The shrine culture
On December 9 and 17 of 1970, Pakistan held its very first elections on the basis of adult franchise.
Participating political parties and independent politicians had been campaigning for the event ever since January 1970, and Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Mujibur Rahman's Awami League (AL) were drawing the largest crowds in West and East Pakistan respectively.
This did not seem to deter the Yahya Khan military regime that did not trust either of the two parties.
The regime had suspiciously read the two as being anti-status quo, but even though Yahya’s intelligence agencies had predicted a victory for Mujib’s AL in East Pakistan, the same agencies had almost entirely rubbished the idea of Bhutto’s PPP sweeping the polls in West Pakistan.
Hopeful of the elections generating a hung verdict that would be in the interest of the military regime, Yahya nevertheless decided to not only support various industrialist and feudal backed Muslim League factions, but also gave a nod of approval and support to the staunch right-wing Islamic parties, especially the Jamat-i-Islami (JI).
Consequently, all that was brewing on the fringes of Pakistani urban youth cultures between 1966 and 1969, exploded onto the mainstream scheme of things in 1970.
During the PPP campaign, new-found youthful middle-class infatuations, such as radical leftist politics and revolutionary posturing, and its romance with the ways and culture of the working classes met with the street-smart moorings of the pro-Bhutto proletariat and the passionate music and mores of Sindh and Punjab’s rural and semi-urban ‘shrine culture.’
The shrine culture, pertaining to the devotional, recreational, and economic activity around the shrines of ancient Muslim saints, had been around in the subcontinent for almost a thousand years.
The saints’ Islam was more accommodating than dogmatic, and a largely permissive culture of ecstatic devotional music, innovative rituals and indigenous intoxicants started to take shape around the shrines, mostly involving poor farmers, the dispossessed, (and later,) the urban lumpenproletariat.
This culture was largely tolerated and even patronised by various Muslim dynasties that ruled the subcontinent, and by the end of the Mughal Empire in the mid-19th Century, it had become a vital part of the belief and ritual system of a majority of Muslims in the region.
However, from the 1950s, urban middle-class Pakistan had begun to simply dismiss this culture as being the domain of the uneducated and the superstitious.
But just like the hippies of the West (in the 1960s), who had chosen various exotic and esoteric Eastern spiritual beliefs to demonstrate their disapproval of the materialism and “soullessness” of the Western capitalist system, young, middle-class rebels of urban Pakistan increasingly began to look upon Sufism and the shrine culture as a way to make a social, cultural and political connect with the “downtrodden and the dispossessed.”
Such a connect became more interesting when middle-class leftist youth supporting the PPP came into direct contact with the boisterous masses of rural peasants, small shop owners and the urban working classes at PPP’s election rallies.
These elements brought with them the music, the emotionalism, the bohemianism; and the devotional sense of loyalty of the shrine culture that they had been close to for centuries.
The cultural synthesis emerging from such mass-level fusion of ideas was one of the frontal reasons behind Bhutto’s image leaping from being that of a "brave patriot" (who as Ayub’s Foreign Minister had stood up to his boss in 1966), to ultimately being perceived by his supporters as the embodiment of a modern-day Sufi saint!
When PTV began showing clips of various 1970 election rallies, standing out in vibrancy and uniqueness were PPP gatherings.
Though dominated by Bhutto's animated populist (and at times demagogic) oratory, these rallies also became famous for almost always turning into the kind of boisterous and musical fanfare usually witnessed outside the many shrines of Sufi saints across the country.
On the other hand, the country’s middle-class popular culture had emerged in the mid-1960s as Pakistan's reflection of the era's youthful romance with leftist ideals and radical student action. Along the way, this culture started to elaborate this idealism with the bohemian and organic antics of the shrine culture.