In Pakistan, India or other developing countries, it is a common sight that old buildings of bricks and mortar are razed and replaced by new structures of glass and steel. Or historic establishments are transformed into something totally contrasting with their traditional character. We are then reminded by the wise among us to learn from Europe, which conserves and preserves objects and monuments from its past. Come to think of it, some Europeans had taken upon themselves to not only preserve, but transport to their own libraries and museums the historic materials they found in countries they had colonised. They took manuscripts, jewels, artefacts, sarcophagi and even large statues and building columns away from these places.
The wise among us also forget that it is, in fact, no one else but Western civilisation that honed the crass commercial skills of the Indian or African native. They trained us into utilitarianism and profiteering through a live demonstration of loot, plunder and exploitation of land, objects and people. This demonstration continued unabated for hundreds of years. However, in order to be fair, one cannot doubt the evolved consciousness in Europe about preserving their heritage in particular and world heritage in general. Perhaps the enormity of death and destruction caused by the two world wars in the last century, when the European continent turned into the main battleground, invigorated the desire among Europeans to preserve history even more.
Unfortunately, Britain seemed to be an outlier when it came to keeping the character of some historic establishments intact. The BBC World Service, with all its sections broadcasting in scores of languages, was moved out of its age-old building complex of Bush House located between Aldwych and the Strand a few years ago. Which political, intellectual, showbiz or sports celebrity in the world, besides so many others who visited London between 1941 and 2012 and were interviewed by BBC Radio, have not been to Bush House? I am told that a part of the building is now converted into living quarters while most of it serves as the business school of a college with sponsorships from banks. One can argue that at least it is an educational institution that takes over much of the building. But we mustn’t forget that the expensive business and management education encouraged by large corporate firms is a lucrative business in itself.
Something worse than what happened to BBC World Service was prevented from happening this week. It was the implementation of the incumbent government’s decision that the Islamabad headquarters building of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), more popularly known as Radio Pakistan, would be leased out to private investors, shifting the studios and offices elsewhere. The government was made to buckle and revise the decision under pressure from the staff of PBC and concerned citizens. But it has become a norm that the government announces a faulty policy or plan in haste and then backtracks. It is bent upon changing the character of state symbols to live up to its pre-election political sloganeering. But leasing out or privatising public assets ultimately benefits only the rich. The wealthy expats in our diaspora along with local tycoons are hovering above our skies to catch the prey on offer with its wings clipped by the government of the day. It is a crude display of neoliberal economic practices veiled under the rhetoric of austerity.
While making such a decision about Radio Pakistan, there was no demonstration of any sense of history or understanding of the significance of the institution that is functional from day one of our independence. I suspect if any serious thought was given to the securing of archival material and the shifting of production equipment. The proposed premises were not purpose-built to house such a large facility which also runs multiple channels simultaneously. Besides, in such cases, problems caused to the staff will seldom be considered as has been the case in Pakistan since forever. Any moves of the powerful against the preservation of our heritage must be thwarted by the citizens, writers, poets and artists — as they did in this case.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 30th, 2018