Language is inextricably linked with the politics of hegemony and imperatives of the so-called nation building. Historical evidence can provide the proof if needed at all.

In the distant past we see dominant peoples/ groups with imperialistic urges to impose their cultural hegemony on the dominated. In order to achieve such an objective they did two distinct but interconnected things. One, they imposed their language on the dominated. Two, they denigrated the language of the dominated and discouraged its use. Aryans (in the subcontinent), Greeks, Romans Iranians, Arabs and the English can be good examples to study the phenomenon. They eliminated countless languages in the name of higher culture.

The Aryans after their ascendancy in the Punjab not only tried to demonize the indigenous language(s) but also made deliberate attempts to destroy them.

Malti J. Shendgi in her book “The Civilized Demons: The Harappans in Rig-Veda” quotes mythopoeic description from Shatapathabrahmana to illustrate Aryan cultural vandalism. “…Thereby the devas (Aryans) inherited the sacrifice and the Ausuras (Harappans), the speech, the gods for yonder (heaven) and Ausuras for this (earth).

The devas said to sacrifice: ‘That Vac (f. speech) is a woman, beckon her and she will certainly call thee to her…He accordingly beckoned her. She, however, at first disdained him from the distance…He said, ‘she has disdained me from the distance’. They said, ‘Do but beckon her reverend sir, and she will certainly call thee to her. He beckoned her; but she only replied to him, as it were by shaking her head… The devas reflected, ‘That Vac being a woman we must take care least she should allure him’. –say to her ‘come hither to me where I stand and report to us her having come.

She then went to where he was standing. The gods then cut her off from the Asuras and having gained possession of her and enveloped her completely in fire, they offered her up as a holocaust, it being an offering of the gods... The Asuras being deprived of speech were undone crying, he lavah!he lavah! Such was the speech which they then uttered – he who speaks thus is a mleccha (barbarian). Hence let no Brahman speak barbarous languages, since such is the speech of the Asuras …”.

This narration can yield multiple interpretations but in our context two points stand out. The language of Harappans who had been overwhelmed was demonized by the new comers. It’s highly ironic that Aryans who at that point in time were bereft of culture and thus were little more than barbarians call the speech of the civilized people living in urban centres barbarous. Secondly, they with a trick tried to destroy the language of Harappa people through the use of fire. The act implied that speakers as well as the written material of the language would have been destroyed. We know that despite all their efforts Aryans failed to root out the indigenous language(s) which forced them to develop their own language(s), first Vedic and later Sanskrit, for their exclusive use.

Social segregation, an inevitable consequence of caste system, with the Harappans was maintained by denying them the right to learn Aryan language(s).

During the heyday of Greek domination the Greek language dominated the Mediterranean coasts and Middle East pushing the other languages to the margins. Romans had nothing but contempt for the peoples’ languages in the West and Middle East. When the Arabs rose with the rise of Islam and became a power to reckon with, they declared in their linguistic hubris all others dumb (Ajam). They pushed the diverse languages spoken in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine into oblivion.

After the Arab’s occupation of Iran Persian with its long history fought hard for its survival and is now replete with Arabic vocabulary. So the politics has an organic link with language because language is the ultimate marker of identity and cultural power. In the subcontinent resistance against power has always carried a linguistic dimension. Rebellion of Mahavira Jain and Lord Buddha against rigidly hierarchical Brahmanism entailed the rejection of hegemony of Sanskrit as a sacred language. They employed peoples’ languages called Prakrits for their discourse. Turks occupied the Punjab in the 11th century, they adopted Persian as court language to express their politico-cultural dominance. When the British colonialists occupied the Punjab they imposed two foreign languages English and Urdu.

We witness in the historical process that a change in power structure is usually accompanied by a change in official language in a diverse society. In the run up to independence in the 19th century language issue became acutely divisive as the politics turned increasingly communal. Freedom struggle underpinned by communal imperatives confounded the language issue to the extent that language was identified, erroneously of course, with one’s faith. In the last British administered census of India the Punjabi Muslims under the sway of communal politics declared Urdu, a language spoken in UP by Hindus and Muslims, their mother tongue. Similarly Punjabi Hindus declared Hindi, a language spoken in UP by Muslims and Hindus, their mother language. Both groups lied and misstated as neither’s mother tongue was Urdu or Hindi. Both sacrificed Punjabi, their mother language with a much longer literary history, at the altar of communal gods. Punjabi Muslims confused Muslim cultural identity with Urdu and Punjabi Hindus confused Hindu cultural identity with Hindi. Only Sikhs owned their mother language. The same process with some changes has continued after the bloody Partition. The Indian state in the name of national integration encouraged with huge incentives to scholars to bring Punjabi closer to Hindi with borrowings from Sanskrit and Hindi. Similarly Pakistani state in the name of national integration discouraged the very use of Punjabi and whenever it allowed it forced the scholars to borrow vocabulary unnecessarily from Persian and Arabic. The result of this linguistic communalism would be that we would have two different languages in the East and West Punjab in future if this ideologically driven cultural neurosis is not diagnosed and treated. So the issue of language is closely related with politics driven by ideological underpinnings. It will be addressed and resolved only when people’s linguistic rights which are of fundamental importance gain a toehold in politics. And that will not happen unless people increase their participation in the political process. —

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2020