The moment we use the word Punjabiyat, it suggests a reference simultaneously to something that is very tangible while still elusive. This dual character opens the term to many imaginations and possibilities. Is Punjabiyat a concrete socio-political reality, a project, a movement in process, something in the making, a mere idea floated by some ivory-tower intellectuals and literary figures, a wishful dream of some Indo-Pakistani pacifists, a seductive fantasy of some Punjabi nationalists, a secular utopia envisioned by leftist nationalists, a business plan of market-seeking capitalists, or a dangerous regionalism dreaded by the nation states of India and Pakistan?
The tangibility of Punjabiyat derives from the recognition of Punjab as an area that once existed as a sovereign state, for the half-century between 1799 and 1849. In addition, it also derives from Punjabi as a language with a rich literary heritage, the Punjabi identity as a linguistic and regional one within both India and Pakistan, a transnational linguistic and cultural identity encompassing what are today Indian and Pakistani Punjabis and the global Punjabi diaspora. In this case, ‘culture’ can encompass language (especially its spoken for+m), food, dress, festivals, music, dance, humour, and rituals of happiness (relating to marriage or birth) and loss (death).
The elusiveness of Punjabiyat comes from the floating nature of the use of the word itself. In Pakistan, the central drive of the movement is to win the right to use the Punjabi language against the hegemony of Urdu; while in India, Punjabiyat is seen as a project of bringing Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus close to each other, against Sikh secessionism and Punjabi Hindu alienation from the community’s mother tongue. These two projects are further different from the diasporic Punjabis’ viewpoint of Punjabiyat as a shared cultural universe of all Punjabis. It is in this sense that Punjabiyat appears as a floating principle and project, an elusiveness that can be considered a sign of both weakness and strength. The changing nature of the idea of Punjabiyat can be viewed as its weakness, after all, but the elasticity of the concept allows it flexibility and contextuality, a clear strength.
A broad view of the historical evolution of the Punjabi people would suggest that there are solid material and moral grounds on which to argue the case for a unifying and common Punjabi identity. However, there are also counteracting tendencies that limit the potentialities of a unified Punjabiyat. Three aspects of Punjabi life – religion, language and script – can justifiably be thought of as having played the most critical role in shaping the consolidation of and contestation over Punjabi identity. The 15th-century emergence of the Sikh faith and its subsequent evolution have decisively shaped the modes of influence of religion, language and script on the articulation of Punjabi identity. Sikhism introduced Gurmukhi as a script of the Punjabi language during the period of Guru Angad (1504-52), the immediate successor of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of the Sikh faith. This raised the stature of the Punjabi language, written in the Gurmukhi script, to a sacred language in opposition to the older sacred languages of Sanskrit and Arabic. Geographical location, economic way of life, cultural characteristics, the development of Punjabi language and its own script, and the emergence of a distinctive Punjabi religion all contributed in diverse ways to the formation of a Punjabi identity, which made the people of the Punjab region stand out against the peoples of the rest of the Subcontinent.
The emergence of the sovereign state of Punjab in 1799 under Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a moment of crowning glory in the evolution of a distinctive Punjabi identity. At this point, the process appeared to be a specifically designed culmination of a distinctive national identity eventually achieving a sovereign state of its own. Punjab existed as a sovereign state until 1849, when it was annexed by the British and merged with the rest its Indian Empire. If, with the emergence of the sovereign Punjabi state in 1799, the composite Punjabi identity had reached its peak, the disintegration of this state in 1849 initiated the process of decline and splintering of a unified Punjabi identity.
Cycles of identity
By the mid-19th century, the Punjabi identity was forced to face its most significant threat to its solidity, coherence and purpose. Not only had the Punjabi nation lost its own sovereign state, which had been its protector, patron and promoter; it also was to experience a painful dislocation with the economic, political and cultural onslaught of the most powerful imperialist state of the time. Instead of offering any combined resistance to the expanding military, economic and cultural power of the colonial state, the defeated and demoralised Punjabis found themselves scrambling for minor economic crumbs and concessions. The Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs became incorporated in large numbers into the imperialist army, and the Punjabi Hindus into the civil services and trading opportunities offered by the colonial administration and economy. The existing occupational divisions in Punjabi society along religious lines also became further reinforced and magnified – divisions that were to play a corrosive role in later attempts to forge a composite Punjabi identity, both during the colonial as well the post-colonial era. Punjabi Muslims and Punjabi Sikhs were to become more entrenched into the agrarian economy, while and Punjabi Hindus became more integrated into the service sector.
The development of what came to be known as the Canal Colonies in the land between the Punjab’s five major rivers, one of the most ambitious politico-economic development projects undertaken by the colonial rulers in Punjab, offered tempting opportunities to peasants, soldiers, traders and professionals. The majority of the peasants and soldiers were Muslims and Sikhs, and the majority of the traders and professionals were Hindus, which further disoriented Punjabi identity. The Punjabi nation that was celebrated in the lyrical poetry of Shah Mohammed for its brave resistance during the Anglo-Punjab Wars of the 1840s now, just a decade later, stood as a negation of its past glory. The project of composite Punjabi identity stood dead, and there were no signs of recovery, at least for the time being. Sporadic and isolated attempts of resistance – even armed resistance, for instance by the legendary Kukas – were ruthlessly crushed. The conquering British rulers dealt very harshly with such defiant sections of the Punjabi community, while showing generosity to the more accommodating.
The late 19th century saw two diametrically opposite tendencies concerning Punjabi identity. One tendency saw a three-way religious fragmentation – Muslim, Hindu and Sikh – as a result of the emergence of religious reformist movements, in opposition to the spread of Christianity supported by the imperial rulers. In theory, this resistance could be the basis of Punjabi unity; in practice, however, it resulted in a sharpening of religious identities and boundaries. It is important to note here the contradictory nature of globalising imperialism, by acknowledging its contribution in giving birth to another segment of Punjabi identity that remains almost completely neglected in discourses on Punjabi identity. The process of imperial cultural penetration into Punjab gave birth to a fourth religious component of Punjabi identity: Punjabi Christians. Christian missionaries were pioneers in the establishment of modern printing techniques and facilities in the Punjabi language. Further, most Punjabi Christians were Dalit converts, primarily from the Punjabi Hindus but also from the Sikhs and Muslims. Today, these Punjabi Christians remain one section of the Punjabi community that is most committed to the promotion of the Punjabi language.
The second tendency that was opposed to the fragmentation of Punjabi identity was in the political-economic domain, in the form of the emergence of the Unionist Party in Punjab. This was a class-based political alliance of the peasantry – especially of its elite sections – of the three main religious communities. The Unionist Party tried to invent a third way, beyond the demands for India and Pakistan, in addition to toying with the idea of an independent Punjab. Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana, who was the last premier of the unified Punjab and the leader of the Punjab Unionist Party from 1942 to 1947, opposed Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Partition from a Punjabi nationalist perspective. As a last-ditch effort to save a single Punjab, he tried to tempt the British into accepting his proposal for carving out Punjab as an independent political entity, different from both India and Pakistan, but rather as a part of the larger British Empire. There briefly appeared to be a small chance that the Punjabis could have gotten back the sovereign Punjabi state that had been annexed in 1849. However, the events of 1947 compounded the tragedy of Punjab. If in 1849 Punjab had lost its sovereignty, it had at least kept its united entity intact; in 1947, it lost that too.
The emergence of India and Pakistan relocated the two Punjabs in two very different situations. Pakistani Punjab became politically dominant in Pakistan, but by cultural surrender of the regional Punjabi identity and the claims of Punjabi language. Just opposite to that relocation, Indian Punjab, a relatively small state in the Indian federation, saw a vigorous 20-year battle for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state but remained politically marginal in the overall set-up. Indian Punjab also witnessed competing claims between secular Indian nationalism, Hindu nationalism, Sikh nationalism and Marxist internationalism, in terms of how they related to each other and to a larger Punjabi identity.
The diaspora impact
Silently and slowly, another force relating to Punjabi identity has been emerging: the growth of the Punjabi diaspora. Since the 1960s, the spatial and cultural relocation of Punjabis to the West has opened a new space for articulation of the common dimensions of Punjabi identity. Parallel to and opposed to this is the phenomenon of a section of the diaspora becoming a major player in articulating sectarian religious divisions within that identity. The diaspora’s contradictory voice has acquired special significance in the accelerating process of the globalisation of the world economy and media. The process of globalisation has opened hitherto unknown opportunities for exchange of commodities and ideas and, to a lesser extent, of labour between India, Pakistan and the rest of the world. In turn, the temptations of economic gain from increased trade relations between Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab have ignited a series of reinventions of common Punjabi heritage and identity. The logic of the political economy of Punjabiyat thus seems to be holding out tantalising possibilities of power.
In recent years, the global Punjabi diaspora’s imagination has suddenly been fired by the realisation of its power as a possible catalyst in the making of a global Punjabi identity. The organising of world Punjabi conferences has become the theatre of action for the project of global Punjabi identity. New technological possibilities of instant translations between different scripts of Punjabi language have removed many barriers of communication and national borders, and magazines are beginning to publish Punjabi literature simultaneously in different scripts. These attempted reinventions of common Punjabi identities unsettle many sensibilities of both Indian and Pakistani nationalism, viewed nervously as potential critiques of the legitimacy of these two nation states. Punjabi nationalists, on the other hand, view with glee the benefits that might accrue to them from the potential for globalisation to weaken the nation state. Both the nervousness of the Indian and Pakistani nationalists and the glee of the Punjabi nationalists might be overplayed, however, because globalisation is a contradictory and complex process with uncertain outcomes.
Diasporas, like all other social entities under capitalism, are highly differentiated, and this holds true with regards to global Punjabis. Not only have cleavages of religion, caste, language and script not disappeared, but in some instance these have become stronger in the diaspora than in the homeland. It is the new generations of Punjabis in the diaspora who are experimenting with new modes of living, and are attempting not only to transcend the barriers of religion and caste but also to forge artistic and social ties with myriad other cultures. Bhangra music, for instance, has grown to become the focal point of Punjabi and these new hybrid identities, while also spawning new interest in learning Punjabi language in diverse scripts.
The shared Punjabi identity has received a massive boost by the popular appeal of Punjabi language and culture in cinema, literature and music. Bollywood has become a site and carrier of celebration of the shared Punjabi culture, with some leading Bollywood producers and directors (such as Yash Chopra) having found something of a formula for success by including Punjabi cultural themes in a film’s narrative. Even the image of the sardar has been transformed in this new enterprise of Punjabi celebration: no longer presented as a buffoon, the Singh is now a king, powerful, smart, sexy and glamorous. A Bollywood film is considered commercially successful if it runs well in Punjab and in the Punjabi diaspora, while the large market of Pakistani Punjab has further added to the economic attraction of celebrating shared Punjabi culture. Harbhajan Mann has shot into stardom as a lead male actor of many new Punjabi films; while in Pakistan, Punjabi films in the genre of Maula Jat, representing the brave and rustic Punjabi farmer, have been a roaring success. Sultan Rahi, the star of many films in this genre, has become the most popular cinema hero in Pakistan, and Punjabi cinema has in recent years eclipsed the previously dominant Urdu cinema.
All the while, the emotional appeal of a common and shared Punjabi identity has not died down. However, in the globalising world of today, the reinvented global Punjabi identity has to compete with global Hinduism, global Sikhism, global Islam and global Christianity. In the contest between Punjabi identity and globalised religion, whether in India, Pakistan or the diaspora, the old contest between language and culture on one side and the religion on the other is being replayed. Religion could cannibalise language and culture, but equally powerfully it could be said that people’s linguistic affinities and cultural ties are of such enduring strength and intensity that they can overcome the challenge of religious sectarianism. As long as Punjabi language is alive and kicking, however, there would always be hope for some form of shared Punjabiyat. In this, despite all else, the Punjabi language in Indian Punjab is flourishing, indicated (for one) by the continuous increase in the circulation of Punjabi newspapers. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the language has very little state support in Pakistan – where over 55 percent of the country’s population speaks Punjabi – indications are that this is likely to change in the future, as the Punjabiyat movement in the country continues to gather support. In this way, the flexibility, and elusiveness, of Punjabiyat remains perhaps its greatest strength.
~ Pritam Singh is director of the Postgraduate Programme in International Management and International Relations at Oxford Brookes University.