Poet/professor Rifat Abbas has refused to accept the Pride of Punjab Award for his services to poetry.

Within hours of the news of his nomination, Rifat had turned down the award.

“I’ve no moral ground to accept the award," he had written on Facebook. "I refuse it due to three main reasons: being a poet, being a Seraiki nationalist and being a neighbour of other nations struggling against the suppression of Punjab.”

His refusal of the award — and the Rs300,000 cheque that comes with it — has made Rifat a big celebrity in Multan and other Seraiki-speaking areas.

“From my family to friends and fans, all endorsed my decision,” the poet said to Images.

We speak to Rifat Abbas more about his decision.

Reasons for refusal

Rifat says his refusal to the award is a political decision.

The Pride of Punjab award is conferred by the Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture (PILAC), an autonomous body working for the promotion of language, art and culture of Punjab .

Rifat, however, feels that while “[he] would love to accept a Pride of Seraiki People Award,” there is “no pride in a Punjab award at all.”

“Punjab, instead of being a good neighbour, has made the Seraikis its oppressed slaves,” he argues. "Seraikis have been part of the great Indus Civilisation with their distinct culture and language. The invasion of Multan by Raja Ranjeet Singh brought it to an end in 1818. Now, after the passage of almost 200 years, Seraikis have yet to get their rights."

"Punjabi has a treasure trove of literature and culture. In fact, I’ve always been an admirer of the Punjabi language and people. My concern is with the system, which is unfortunately led by the Punjabi establishment. The system has denied rights to the segments of Pakistan." — Rifat Abbas

But why drag politics in a purely cultural/literary issue in the first place?

“Being a writer, my commitment is with the Seraikis. Their rights have been usurped by the Punjab dominant system since 1818,” he reasoned.

“After Partition, SIndhis, Baloch and Pashtuns also joined the list of victims.”

While Rifat agrees that the system has also undermined Punjabi language and culture, he insists his objection is justified.

"Punjabi has a treasure trove of literature and culture which must be saved. In fact, I’ve always been an admirer of the Punjabi language and people. My concern is with the system, which is unfortunately led by the Punjab establishment. The system has denied rights to the segments of Pakistan."

Reactions from the literary circle

Was Rifat surprised about Pilac’s decision to confer him the Pride of Punjab Award?

“No, not at all. The reason is that several Punjabi writer friends, who have read my poetry, agree with my contentions. My poetry might have appealed to them. This might have convinced them to nominate me for the award. I respect their decision. But my stand to refuse the award is moral and ideological.”

Dr Nukhbah Langah, Pakistan Seraiki Party president and head of English Department of the Foreman Christian College University, says the massive approval of Rifat's decision is testimony to the fact that Seraikis worship their poets.

“He (Rifat) should consider to take part in active movement for the rights of Seraiki people,” she says, citing the examples of South African writer Dennis Brutus and Bard of Bengal Rabindranath Tagore, whose writings inspired activism in their communities.

Rifat, however, offers sincere apologies when asked if he would like to become an active campaigner.

“I’m a poet; Let me remain a poet; I can’t be an active political worker as it is not in my nature. But I’ll continue raising political discourse through my poetry.”

A new nominee

Dr Sughra Sadaf, PILAC director general, is credited with launching awards to honour writers and artists and announced the nominations this year.

She said she had lots of respect for Rifat sahib, and agreed to his decision to turn down the award. “The Pride of Punjab award is for all those who live in Punjab,” she told Images.

“We honoured Rifat sahib as a great Seraiki poet,” she says, adding that after his refusal, the award was given to another famous Seraiki poet, Shakir Shujaabadi.

This time, PILAC, however, contacted Shujaabadi before announcing the award. Also, he was given award as Seraiki poet and representative of south Punjab. This explanation was missing when Rifat was nominated. However, he maintains that even if he was nominated as a Seraiki poet for the award, he would have thought several times before taking the award.

Dr Sughra says the award represents the people of Punjab. “The award is for all segments of Punjab; you see we’ve given awards to Surraya Mulanikar and Allah Ditta Lonewala, both famous Seraiki singers.”

Meanwhile, the fans of Rifat have arranged a reception to honour him the Pride of Seraiki People Award in Multan in March.