India and Pakistan: United by Languages but Divided by Borders

Despite all the usual chest thumping and reiterations of belligerent rhetoric by the politicians from both India and Pakistan, there are a few languages which could unite these two countries. These are the languages which are spoken by millions across the border which divides the two South Asian neighbors. The languages which primarily connect these two often hostile neighbors are English, Urdu and Punjabi. English has been a part of Britain’s colonial legacy in South Asia which both countries rather joyfully inherited. English is the lingua franca and official language of both India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, English has always been a must and alongside it Urdu has always been relegated to a secondary status in all the reputable schools and colleges to renowned corporate offices.

All Pakistan’s major dailies are either published, or at least have an edition, in English. English is used across both countries by speakers with various degrees of proficiency although the grammar and phraseology may mimic that of the speaker’s first language. Both ethnically diverse countries have also contributed to the world of English literature and also a fair share of globally popular writers like Shobhaa De, Vikram Seth (a poet too), Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie among many others.

I also highlight the subcontinent’s legendary poets like Ghalib and Iqbal which highlights Urdu. Urdu is another common language that Pakistanis and Indians share and that unites them. Urdu unfortunately is usually confined to Indian Muslims or Pakistanis only in the Indian popular culture. But still there are many non-Muslim Indians (including Bollywood celebs like Richa Chadha who once in an interview confessed her admiration for Pakistan’s well renowned Urdu poet Faiz as well as for the famous Urdu playwright Manto) who love using Urdu proverbs in their formal speeches. It is the official national language and lingua franca of Pakistan. In India, it is one of the 22 official languages recognized in the constitution and has official status in six Indian States including Telangana and Uttar Pradesh. Apart from specialized vocabulary, spoken Urdu is mutually intelligible with Hindi. Both Indians and Pakistanis also take pride in all the literary gatherings which take place in their countries that celebrate Urdu. Notable mentions among these literary gatherings include the literary festival named Jashn-e-Rekhta (held annually in New Delhi) and Faiz International Festival which takes place annually in Lahore.

The Punjabi language is also important. It is the most widely spoken language in Pakistan and the 11th most widely spoken language in India. The level of exuberance among the Punjabi speakers is the same across both sides of the border. Muslim Punjabi poets like Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah who have their mausoleums in the Pakistani Punjab are equally revered in the Indian part of the Punjab which is reflected in the fact that every year many from across the border pay a visit to the mausoleums. The script in which Punjabi is written in the Indian and Pakistani Punjab is different from that used in India Gurmukhi script (which is sanskritized like Hindi) and those living in Pakistan use Shahmukhi script (which is Persianized like Urdu). There may be slight variations to the Punjabi which is spoken in both parts of the Punjab but still these two variants of the same language are highly mutually intelligible and that is the reason why Indian Punjabi films are highly popular in the Pakistani Punjab.

I wish one day both Indians and Pakistanis can live in peace with each other. As living in peace is entirely different from resting in peace.