati, they have created their own niche language which is a mixture of Gujarati and Hindustani similar to Dakhini.  There is a good number of Shia Bohras. Bohras are largely urban and aspire to be urbane with distinct features.  Bohras in Gujarat are tiny minority. They are a minority in a Hindu state and a minority within Islamic ummah. They don’t want to merge with Gujarati Hindus by speaking Gujarati at home and they also don’t want to be seen as Sunni Muslims, who according to them have a backward outlook. To look distinct, they invented Bohri language, which is a mixture of Gujarati and Arabic. As a matter of fact, most Bohris in Gujarat and outside still prefer to speak Gujarati over the artificially created language. Punjabi Hindus aren’t that inventive. They want to look distinct from Sikhs, they chose Hindi over Punjabi. As Hindi made them look more refined and urbane and in the same way distinct from Pendu ‘militant’ Sikhs. Hindi gave them ‘cosmopolitan’ Indian identity. Like English gives an international and global identity to monolingual English speaking South Asians. Hindi helped Hindus in Punjab to have distinct Hindu identity as well as helped them to imagine that it will connect them with the larger Indian nation and their other Hindu -Indian brethren.

The troubles in 70s-80s and early 90s created a rift between Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab. Language became an important battleground. Lala Jagat Narain, founder of Punjab Kesari wrote fierce and fanatic pieces against the Sikh demand of self-determination and stood by the side of Indira Gandhi’s Congress. He became the representative voice of nationalist Hindus in Punjab. It was in those decades Hindu nationalists like Laxmikanta Chawla emerged. Laxmikanta Chawla later became the cabinet minister in Akali -BJP government. She chose to take her oath in Hindi, instead of Punjabi. Not because she is a Hindu, but because she is Indian. For her and many like her in Punjab, Indian and Hindi are interchangeable as is Hindu and Indian identity. The existence of Sikh minority and Punjabi language are fissures which will break that imagined Indian nation. It is the same way how non-Muslim or Hindu communities have started looking down upon Urdu. Urdu for them is by default a Muslim language. For Hindus of Punjab, Punjabi reeks of secession and for Hindus at large in the cow belt, Urdu also sounds the same.

Even now my cousins push and pursue their children to speak in Hindi. Punjabi to their ears is still a backward Pendu (village) and Hindi a progressive national language. At home, my parents have given up the artificiality of Hindi language. Most of the time, they talk to me in Punjabi and I respond in Hindi. The conditioning is yet to break, even as a matter of fact I’m equally fluent in Punjabi and Hindi and have read more books and journals in Punjabi than Hindi. When someone opens the conversation in Punjabi I follow through in Punjabi.

I would like to conclude with an anecdote. Very few people know that Balraj Sahni (I don’t want to point it out, but because of the relevance to the article it is worth mentioning that he belonged to a Hindu family) famous theatre artist and Bollywood actor was a Punjabi writer. When Balraj was young, he had this desire to become a writer. He wasn’t sure whether he should write in Hindi or English. He took this confusion to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore asked Balraj- why is he not writing in Punjabi. According to Balraj’s own confession, he was dumbstruck. Punjabi for him was the language of backward illiterate dehati villagers. He shared the same opinion about the language with Tagore. Tagore said that he has never come across a poem as unifying and as universal as that of ‘Gagan Main Thaal Ravi Chand Deepak Bane’ – the sky is the platter and sun and moon are the flame for the Aarti of the creator by the creation, written by Nanak. How can the language in which the poem is written be backward? From that day onward Balraj decided to write in Punjabi. He wrote travelogues to Pakistan and Russia and one book of general reflection. It is said that he also has an unfinished Punjabi novel. He made movies based on Punjabi novels like Pavitar Paapi (Sacred Sinner) written by Nanak Singh. Not sure whether he owned Hindu identity, but he surely was a Punjabi who charmed the audiences across India and South Asia.