A movement to “revive the spirit of Punjab and Punjabi” in South Asia has enabled a surprising thaw between the two Punjabs of Pakistan and India. That this revival movement has been catalyzed from within Pakistan rather than India raises intriguing questions about language, nationalism, and the cultural basis of the nation-state. Although the Punjabiyat movement bears the surface features of a classical nationalist formation—insistence upon recovering an unfairly oppressed history and literature, one unique on earth and uniquely imbued with the spirit of the local people and the local land—its structural features differ markedly. Pakistan's Punjab has long functioned as an ethnic hegemon, the center against which other regions struggle in a search for power. Yet the Punjabiyat movement presents Punjab as an oppressed victim of Pakistan's troubled search for national identity. This essay argues that a theory of symbolic capital best explains this otherwise peculiar inversion of perceived and actual power, and underscores culture's critical role in the nation's political imagination.
Alyssa Ayres (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an international consultant based in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor of India Review.