The strange and little-known case of Hindko

Prior to Partition Peshawar city was dominated by Hindko speakers.

In India, Hindko is little known, and while there are Hindko speakers in parts of Jammu and Kashmir as well as among other communities who migrated to India post Partition, by and large it has been absorbed under the broad umbrella of Punjabi.

Karthik Venkatesh

In Vol. 8 (Part I) of the Linguistic Survey of India, published in 1919, George Abraham Grierson, the survey’s guiding light, presented in detail the particulars of a language he called Lahnda. He delineated its geographical spread and identified it as being spoken in the area that now falls in Pakistani Punjab or, more accurately, West Punjab. He was also at pains to distinguish it from its eastern cousin, Punjabi. The south and west of Lahnda territory he identified as the Seraiki region (though he didn’t use the word Seraiki, his description of the tongue matches it), and the northern half as the Hindko region. This was the area, he stated, where the “language of the Hindus” (that is what he interpreted Hindko to mean) was spoken. Hindko, Grierson stated, was the main language of the Hazara division and was also spoken in Peshawar.

That he identified Peshawar as falling in Hindko-speaking territory is interesting. Seventy-two years after Partition, Peshawar in Pakistan continues to exert an irresistible pull on the Indian imagination. Peshawar’s food, its swashbuckling people, popularly known throughout India as the Pathans, and its Qissa Khwani Bazaar, the original home of many Bollywood stars, are often romantically and nostalgically evoked. The kabuliwalla of Tagore’s eponymous story was a Pathan and there have been other Pathans in popular culture, Sher Khan of Zanjeer (1973) being among the most popular. Bollywood stars have been quick to cash in on this fascination with Pathans. Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and the Kapoors, besides others, have all been classified as Pathans owing to their purportedly Peshawari origins. But the truth is a little more prosaic.

The truth, therefore, is that the Peshawaris of Bollywood are of Punjabi stock, albeit Punjabi with a Pashto tinge, as Hindko is often said to be.

Today, Peshawar is the capital of the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is dominated by Pashto speakers. Prior to Partition, however, Peshawar city was dominated by Hindko speakers. Typically, Pashto speakers were predominant in the rural areas of Peshawar district while Hindko speakers dominated the urban areas. In Peshawar city, Hindko speakers were called Peshawari or “Kharay” by Pashtuns, meaning city-dwellers. The term Pathan, strictly used, refers only to Pashto speakers, and the speakers of Hindko, which is a language in the Punjabi universe, do not qualify as Pathans. The truth, therefore, is that the Peshawaris of Bollywood are of Punjabi stock, albeit Punjabi with a Pashto tinge, as Hindko is often said to be.

In India, Hindko is little known, and while there are Hindko speakers in parts of Jammu and Kashmir as well as among other communities who migrated to India post Partition, by and large it has been absorbed under the broad umbrella of Punjabi. In Pakistan, the situation is different. Interestingly so. There, much of Punjab, or at least its educated class, prefers Urdu to its own mother tongue and Punjabi remains confined to rural areas and to the lesser-educated classes. In such a situation, for a language like Hindko to emerge and gain even a modicum of recognition has been a tall order.

Illustration Courtesy: Gandhara Hindko Board

To draw attention to themselves and stake a claim for Hindko as an independent language, its advocates have resorted to making unusual declarations and a lot of noise. Among Hindko’s more fantastic claims is that it was the progenitor of Urdu. This interesting claim owes its origin to the fact that virtually all the Muslim dynasties that went on to rule Delhi passed through Hindko-speaking territory, and, inevitably, the local language was influenced by the Persian that was spoken by many of the invaders. That this Persian later mixed with the languages of the Indo-Gangetic plain to become Urdu is the general consensus that Hindko protagonists wished to upturn in their bid to gain recognition for their tongue in the Urdu-dominant Pakistani state. An admissible tactic perhaps, if only as a last resort.

Urdu scholars have, of course, dismissed this claim out of hand. Urdu’s Indo-Gangetic plain origins have been studied and documented extensively and it is difficult to entertain Hindko’s claims in this respect. Another tall claim that has also been brushed aside was that Hindko was the language of the Indus Valley civilization. This claim too is not backed by evidence and was made solely on the basis of the fact that some Indus Valley sites lie in the vicinity of Hindko-speaking territory.

What is clear is that Hindko is an Indo-Aryan tongue closely related to Punjabi. It is also closely connected to Seraiki and distantly connected to the other tongues in the Punjabi universe: Dogri, Kangri and, possibly, even Haryanvi. Punjabi emerged around the beginning of the last millennium, around 1000 CE, and evolved from the Prakrits that were spoken in that part of the world.

Hindko, which many insist is a Punjabi dialect and not an independent language, is likely to have emerged at the same time. On the other hand, Pashto, from which Hindko has borrowed many words, is an Indo-Iranian tongue—distinct from the Indo-Aryan tongues spoken in its neighborhood.

Hindko today is spoken by close to four million people in Pakistan in the former Hazara division, which consisted of Abbottabad (now infamous as the city where the late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was holed up), Haripur, Mansehra and Attock in Punjab. There are a substantial number of Hindko speakers in cities like Peshawar, Nowshera, Swabi and Kohat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well.

There is also a strong sense of a Hindko identity, as the Pakistani state realized when the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010. The loudest opposition to the renaming came from Hindkowans who feared being submerged in the Pashtun identity of the newly named state. It also prompted calls for a separate state for Hindko speakers. This claim is akin to the one for an independent Seraiki-speaking state in southern Punjab, separate from the larger Punjab. With a more dominant language to deal with in their geographical vicinity, speakers of both tongues have felt the need to assert their separateness from the speakers of the dominant tongue (Punjabi and Pashto), apart from clamoring for attention from the Pakistani state and its Urdu fixation.

Besides Pakistan, Hindko is also spoken in Afghanistan, where it is referred to as Hindki and largely understood to be the language of its non-Muslim population, i.e. Afghan Hindus and Sikhs. This is not entirely correct, for there are Hindko-speaking Muslims in Afghanistan as well as Pashto-speaking non-Muslims.

A final point. Grierson’s insistence on identifying Lahnda as being separate from Punjabi did not last. Lahnda today is understood as the name of the West Punjab form of the language rather than as an independent language. Also, scholars post-Grierson understood Hindko to mean the “language of the people of Hind, i.e. India” and not the Hindus, which was a term used for a religious community.

And so it has come to be: a language named after India that is now largely spoken in Pakistan.


Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a Bengaluru-based publishing firm.

Courtesy: Live Mint (Published on 06 Jul 2019)

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