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The Punjab narrative

The Punjab government announced March 14, 2022 as the official ‘Punjabi Culture Day’ which was celebrated in the entire Punjab province. Students were asked to dress up in a Punjabi attire to celebrate this day. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, in this year, this day was celebrated at the official level.

The irony is that ‘The Punjab Narrative’ is being imposed on the entire population across Punjab irrespective of the fact that there may be other non-Punjabi speakers residing in the province too. This official message conveyed by the ruling elite is rather misleading. This symbolizes not only the rejection of the democratic right and proposal for the bifurcation of Punjab on ethno-linguistic grounds, but is also misleading for the youth who are compelled to learn and practice the Punjab narrative. Furthermore, this effort to strengthen the Punjab narrative has support from the elitist circles of Lahore. This includes those who deliberately organize literary gatherings to promote a dialogue about ‘Sanjha Punjab’, ‘vusda rahay Punjab’ and opening Kartarpur corridors [sic] without receiving criticism from any quarters. Whereas similar activities by other cultural groups may be a matter of concern for them.

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‘Siraiki Culture Day’ is celebrated in Siraiki vusaib for the past few years without any state recognition. Such an event organized in the region struggling for the acceptance of an identity is significant. For local people, it is important to celebrate cultural identity to create an understanding of cultural history rather than opposing any other ethnic, linguistic identity within or beyond Punjab. This was evident during the recent annual event of ‘Siraiki Ajrak Festival’ organized at Bahauddin Zakariya University by Siraiki Student Council on March 3, 2022 which invited youth from all the provinces and regions of Pakistan. The event was followed by ‘Siraiki Culture Day’ organized at Multan Arts Council on March 6, 2022.

The issue is not why ‘Punjabi Culture Day’ is organized by the Punjab government this year, but why other identities existing within the same province do not receive any state acknowledgement and such official support. A language (read holistically as identity) that faces an official bias reflects through the partial acceptance of Siraiki being taught at the state colleges and institutions like Bahauddin Zakariya University (Multan) and Islamia University (Bahawalpur). However, the graduates (MA/MPHIL Siraiki) continue to search for jobs and find themselves constrained by lack of opportunities locally. Hence, they are compelled to face internal migrations in search of professional opportunities. They are rarely selected for the CSS exams and there is no job quota for the local graduates.

A language which has no state patronage, no corpus and language planning, no literary boards, has a grim future if the local intellectuals do not privately produce rich literature. Celebrating their culture and identity (Ngugi) becomes inevitable because their well acknowledged writers are listed under the umbrella of Punjabi literature in many anthologies published officially, for instance, by Academy of Letters. Despite rich research on Siriaki language, culture and identity, the local academics have no agency within the broader academic and literary discourse of Pakistan, let alone, Punjab. This is a sorry scene and sufficient reason for pondering over the official announcement about the ‘Punjabi Culture Day’ this year.

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This situation is well articulated by a journalist who wrote: “Facebook is saturated with pictures of every government official wearing a pug (head gear) and Punjabi kurtas – celebrating ‘Punjabi Culture Day’ – gifted to them by a Siraiki speaking Chief Minister…” (translated from Ahsan Raza’s social media post on March 15, 2022). The irony is that even the CM refuses to own his origins mainly to avoid the political controversies and primarily to endorse and represent the Punjab narrative. In this context, CM Buzdar’s stance means owning the Punjab narrative instead of being concerned about the political suppression of vusaib (where he belongs). This has been the case with many elected Siraiki parliamentarians cashing the vote bank from their local constituencies during elections while supporting the Punjab narrative after getting elected. This list is too long to be discussed here.

The crumbling government institutions, the incompetent policy makers, disregard for public aspirations, the social hierarchies, the economic and political control of the ruling class elite that has always suppressed the voices that reflect cultural diversity in Pakistan are the factors that have historically strengthened the Punjab narrative and continue to do so. The fact of the matter is that such propaganda does not reflect a democracy in a country that needs to celebrate the diversity of all the diverse cultures existing within Pakistan. It is time to reflect on the neo-colonial self-imposed hegemony of the Punjab narrative!

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