Pakistan: Identity, Ethnicity and Prospects of Seraiki Suba

Dr. Saadia Toor, Associate Professor of Sociology, College of Staten Island, The City University of New York and author of The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan, and Dr. Nukhbah Langah, Head of the English Department, Forman Christian College and author of Poetry as Resistance: Islam and Ethnicity in Post-Colonial Pakistan, were invited by the CPPG to deliver a talk on “Pakistan: Identity, Ethnicity and Prospects of Seraiki Suba“ on July 19, 2012.


Dr. Saadia Toor opened the talk with a discourse on salient points of her book, which explored how culture and politics had played out in Pakistan from 1947 onwards and the ways in which poetry, language and literature had molded the norms and values in Pakistan. She initially discussed the national language controversy of Urdu and Bengali, and argued that the language issue was underpinned by the desire of the Punjabi and Mahajir elite to concentrate power in their own hands rather than share it with other groups. East Bengal, despite comprising 51% of the country’s population, could not get its demands addressed by the Punjabi and Mahajir ruling elite of the time. It depicted a case of a majority population being completely dominated by a minority in power, and was a key factor in the clash of cultures in the new nation state. The national language movement that arose as a result of political and cultural repression eventually culminated in the secession of East Pakistan. The 1952 Bengali martyrs were now commemorated yearly by the UN on February 21, the Mother Language Day.

Expanding on her argument, she suggested that language was generally viewed as significant primarily due to its emotional resonance for a particular community. However it must be recognized that language movements were resistance movements against various kinds of discrimination. What eventually became the national language of Pakistan had major consequences in matters of government jobs and distribution of resources. With Urdu as the national language, the major share of the resources was directed towards West Pakistan. Thus, many language movements were a result of the exclusionist agenda & policies of the state, which ensured that certain ethnicities and communities were barred from polity, institutions, and power structure. This also held true for the Seraiki language movement in contemporary Punjab.

She further explored the deeply entrenched relationship between literature and politics, particularly in South Asia, which emerged in the context of politicization of nationalities and ethnicities, and thus associated languages. Tracing the Bengali language movement, she narrated that right after partition, literature became politicized in the standoff between the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and its liberal detractors. The progressive writers were categorized as too didactic and explicitly political, and thus unable to uphold poetic standards. The PWA was the locus of critique of the Pakistani nation state in West Pakistan while East Bengal was seen as challenging the very idea of Pakistani nationalism through poetry, journalism, and debates. There was a constant critique of state’s discrimination against East Pakistan, undemocratic policies in West Pakistan, and on its increasingly cozy relations with the US in the Cold War. Furthermore, mainstream intellectual debate supported by liberal intellectuals was constructed by arguing that East Bengal writers were politically motivated, agents of a foreign power, and their poetry didactic and substandard, which gave the state impunity to take legal action against these poets. The state reacted by jailing poets, and banning poetry recitals to shut down the political space, discourse and imaginary that these writers and journalists had created.

“… the Cold War project attempted to further a politicized and radicalized version of Islam to counter communism across the world.”

Then Toor moved on to make a critical appraisal of the political and cultural underpinnings of Ayub Khan’s development project. One of the distributional outcomes of the project was an exacerbation of already existing economic inequalities and income disparities within West Pakistan as well as between West and East Pakistan, which gave more steam to the grievances of East Bengalis. She contended that Ayub Khan’s development project was deeply interlinked with the Cold War and stemmed from the need of the American government to ensure that newly independent post-colonial countries were guarded from Soviet influence. As anti-colonial nationalist movements were orienting themselves ideologically and politically towards the Soviet Union, American social scientists created the development project as a counter measure. Additionally, as part of the Cold War project, US supported dictatorships across the world because the actual aspirations of the people of these countries were not aligned with US interests. This led to the creation of an anti-democratic and anti-socialist narrative during Ayub’s regime. That democracy did not suit the Pakistani people and socialism was an imported anti-Islamic ideology.

“Bengali language and culture were portrayed as not being Muslim enough, and too inspired by Hinduism.”

While the left wing intellectuals tried to indigenize socialist ideas and endeavored to counter the Cold War discourse that focused on communists being anti-Islam, the Cold War project attempted to further a politicized and radicalized version of Islam to counter communism across the world. She stressed that while most people believed that the Afghan war marked the beginning of politicized Islam, actually Islam had been used in opportunistic ways much earlier in the 1950s under Ayub Khan’s regime. While he set up a Ministry of Religious Affairs that tried to produce a modernist version of Islam, he also kept a backdoor open to Maulana Maudoodi and the Jamaat-i-Islami. It might seem contradictory that he had sent Maudoodi to jail, but when push came to shove, the state was more inclined towards the Jamaat and religious right than to concede to the left, which had demanded democratic rights and the abolishment of One-Unit.

Proceeding to the Bhutto and Zia era, Toor argued that the deep connection between culture, religion and politics remained relevant in the political landscape. Both leaders entrenched Islam into Pakistani national identity through different means. For example, she suggested that economic migration of labor to Gulf countries resulted in adverse political and cultural influence on Pakistan. Zia even attempted to erase any form of shared syncretic Indian identity, an Indo-Pakistani cultural identity, and the Indo- Persian tradition to suppress indigenous ethnic expression. However, it was the 1990s that saw political consolidation of the Zia era with the emergence of new political leaders and entities like Nawaz Sharif and the MQM and their influence on the prevalent political configuration and culture. During the 1990’s, Islam became so much a part of national discourse that it obscured all other angles and dimensions. As a case study of that problem, she looked at the issue of honor killings particularly karo-kari and the use of Islam as a means to create confusion by opportunists. In most debates on Honour Killing, the issue of Islam magically disappeared and such issues were explained by culture and tradition which then tended to serve as proxies for Islam. Thus, despite the official enshrinement of Islam by the state, it became problematic for the state to justify certain kinds of things.

Lastly, Toor reiterated that the language movement in East Pakistan was suppressed using Islamic ideology as a tool.Bengali language and culture were portrayed as not being Muslim enough, and too inspired by Hinduism. Their demand for certain rights for themselves was taken as undermining the nation state as the state followed a policy of explicit targeting of intellectuals, students and student leaders. She asserted that a similar pattern had emerged in the Baluchistan nationalist movement and the Seraiki language movement.

Dr. Nuqbah Langah, then began by describing the two sections of her book. The first part was theoretical and explored mysticism, connection between literature and politics, the fall of Dhaka and how it inspired ethno-linguistic movements while the second section analyzed the poetic works of eminent Seraiki writers.

Discussing the outline of her book, she said that research on linguistics and colonial policies had built a hierarchy of what was to be considered a language, dialect or vernacular, and this process of tagging languages had created a confusion that lasted well into the post-colonial era. Further, the linguistic survey of India had not mentioned the term Seraiki, so eventual coinage of the language had to be understood. She, herself had used the term ‘proto-Seraiki’ to describe the collection of various Seraiki dialects- Bahawalpuri, Riyasti and Multani. She argued that the Bengali movement for a separate homeland in 1971 had inspired several ethno-linguistic movements in West Pakistan as several literary festivals with political undercurrents used to be held across southern Punjab back then. It was in one of these festivals in the back drop of the 1971 war, called Fareed festivals, after the poet Khawaja Ghulam Fareed that several common dialects of the region came together to be coined as Seraiki.

Discussing the poetry section of her book, she commented that literature, mysticism and politics were all concurrent themes in Seraiki poetry and many poets consciously, or unconsciously, resisted political and cultural pressures through their works. The reason for this was the use of certain terminology inspired by Khawaja Fareed such as Maanboli (mother language), Maandharti (motherland), Waseb(language, land and culture), Wakhra(distinction), Sunjhaan(identity consciousness and recognition) and Munjh(nostalgia), which allowed mysticism, poetry, literature and politics to become melded into one.

“… rather than being mutually exclusive, Punjabi & Seraiki identities should be seen as co-existing as Seraiki movement underscored the need for consolidating indigenous identities,”

Langah then delved into the works of a few Seraiki poets, she had studied for her book. The renowned nationalist poet, Safir Lashari whose anthems had become slogans for the Seraiki movement had been a military officer before becoming a political activist. She read and translated one of his poems whose subtle imagery depicted language as motherland. The poem presented a woman mourning at Khawaja Ghulam Fareed’s grave who cried out that her children had deserted her, she had no home and no one recognized her. When the shrine’s caretaker asked who she was? She replied, “I am Seraiki”. The second poet, Aslam Ansari wrote both in Urdu and Seraiki. He invoked images of the Rohi Desert, Derawar Fort, desert symbolism and color to depict Waseb, with Multan as the locus of his imagined Seraiki motherland. The third poet, Aslam Javaid, whose parents had migrated from India at partition was not accepted by many as an indigenous Seraiki poet. He talked about the physical and cultural differences between the native and the settler, drawing a yardstick for being a native despite him being viewed as a settler himself. Langah considered this creation of an ‘other’ and ‘us’, a common post-colonial exercise.

Discussing Seraiki language’s significance for the Seraiki movement, she explained that one of the reasons Seraiki political and language movement began was because many Seraiki writers were being tagged as Punjabi and their work was being included in the anthologies of Punjabi poetry and literature. She also dispelled the common view that the construction of Seraiki identity was detrimental or damaging to the Punjabi identity as argued in the book, Rethinking Punjab: The Construction of Seraiki Identity by Hussain Ahmed Khan. Instead, she argued that rather than being mutually exclusive, both identities should be seen as co-existing as Seraiki movement underscored the need for consolidating indigenous identities, and thus a need to allow children to obtain education in their mother language.

The two book presentations were followed by a vibrant question and answer session. Answering a question regarding the connection between economic deprivation and language movements in relation to both the Bangla and Seraiki nationalist movements, Langah agreed that economic exclusion was in most cases the predominant reason for political language movements. She stated that in case of Bangladesh, the causation link was more obvious, whereas in Seraiki speaking region, the economic deprivation aspect had not been brought to the forefront. The reason was that the Bangla population was more politically aware having witnessed partition, whereas the Seraiki people only became politically conscious after the creation of Bangladesh. Additionally, the Bengali language had significant institutional academic support while Seraiki lacked it. She said that because politics and literature were intricately linked, an interdisciplinary analytical approach was needed. Toor added that the choice of language or any cultural marker as a symbol of resistance was not necessarily chosen by the people of the community because it could also become a symbol of their inferiority.

Answering a question comparing increasing radicalization in southern Punjab and Seraiki nationalism in terms of capturing the disgruntled economically deprived, Langah stressed that the Seraiki nationalists did not have extremist tendencies as they were concerned with ethnic, regional and political issues rather than their religious identity. Toor further explained that Islamists had exploited class dynamics as many economically welloff land owning families tended to be Shia leading to a sectarian discourse. However, the analogies of nationalist movements in Pakistan indicated their secular nature, for example the Baloch nationalist movement continued to be secular while the state consciously promoted Islamist policies and politics to counter it. A similar situation may arise as the Seraiki nationalist movement gained momentum. She argued that Islam was constantly used by the state elite to undermine democratic demands, which necessitated building a unified identity comprising language and religion. For example, even when the government finally decided to incorporate Bangla as a second national language, it demanded that it be written in the Arabic script rather than its original script.