SOCIAL cohesion and integration are the kind of words that are in active currency these days. While these words are being used in the context of post-election polarisation in the country, we will do well not to lose sight of the long-term implications of the phenomenon.

Everything has to go through a lot of evolutionary changes to attain its final form. This is applicable to languages as well that play an important role in the growth and expansion of societies. Ignorance and linguistic divisions can be lethal for societal integration. This mostly happens when people are overly obsessed about their language and disregard other languages.

For instance, some people in Punjab widely believe that Punjabi is the parent language that has given birth to other languages, and Saraiki, which has now officially been recognised as a distinct language by the United Nations, is nothing but a dialect of Punjabi. Such a notion is common among those who call themselves Punjabis.

It can be argued that Punjabi in itself is not really a language. When Persians invaded what today is called Punjab, they started calling the region ‘Panj-Aab’ due to its five rivers; Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum. However, those settling across the region were not from the same origin. They were people from various ethnicities and diverse origins. And, they were not the Punjabis because, quite frankly, Punjabi simply did not exist as a language. It was a geographical term used for a region having five rivers.

Besides, it makes no sense to believe that since a region was given a certain name, the people there automatically had the same language. Claiming that Punjab is the region where Punjabis live is clearly misplaced.

The Punjabis, an amalgamation of people having various origins, do not consider Saraiki a language but a dialect. They should shun their ignorance and find a proper name for their own language.

As for the Saraiki language, its history dates back to almost 4,500 years, going back to the days of the Indus Civilisation. Over 40 million people in South Punjab today speak Saraiki. This linguistic group has been calling for a separate province, Saraikistan, since decades, but their demands have not been met.

The authorities should realise that they have been suppressing the right of over 40 million people who are constitutionally entitled to express their demands.

It is only through the acknowledgement of the existence of diversity in terms of languages and cultures that a democracy can thrive in a state as diverse as Pakistan. Let us hope that the prevalent thinking will one day fade away and give rise to an inclusive approach and respect to the marginalised communities and their languages. Accepting and respecting the uniqueness of languages is nothing but an element of basic human decency.

M. Mubasir Khan Akhrota
Bhakkar

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2024

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