Punjab Research Group

The idea of Punjabiyat by Pritam Singh

Posted in Articles by Pippa on June 3, 2010

Despite fragmentation for centuries, the Punjabi identity today is engaged in a remarkably active attempt at consolidation.

For a community that has experienced such fragmentation through the centuries, the Punjabi identity today is engaged in a remarkably active attempt at consolidation.

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?
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  1. Reginald Massey said, on August 1, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Pritam Singh has zoomed in on the crux of the problem. The corrupt ruling elites of India and Pakistan (trying desperately to forge or enforce a ‘national identity’ through Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan) dislike and fear the idea of Punjabiyat. Punjabis (because of their genes) are the most energetic and enterprising ethnic group of South Asia. Can you imagine if East and West Punjab ever agreed on some sort of accommodation? Islamabad and New Delhi would wither away and the Lahore — Amritsar twin cities would dominate the subcontinent. That is precisely why those in power in the nuclear armed states are fearful of any notion of Punjabiyat.

  2. Pritam Singh said, on January 21, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Reginald has captured the essence of my argument. The idea of a united Punjab independent of the political control from Indian and Pakistani nationalists would certainly sound utopian to some Punjabi nationalists and extremely subversive to Indian and Pakistani nationalists but utopian ideas sometime do become reality. A possible restructuring of South Asia in the future can not be ruled out. One of the possible outcomes of such a restructuring could be be a federal Punjab combining the two Punjabs along with a federal Bengal combining the two Bengals, and a federal Tamil Nadu combining the existing Tamil Nadu with the Tamil region of Sri Lanka.

  3. Harjinder Singh said, on January 27, 2012 at 12:57 am

    Pritam Singh is doing a great service to Des Panjab (East and West) and its people by taking the real issues concerning us all (PAnjabis , not pUnjabis) and the most important being the national identity of us being the Panjabi. Once this identify takes rootes firmly in our hearts and minds, neither Dilli nor Islamabad would be able to stop the emergence of complete and independent Panjab.

  4. Pukhraj Singh said, on January 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Mr Massey’s comment smacks of academic exoticism. I think we should better be preparing for the death of Punjabiyat as it had existed in the state of Punjab. Let’s lay it to rest than dragging too far an identity that really doesn’t capture the ground realities. It becomes too fanciful and far-fetched a notion when someone makes the case of “genes” being the reason for granting a “special status” to a class of people. This is like cultural eugenics; what about the genealogy of Punjabi Dalits whose history, pains and aspirations have been comfortably sidelined by those opting for glorification and revisionism? Moreover, Punjabi nationalism has been mauled and crushed to fit the frame of Sikh nationalism.

  5. Pritam Singh said, on January 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    The comments by Harjinder Singh and Pukhraj are welcomed. Harjinder Singh has made an important point by highlighting the aspect of Punjabi identity issue being linked to ‘our hearts and minds’. As I understand his point, this means that the question of Punjabiyat is not only a question of analytical or logical aspects of this concept but also a question of ‘structure of feelings’ (to use a term employed by Raymond Williams, the great Marxist thinker and Welsh nationalist). The political establishments in India and Pakistan through their ideological state appraturs (media, education etc) try to generate a structure of feelings conducive to Indian national identity and Pakistani national identity. The idea of Punjabiyat is to generate a counter-hegemonic structure of sentiments that is conducive to solidarity based on shared culture of Punjabis articulated through their language and culture. This shared culture is not to set in opposition to other regional cultures but to celebrate the diversity of those regional cultures in the sub continent which are ,at the moment, hegemonised by Indian and Pakistani nation state establishments.

    Harjinder’s point about the solidarity between East and West Punjab takes care of the misunderstanding that lies behind Pukhraj’s point about Punjabi nationalism fitting the frame of Sikh nationalism. Pukhraj is right, however, about not using the language of genes. Our framing of the question of Punjabiyat is about historically evolving Punjabi culture and national identity. And in this historically evolving Punjabi culture and national idenity, the central role of the socially marginalised sections of Punjabi society, the Dalits, is crucial to impart a progressive character to the idea of Punjabiyat. On that point, raising the question of placing of Dalit identity in the discussion on Punjabiyat, Pukhraj has drawn our attention to an important issue. In terms of commitment to Punjabi language, the Punjabi dalits whether in East Punjab, West Punjab or the diaspora are the most committed segment of Punjabi society. More work needs to be done, however, to document the vital role of Punjabi dalits in trasmitting the importance of Punjabi language and culture to their new generations in particular and Punjabi society in general.

  6. Avtarjeet S. Dhanjal said, on February 3, 2012 at 9:14 am

    This is a most needed debate, and the issue to discussed in this open unbiased forum.I am glad this has been initiated on this forum. I have been particularly interested in the subject for sometime.

    In 1978 I organised a study tour of the Panjab to look at the folk Arts and Crafts of the region, I had to arbitrarily decide, for the same of efficiency or organisation and economy of time, the international team lead by Ms Maryla Podarewska-Jakubowka, and the help of the then Education Minister of the Panjab, we toured only East Panjab. But when we published the report, it was felt job half-done, as the major part of the Panjab (Pakistan) was not included in it.

    Later in 1990 I initiated a an exchange program of artists, teachers and students between Shropshire County Council and the Panjab. Regrettably again for the sake economy of time and resources, this exchange happened only with the Indian side of the Panjab.

    In this process of selection of artists, another interesting thing happened. As there is only one Art School in Chandigarh, that caters both Panjab and Haryana. I was keen to give young aspiring artists to travel to the West part of the exchange.I knew a young talented photographer from Bathinda district of the Panjab, though came from a Hindu family, and spoke Panjabi as his mother tongue. I was very glad to extend an invitation to him. At the same time one of his class-fellow who came from may be only fifty miles from the photographer, but born in a village which was part of the Haryana by then. But this artist chooses to speak Hindi in his all conversation with me and in general. Though this is artist whose work I liked but I could not extend an invitation to him to join the project. As I had set up the main criteria for the selection that artist must consider onself as Panjabi.

    Now I am working with Dr. Pritam Singh on another project, a publication WISDOM PANJAB, he kindly pointed to me that quoting J S Grewal, a historian, that identity of Panjabiyat developed when Panjabi became a medium of expression/writing around 11/12th century. Its the language that given an identity to a nation.We have seen in recent history, when the last person who spoke Cornish (from Cornwall an area forms south-west part of England), died, the Cornish nation died.

    I like to keep things simple, for me anyone who speaks Panjabi and proud to stand up as a Panjabi, is a Panjabi.

    During my recent visit to the US, a Panjabi living in Dallas, told that a Bihari, who came to his father in Panjab for work, who learnt to speak Panjabi fluently and then became a Sikh, now an active member of the family, and takes part in all family affairs and rituals. I would have no problem of accepting his as a Panjabi. This is a matter of the spirit and mind, not genetic.

    On the other hand, someone born in a Panjabi village, moves out, changes his name, stops speaking Panjabi even at home, and does feel proud to consider himself/herself a Panjabi, I shall delete from my list of Panjabis.

    There are other matters in this debate, which I have no qualification to comment, I shall leave it to the more learned people.

  7. Pritam Singh said, on February 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I agree with Avtarjeet that language remains the most important identity marker although many sided aspects of linguistic affiliation in terms of subjective/emotional identification with Punjabi as a language, and speaking, reading and writing proficiencies in the language create, quite justifiably, both subjective and objective degrees of that affiliation.

  8. Pritam Singh said, on February 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    • Excellent talk on Pbi identity from a Pakistani poet Afzal Saahir who identifies with the Punjabi Kingdom of Ranjit Singh and criticises the British for imposing Urdu in Punjab, and the present Pakistani state for ignoring the mother tongue of Punjabis. Also has his brilliant Punjabi poetry.

    Bilatakaluf with Tahir Gora Ep27 – Afzal Saahir – Punjabi Poet
    Bilatakaluf with Tahir Gora Episode 27 Host: Tahir A. Gora Guest: Afzal Saahir – Punjabi Poet

  9. Avtarjeet Dhanjal said, on March 2, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Sharing our thoughts and ideas in open discussions is a healthy way of developing and clarifying our concepts, especially of identity, which can be so elusive, can be made palpable by this process.

    Looking back in history, Jews identity survived over thousands of years sometimes even without a home country. It could only happen, when Jews kept writing about their stories, ideas and identity. These stioruies makes over fifty books, what is known as The Old Testament. Without this process telling and retelling of stories, Jewish identity would have been lost and there would have been no Israel today. I am not justifying here the process of creation of Israel, which is a very problematic issue; I am using it as example of keeping an identity alive over thousands of years.

    Luckily Panjab, though divided, has a physical presence, and Panjabis had never to leave Panjab, as was the case of the Jews. Panjabis those left Panjab, most of them left voluntarily for economic and other reasons, which is very normal pattern of most communities.

    Important thing is that Panjabis are keeping the spirit and identity alive even on global platformks; though in this era of globalisation all identities are being eroded continously. Continue discussions and continue writing/expressing in Panjabi is one of the most effective way to keep it alive.

    It’s wonderful to note that people in Pakistan such as Afzal Saahir are waking up recognising the historical realities, and rising above religious divisions, this very approach brings all Panjabis into shared space.


  10. Pritam Singh said, on March 2, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Avtarjeet, I agree with you that keeping records in various ways of different forms of life of a community and communicating those in diverse ways is a powerful way of keeping the identity alive and kicking. Thanks for making this useful point and also for the appreciation you have done of people like Afzal Saahir in Pakistan who are keeping up with the project of defending Punjabi identity especially the movement for Punjabi language in Pakistan.

    On the point of migration of Punjabis you have made, I think that it is important to correct the view that Punjabi migration has always been voluntary. It is true that a very large number of Punjabis have migrated abroad on a voluntary basis if we consider the migration due to economic pressures at home in Punjab as voluntary although some people might consider that migration as distress migration especially when it is compared with pro-active migration to improve one’s professional competence and economic circumstances such as those by doctors, academics, engineers and artists etc. Several additional points, however, needs to be made to highlight some aspects of forced migration (different from the distress migration I hinted above):

    First, the migration of Punjabis during the 1947 partition was certainly forced migration. A very substantial number of Punjabis who were a part of this forced migration did settle in the larger territory of the two Punjabs but a considerable number of them had to migrate out of Punjab. A good number of the Muslim Punjabis who migrated from East Punjab to West Punjab, migrated to Sindh and other non- Punjab provinces of Pakistan. Similarly a very good number of Sikh and Hindu Punjabis who migrated from West to East Punjab, migrated to Delhi, districts of Punjab which are now in Haryana, and some even to other states in India as far away as UP and Maharashtra (especially Bombay).

    Second, during the troubled times in East Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s, a good number of Hindu Punjabis migrated out of Punjab ( though with in India) due to the fear of terrorist violence. Some, however, even migrated out of India.

    Third, a substantial number of Sikh youth had to flee Punjab because of the fear of imprisonment, torture and even to avoid being killed by the security forces in Punjab.

    All these different forms of forced migrations are also a part of the landscape of Punjabi migration and still influence events in Punjab which are related to the project of Punjabi identity.

  11. Avtarjeet S. Dhanjal said, on March 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    03 March 2012
    Thanks Pritam for the correction, my view of forced migration in the case of Panjab was an over simplification. I was comparing the history of the Panjab with Jewish history, whereas Jews were forced to completely migrate to different places several times in their history.

    There is absolutely no doubt that Panjab have a turbulent history, facing most of the invaders by land, more recently the partition of the Panjab, and later migration during 80s stemmed from decisions made by the Indian Government/s. These events led to migration, may not at the scale of what Jews faced, when during 7th century BC, Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded Israel, completed flatted Jerusalem and took several thousand prisoners made them walk all the way to Babylon and forced them to serve as slaves. Massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and other places in 1984 can be compared by the victims with Jews gassed by Nazi Germany in though on much smaller scale.

    One can’t compare histories like by like, but the idea was that turbulent histories sometime do solidify identities.

    Thew biggest danger to any nation today is not so much from outside but from within, when new generations, who had not shared the same experiences as their previous generations; often loose sight of their history.

    This is where comes the responsibility of the present generation to pass on not only the histories but the values those are integral part of those histories. As we have seen new generations need to be logically convinced to take on the identities and values, to feel proud values and identities.

    These are the realisations, those have convinced me to set the ‘Five Rivers Trust’ and the proposed publication ‘WISDOM Panjab’. This is only a small step towards passing on the values those we consider form the core of Panjabi identity.

  12. Pritam Singh said, on May 15, 2012 at 4:23 am

    Wisdom Punjab project by Five Rivers Trust you have undertaken Avtarjeet has a great potential in further developing the vision of Punjabiyat.

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