SMOKERS’ CORNER: FOSTERING 'PUNJABIYAT'

Published March 24, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In 1975, a conference on the history of Sindh was organised in Karachi. It was treated as an important event by the then prime minister of Pakistan, ZA Bhutto, who was himself a Sindhi. The conference was the articulation of a policy initiative that the Bhutto regime had been shaping since 1972.

The regime had come to power just days after the country’s Bengali-majority East Pakistan had violently broken away on the basis of Bengali nationalism. The regime resolved to fortify the country’s federalism by appropriating various expressions of non-Punjabi ethnic nationalisms, and then aimed to place them in the context of Pakistani nationalism.

Regarding Punjab, it was believed that, since the province enjoyed political and economic hegemony, a token Punjabi nationalism was incapable of posing any existentialist threat to the country. A complex plan was drawn up to appropriate multiple aspects of Sindhi, Baloch and Pakhtun nationalisms, and federalise them as a way to defang their separatist tendencies. Sindh became the first test case. 

One of the foremost opponents of Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Sindh was the Sindhi nationalist ideologue GM Syed. In 1972, Syed demanded the separation of Sindh from Pakistan. The Bhutto regime responded by creating employment opportunities for Sindhis in government institutions, and making the Sindhi language a compulsory subject in Sindh’s schools.

The PPP’s version of Sindhi nationalism has the ability to merge seamlessly with Pakistani federalism, and it can also dilute radical religious and political threats. The PML-N may well be taking a leaf out of that book in Punjab

The regime also appropriated Sindh’s ‘Sufi heritage,’ and the perceived pluralistic temperament of its people. These perceptions were originally shaped by Sindhi nationalists. But they were plucked by the regime, distilled and then poured into the cup of Pakistani nationalism. 

Bhutto wanted to do the same with Pakhtun nationalism and Baloch nationalism as well, but he was toppled in a 1977 military coup by Gen Ziaul Haq. Zia wielded a ‘Political Islam’ that had begun to take shape within the military after the antagonistic departure of East Pakistan in 1971. 

Zia tried to negate ethnic nationalisms in the country with this tool. For example, he magnified the importance of Islam in Pakhtun culture to undermine the ‘anti-state’ secular manifestations of Pakhtun nationalism. Baloch nationalism, on the other hand, was allowed to simmer because it seemed exhausted after getting embroiled in an armed conflict with the Bhutto regime in the 1970s. 

In Sindh, Zia looked to change the meaning of what Bhutto had distilled. For example, Zia, a Punjabi, constantly referred to popular folk heroes of Sindh and famous Sindhi Sufi saints as ‘ulema’ who had worked towards creating a Sharia state. Zia succeeded in proliferating the idea of an Islamicised, ‘pro-state’ Pakhtun nationalism, but failed in Sindh, where Bhutto’s federalised idea of Sindhi nationalism remained intact. 

From 2008, when the PPP started to lose electoral ground in Punjab, the party’s chairperson Asif Ali Zardari began to place Bhutto’s distilled variant of Sindhi nationalism at the centre of the party’s electoral strategy. The objective was to electorally secure Sindh. Through focused economic initiatives, and a federalised Sindhi nationalist ethos, the PPP succeeded in creating an electoral hegemony in Sindh. 

Recently, the newly elected chief minister of Punjab, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, declared that her government will mandate the teaching of the Punjabi language in all schools of the province. Maryam belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

Punjab is the country’s largest province. It also has the most number of seats in the parliament. The PML-N has often been the leading party in the province. Till 2008, its main nemesis here was the PPP. But from 2013 onwards, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has been PML-N’s foremost challenger in Punjab.

There has always been a quiet variant of Punjabi nationalism and/or ‘Punjabiyat’ in the PML-N. The only time it surged was during the 1988 elections, when Maryam’s father, Nawaz Sharif, tried to portray the PPP as a Sindhi party. Sharif complained that the Punjabis were willing to vote for the Sindhi Bhuttos, but the Sindhis refused to vote for Punjabi politicians. One of the founding members of the PPP, Hanif Ramay, a Punjabi, denounced Sharif’s anti-PPP narrative as a “vulgar expression of Punjabi nationalism.” 

In the 1980s, Ramay had become a passionate exponent of ‘Punjabiyat’. He saw it as a progressive idea rooted in Punjab’s Sufi traditions. These traditions, and the Punjabi language, Ramay lamented, were suppressed, first by the British, and then by the promoters of Urdu. Ramay was simply reworking an idea that had begun to emerge in Pakistan in the 1950s, when a Punjabi Cultural Council was formed. Its aim was to make Punjabi a subject at educational institutions, but the effort failed. 

However, according to the linguist Tariq Rahman, the ‘Punjabi language movement’ mushroomed in the 1960s. But like the non-Punjabi ethnic-nationalist movements, it too began to move to the left and quickly fell afoul of the state. 

It was during the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s that the movement became overtly political. In 1985, a ‘Charter of Punjabi-Speaking People’ was signed by 139 scholars and intellectuals. They demanded the teaching of Punjabi language and literature in Punjab’s schools, including Punjabi literature produced by non-Muslim Punjabis, especially the Sikh. 

The scholars advised that the movement should ally itself with working class Punjabis, because the Punjabi elites and middle-class Punjabis had shunned Punjabi language and culture. The right-wing Urdu press claimed that ‘Punjabiyat’ was being used by Punjabi leftists as a way to undermine Islam in Pakistan. 

Sindhi nationalism that was distilled by Bhutto and then placed in the context of Pakistani federalism went a long way in aiding the PPP to develop an almost monopolistic electoral supremacy in Sindh. With the PML-N’s hold in Punjab weakening, one can conclude that the party might now be trying to rejuvenate its appeal in Punjab by appropriating Punjabi nationalism. However, Punjabi nationalism was never separatist.

What Zardari and the PPP did with Bhutto’s distilled Sindhi nationalism, PML-N too may want to use to shape Punjabi nationalism as an electoral ploy. Ethnic nationalisms in Pakistan were inherently progressive. As demonstrated by the case of distilled Sindhi nationalism, such variants have the ability to merge seamlessly with Pakistani federalism. They can also dilute radical religious and political threats. 

The PML-N is being cornered in Punjab by the populist PTI from one side, and by Barelvi Islamists from the other. Applying the Punjabi nationalist card may turn out to be a sound political ploy.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 24th, 2024

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