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Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Gained in Translation: Cultural crisis of Punjab

The Punjab of Guru Nanak Devji’s time was very diverse with its humble and timeless principles.

Published: July 14, 2019 12:11:02 am
Illustration: Suvajit Dey

Written by Gurbhajan S Gill 

Once upon a time, Punjab was Sapta Sindhu, then it became the land of five rivers and now it is a dhaab (an abandoned water body) of two-and-a-half rivers. A dhaab plagued by every kind of crisis.

In Jangnama Singhan te Firangian, an eyewitness account of the first Anglo-Sikh war that led to the downfall of the Sikh empire, Shah Mohammad, the state’s poet in the 19th century, says, “Raazi bahut rehnde Musalmaan Hindu, sar dohaan de aisi aafat aayi. Shah Muhamadda vich Punjab de si, kade nahi si teesri zaat aayi (Hindus and Muslims of Punjab always lived in peace, but trouble came visiting them. There was never a third caste in Punjab).”

The British, with their different value system, were the third caste. The Punjab of Guru Nanak Devji’s time was very diverse with its humble and timeless principles. Wherever Guru Nanak Devji went during his travels on foot (udasis), there was a free exchange of views or inter-faith dialogues. He held such symposiums with both saints and hermits as well as jingoist advocates of Islam. Often, logic prevailed over bitterness. This showcases the power of that era.

Those days, the pandits had ordained Sanskrit as the divine language for those on the path of spirituality. Over time, it turned into the language of the elite. Guru Nanak shunned this dev bhasha and adopted the folk language of Punjabi. By explaining spirituality in the common man’s language, he empowered the masses. Unfortunately, we are forgetting this tool of empowerment.

Though the Mughals had started the propagation of Persian language, out of the 10 gurus, the bani (compositions) of six is in Punjabi. The elite have turned their back on it. Organisations like the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Chief Khalsa Diwan, and Kalgidhar Trust Baru Sahib, have made English the medium of education. There is no denying that we need English to interact at the international level, but educationists also say every child should get primary education in mother tongue.

On the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak, we should introspect whether we are turning our back on his faith by scorning Punjabi. This cultural crisis is making us slave to an inferiority complex. Nor are we mindful of the psychological dilemma faced by a child. When Punjabi-speaking children get primary education in English, they can neither become hans (swan) nor remain kaan (crow). Most private institutions impart primary education in English, whereas government institutions have been adopting Punjabi. How can children studying in two streams have a level-playing field? Guru Nanak’s principle of equality is gasping for breath.

A champion of work culture, Guru Nanak himself did farming at Kartarpur Sahib for over 17 years. In this period he composed Japji Sahib. He taught the lesson of equality to the community through langar pangat (people eating together regardless of religion, caste). But, today his believers are cut off from this culture.

‘Kirt’ or respect for work is the first teaching of Guru Nanak. He did not like idleness. The erosion of work culture is behind the declining profitability of agriculture. Among several reasons behind farmer suicides is also that an individual has become a unit. He does not address issues collectively; he lives and dies alone. He gets lost in the jungle of helplessness. Remember Guru Nanak’s line, “Jab lag duniya rahiye Nanak, kich suniye, kich kahiye (As long as you are alive, say something, hear something)”. We should not close the windows of our mind. If we discuss our problems, sorrows, and differences, we are bound to find a solution.

On the occasion of the 500th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in 1969, there was all-round development of Punjab. Nearly 70 new colleges were opened, 50 in rural areas, to mark the anniversary. I am also a beneficiary of one such college. My dream of getting higher education may have remained a dream had it not been for the opening of Guru Nanak College, Kala Afghana. Dr M S Randhawa, the first chief commissioner of Chandigarh, and Lakhmir Singh Randhawa were instrumental in getting the college opened. I am a student of the first batch of this college. Several colleges for women were also opened. Helmed by Dr M S Randhawa, Punjab Agricultural University even promised to prepare the layout of every new college free of cost.

Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, which gave the gift of higher education to the Majha region, also came up to mark the anniversary, as did Guru Nanak Thermal Plant. The then CM, Justice Gurnam Singh (retd), imposed a cess on farm produce to set up Guru Nanak Bhawans and libraries in every district.

In line with Guru Nanak’s vision, the policymakers addressed the challenges Punjab faced 50 years ago by making villages equal partners in development. Today, we stand at a crossroads. We are presenting Kartarpur Sahib corridor as an achievement, whereas it is only repentance for a 70-year-old mistake. Both sides have got a chance to pat their own back. Internationally, the big achievement is setting up of Guru Nanak Dev University at Nankana Sahib. It is indeed an achievement to have a Muslim country name an institution of higher education after a universal hero.

Guru Nanak gardens and jungles are being grown in the name of conservation, and there is a target to plant 550 trees in every village. But how about giving 550 books to each village library? Guru Nanak was all for learning and teaching. Let us have ‘shabd langar’ in gurdwaras on the anniversary to motivate Punjabis to gain knowledge.

The writer is a well-known Punjabi poet and former president of Punjabi Sahit Academy, Ludhiana. Translated by Navjeevan Gopal

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