Revive the past to protect the future

In the wake of a literary festival in Punjab earlier this year, Dr Pippa Virdee of De Montfort University explores the region’s rich history, language and culture, highlighting their importance in fostering greater understanding and tolerance.


The Lyallpur Punjabi Sulekh Mela (Lyallpur Literary Festival) was held in the open ground of the Faisalabad Arts Council on 15-16 February this year. While it was not the only literary festival to take place in Pakistan in February, amongst the growing trend of such festivals in South Asia, Lyallpur represents something of a changing tide.

It was followed a few days later by Mother Language Literature Festival in Islamabad. The Karachi Literature Festival and the Lahore Literature Festival are more established but are continually criticised for their elitist pandering to the English and Urdu vernacular. Thus the events in Lyallpur and Islamabad represent a significant departure for the establishment.


The Lyallpur Sulekh Mela also more specifically marks an important milestone in the revival of the Punjabi language, culture and intellectual activities in the heart of Punjab in Pakistan. Lyallpur, more recently known as Faisalabad, was at the core of British colonialism, established as part of the canal colony development and built by the blood and sweat of the Punjabis. Yet the Sandal Bar area, prior to this development, envelops a rich history of Punjabi literary history.

Any attempts to revive the Punjabi language in Pakistan are important. It is the mother tongue of the majority but is sidelined in favour of the ideologically more acceptable Urdu and globally more important English. In this hierarchy, then, regional languages face the danger of extinction—nowhere more so than in Punjab by the Punjabis themselves.

Locally based organisations such as the Punjabi Lok Sujaag, Kuknus and Faisalabad Arts Council have in this case collaborated to host the festival. Spearheading the event have been young and energetic individuals such as Tohid Ahmad Chattha and Amir Butt. Indeed, people are key to any locally based event which relies on local, regional languages. While Lahore and Karachi try to reach national and international audiences that communicate to an elite group of people, locally based festivals have the advantage of being able to literally speak to the masses.


The need to think about the masses is important if one is ever going to instil pride in indigenous history, culture and language. Ayesha Siddiqua, in a recent opinion piece, wrote about the importance of mother language and its role in de-radicalisation and peace-building. Thus, rather than the regional and mother-tongue being a threat to the nation-state, it can and does promote the nation’s well-being. Nothing fuels disenchantment more than the curbs and constraints of prescriptive forms of nationalism.


Allowing greater self-expression through Pakistan’s rich history, its regional, ethnic and linguistic diversity, and recognising this through local arts and literature, is an important step on the path to encouraging greater tolerance towards each other. The great Sufi saints of Punjab, such as Baba Farid, Baba Nanak, are ever-present and a constant reminder of such tolerance, peace and non-dogmatic spirituality. This is a message that forms the basis of much of the writings of people like Bullah Shah.

Nurturing Punjabi culture and language through these festivals is a step towards empowering people and reminding them of their identity. If one strips away this history, what is left? We are nothing without understanding our past, a past more diverse and rich than the one too often promoted in India and Pakistan. Requiring a strong patriotic allegiance to the nation-state, which renders all else fruitless, is surely counter-productive.

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