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A Language Buried By Partition

A Language Buried By Partition

Get-up, sparrows, and make your presence felt

Don’t fall silent, don’t fall silent

Even if you do not have any weapons with you

Continue chirping and raising your voice.

By Karthik Venkatesh

In an essay originally written in 2004 and reprinted in 2011, Indian academic Anjali Gera-Roy laments, “I speak a language that is not mine. I don’t speak a language that is mine.” At first it seems that the language that she is speaking about is Punjabi, but further in the essay, she refers to a very specific dialect of Punjabi that she chooses to call “Derewali” and laments her inability to speak it. The language she chose to call “Derewali” is in fact Seraiki.

In February 2017, when the Pakistani Army launched Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad to eliminate terrorist sleeper cells in parts of Pakistan, academics from the linguistics department of the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad made a peculiar appeal. In future, they urged the military to give Seraiki names to their operations for more impact. A Seraiki name rather than an Arabic one, they claimed, would drive home the message that the army knew who it was targeting.

These instances highlight the peculiar position of Seraiki in the Subcontinent. That a language like Seraiki is spoken by close to 20 million people in Pakistan and about 70,000 people in India is perhaps news to many. Long considered a Punjabi dialect, Seraiki is all but forgotten in India, while in Pakistan, a thirst for an identity that Partition irrevocably altered has revived interest in it.

Seraiki as a language is reckoned by many linguists as closer to Sindhi in some respects, though Seraiki is more or less intelligible to Punjabi speakers too. But today, the desire for a distinct Seraiki identity is tied in with the economic dominance of northern Pakistani Punjab and resentment against the “outsiders” who poured into the Seraiki region after the Partition.

Identifying the Seraiki region

Given Seraiki’s background, identifying the Seraiki region has been a matter of some dispute. In Anatol Levin’s seminal work on modern Pakistan (Pakistan: A Hard Country), Seraiki country is identified as the southern third of Punjab, from Multan down to the Sindh border. Husain Ahmed Khan’s Rethinking Punjab: The Construction of Siraiki Identity claims a larger portion of Punjab for what he calls the “Siraiki Wasseib”. While Khan includes all of southern Punjab from a little above Multan up to the Sindh border in the Seraiki region, he also claims a north-western slice including the regions around Sargodha (wherefrom hailed journalist-writer Khushwant Singh), Mianwali and Bhakkar. Close to two-thirds of Pakistani Punjab in his estimation constitutes the Seraiki-speaking region. Northern Sindh too is claimed by many writers to be in the Seraiki sphere.

Historical origins

Prior to the Muslim invasion of Multan in the early eighth century, the local language of the region was derived from the Prakrits of ancient times and is likely to have used the Brahmi script. The Muslim invasion brought the Arabic naskh script to the region. From the eighteenth century, the Persian nastaliq script was used. Much of the early literature being oral, it is difficult to date the origins of the language with certainty. But there appears to have been some sense of a “Multani” language from medieval times, later to be termed “Seraiki”. Whether or not this was a distinct language or a Punjabi dialect has been a source of friction, claims and counter-claims.

The British, with their penchant for classifying and labelling (sometimes erroneously), got into the act in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. William Carey (1761-1834) of the famous Serampore Press termed the language of the region “Wuch”. It was Richard Burton, another scholar, who used the term “Siraiki” for the first time in 1849, but the term did not catch on. The language was referred to variously as Multani, Derewali, Riyasati, Uchi, Western Punjabi and Lahnda.

While it is difficult to determine exactly when the “separate language” demand for Seraiki began, some historical records suggest that Qazi Fakhruddin Razi attempted in 1893 to create a unique symbol system for the sounds of the Seraiki language, thereby seeking a distinct identity for it beyond the dialect status that it enjoyed at that time. Parallelly, Khwaja Farid (1845-1901) of the Chishti spiritual lineage wrote verses that used the distinct idiom of the region, lending more strength to this claim.

But in the first half of the twentieth century, the larger anti-colonial struggle and later, the struggle for Pakistan, relegated these provincial linguistic struggles to the background.

Reclaiming the Seraiki identity

Until 1955, much of southern Pakistani Punjab fell in what was then the Bahawalpur princely state and a distinct Bahawalpuri identity therefore existed. Bahawalpuris even claimed that their eponymous language was different from Seraiki. While this was a tenuous claim that held no water among linguists, it nevertheless served the purpose of giving the people of southern Punjab a distinct identity separate from the larger Punjab. With the dissolution of the Bahawalpur princely state, the Bahawalpuri/Seraiki identity disappeared. It then lay dormant for a while before resurfacing in the early 1960s.

Indeed, it was in a meeting of southern Punjab intellectuals and writers around this time that the name “Seraiki” was agreed upon in preference to Multani, Lahnda, Derewali and the many other terms that were in vogue. A Siraiki academy was created in Multan and in 1975, amidst rumours that Punjabi was to be introduced as the medium of instruction at the primary level in the province, a literary conference was organized to highlight the “separateness” of the Seraiki language and identity. This revived interest in the language led to a series of activities in the cultural sphere that continues to this day.

This spurred a movement for due place to Seraiki in Pakistan, culminating in a demand for “Seraikistan”, a demand that has been opposed by politicians from Punjab and Sindh alike, though for different reasons. While Punjabi politicians see Seraikistan as weakening the hold of Punjab on the main institutions of Pakistan, Sindhis see it somewhat differently. Parting with Sindhi land (which is claimed in the Seraikistan demand) is of course an issue. Equally, the issue is one of having to deal with a dominant Punjab (which is already a problem) and a possibly dominant Seraikistan which would be akin to Punjab (in the Sindhi view) – Two for one, so to speak.  Sandwiched between two powerful provinces, making a case for Seraiki has not been an easy task.

Seraiki in India

Given that the Bahawalpur princely state in Pakistan was 10-25% Hindu and Sikh (estimates vary), it stands to reason that many Seraiki speakers came to India post-Partition. But the language does not figure in the Indian public consciousness.

Dr. J.C. Batra, originally from Multan, has spearheaded a movement for keeping the language alive in India and literary meets and conferences have been held regularly. The census of 2001, though, lists only 68,000 speakers for the language. It is likely many more have more than a passing knowledge of the language but choose to state their mother tongue as something else (Hindi or Punjabi being the most likely).

In Afghanistan, Kandhari, a dialect of Seraiki, is spoken by many Afghan Hindus and Sikhs. Kandhari shows some Pashto influence, the dominant language of Afghanistan.

The issue of Seraiki is by all accounts, a deeply-contested one. The struggle for Seraiki is perhaps a tribute to the words of Saeen Ahmed Khan Tariq, a Seraiki poet of note, who wrote:

Chirriyaan Uttho, Koi Dhaan Karo

Chupp Na Karo, Chupp Na Karo

Hath Wich Jay Koi Hathiyar Naiyeen

Cheen Cheen Karo, Chaan Chaan Karo

(Get-up, sparrows, and make your presence felt

Don’t fall silent, don’t fall silent

Even if you do not have any weapons with you

Continue chirping and raising your voice).


Courtesy: Live Mint (Published on June 24, 2017)