September 17, 2023
By Adnan Bitani
DERA ISMAIL KHAN
Ghulam Abbas Darvi, is a decorated Saraiki folk singer who has been awarded over 60 laurels, including the prestigious Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, over a decades’ long career. Strangely enough, he is training his son to carry on this tradition in Pashto. He reasons that the Saraiki language is dying out in their native home of Dera Ismail Khan (D.I. Khan) while Pashto music is gaining widespread popularity, to the extent that even Saraiki speakers prefer Pashto tunes at most events and ceremonies.
D.I. Khan is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP)’s southernmost district, situated at a distance of 300 kilometres from the provincial capital of Peshawar. It shares a border with Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. According to the 2023 census, the district’s total population exceeds 1.8 million, with the Saraiki speakers constituting the majority population.
Over the course of the past two decades or so, there has been a demographic shift in the region after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the War on Terror in Afghanistan. The resulting swift and sustained deterioration of security as well as law and order in Pakistan’s tribal regions triggered large internal migrations. A large number of Pashto speakers from Waziristan have settled in D.I. Khan, with locals noticing Pashto speakers slowly becoming the vast majority. Furthermore, an increasing number of businesses are now under the ownership of Pashtuns.
According to police data, approximately 7,000 people have died in terrorist attacks, sectarian violence and target killings in D.I. Khan since 1986, a majority of whom were Saraiki.
Novelist Iftikhar Sherazi opined that most terror victims are Shia Saraiki speakers. Due to prevailing tensions, many of these people have left their homes and businesses, even selling their ancestral property to settle in different parts of Punjab.
The city of D.I. Khan is situated along the went bank of the Indus River, and historically provided fertile grounds for extensive cultivation and cattle rearing. But the urban sprawl in recent times has converted acres of agriculturally viable earth to residential areas.
Chogla Bazaar, which lies at the very heart of the city, along with the adjoining Toppanwala, Commissionary, Muslim and Pawanda bazaars are not simply trade hubs but are also where the city’s ancient culture thrives. Locals as well as hundreds from the city’s suburbs and Punjab’s Bhakkar and Darya Khan areas throng Chogla Bazaar for its markets laden with antique-style shoes, embroidered clothes, and craft pottery and jewelry.
Where Pashto appears to be overthrowing Saraiki as the dominant language, the city’s markets are now also stocking Peshawari sandals and selling Peshawari kadahi instead of sobat. However, there is some solace to be had from the fact that D.I. Khan’s sohan halwa reigns supreme at home, and is a runaway hit among dessert aficionados across the globe.
Efforts are however afoot to save the Saraiki language and culture from extinction. Every year, members of the community hold a poetic symposium in celebration of their language, while an annual spring celebration on March 23 sees the Saraiki community adorning sajarak and pouring fresh flowers into the Indus River. In recent times however the tradition has been co-opted as a political demonstration by Saraiki nationalists calling for their own province.