CULTURE, society, state: the three heads need to be separately stated, but the first two are synergistic, or even synonymous. And, within such confluence is also the conflict within and among the three. In 75 years, Pakistan has journeyed through its own exclusive experience of the extremities — and the moderation — of all three. The most basic and also comprehensive scope of culture is in the organic dimension.
In a forever-churning melting pot, memories, myths, traditions, present strivings, future aspirations of people; all these blend ethnicity, geography, heritage, climate, livelihoods, lifestyles, population growth, migration, media, technology, trade and the impact of external influences into a brew that cannot be conclusively cooked or manipulated. The totality of culture is beyond clinical complete control, except in extremely totalitarian states, which Pakistan has never been, despite phases of both military intervention and civilian despotism.
An assortment of cultural interventions by the state, the flag-bearers of religion, and modernist forces have enabled Pakistani culture to evolve a mosaic of distinctive and contrasting features.
A treasured history
At the time of independence, the West Wing of the awkwardly constructed state connected Pakistanis with 7,500 years of civilisation, commencing in Mehrgarh and then later Mohenjodaro. Both sites indicated interactions with distant locations, signs of a society accustomed to interaction with cultures different from its own.
In the East Wing, a thousand miles distant, Mahastangarh in Bogra district revealed beginnings between 700BC and 300BC as part of the far-flung Maurya Empire, also indicative of being open to contact with other cultures.
The title of Ian Stephen’s fine 1964 book Old Country; New Nation captured Pakistan’s unique character of fusing time, distance, similarity and diversity. Inward mass migration between August 1947 and about 1949, hugely so in the West Wing, added potent new streams to an already rich canvas. While being predominantly Muslim, both the wings had vast ethnic and linguistic variety.
In East Pakistan, over 90pc ethnically homogeneous Bengali people had numerous sub-communities. Urdu-speaking Biharis maintained their own distinct persona. Even the small non-Bengali indigenous population comprised a variety of Tibeto-Burman, Chakma, Marmas and others. The post-1971 Pakistan comprises Punjabis, Pakhtuns, Baloch, Brahvi, Sindhis, Seraikis, Urdu-speakers, Gujarati-speakers, Baltis, Chitralis, Gilgitis and others, and contain within themselves multiple sub-castes, tribes, biraadaris. Over 70 languages and dozens of dialects can be heard around the country today.
Two phases of age
Comprising beautiful diversity, spontaneity, even anarchy, the evolution of over 75 years has to be divided into two broad phases. The first 24 years, 1947-1971, of the original state. The next 50 years, 1972-2022, of the residual, renewed state. In both phases the long history of territory, combined with new immigration, has shaped identity.
In the first 24 years, good intent to make the two wings coalesce culturally collided with elitist arrogance, political myopia and military missteps. For 14 years, from 1956 to 1970, there was also the (eventually failed) attempt in the West Wing to impose a structural uniformity over the provinces through a One Unit system. Unwisely, this sought to bypass the cultural diversity of regions and provinces, even as it established the parity principle between the wings.
In the next 50 years, notwithstanding current strains in 2022, and the regressive phase of Gen Ziaul Haq’s rule, 1977-1988, there have occurred refreshing attempts to learn from history, to respect autonomy, to devolve power, to celebrate cultural diversity.
From a conceptual viewpoint, with the goal of consciously attempting to guide and control Pakistani culture, three perspectives have exerted, with varying degrees of success, discernible impact on culture and society. All three have remained simultaneous, each occupying its own space, each attempting to enlarge its reach.
The first is the statist approach, followed by the religion-based approach, and the modernist, which does not necessarily reject parts of the other two but which, compared to the others, is far more open-minded towards new knowledge, new options.
The statist approach
The statist approach, though sincerely motivated, is generally unable to accept that diversity — and dissent — can strengthen both society and state. This model initially sought to apply the mechanisms of governance and the apparatus of administration to compel enormous variety into singularity.
Faced with relentless hostility from day one, of both India and Afghanistan, the new nation had to ensure security and stability for sheer survival, which required internal harmony. But this could also be misinterpreted as requiring uniformity. Thus came attempts through forums such as the Bureau of National Integration in the 1960s to stress similarity and solidarity, and to downplay diversity and pluralism.
Earlier, it took about seven years to undo the damage done in March 1948 by denying Bengali the status of a state language. That misjudgement only highlighted the thin line between political decisions and cultural injustice, initiating ripples that sometime turned into tidal waves.
In the first two decades, Radio Pakistan, broadcasting in Bangla, Urdu and in other languages, introduced mass awareness of the new national, cultural identity of becoming Pakistani, without each listener necessarily appreciating all the nuances and connotations of the new persona. There was hope that this new name and phase would mark the start of a yet-unknown but enticing part of life. In the entertainment realm, dozens of Urdu movies were produced in Dhaka. East Pakistan gifted the country with the immense talent of singers in Urdu, like Firdousi Begum, the wide filmic appeal in West Pakistan of actors like Shabnam and Rahman, of music composers like Robin Ghosh.
The statist approach was also capable, after the tragic disintegration, of injecting new vigour, of arousing new confidence. In popular music, songs like Sohni Dharti and later Jeevay, Jeevay, promoted by state media expressed the unspoken desire to put behind profound pain and make a new beginning. There was the irony of such songs being rendered by gifted vocalists, like Shahnaz Begum and Runa and Dina Laila, all of whom were of East Pakistani and then Bangladeshi origin.
Belatedly but fittingly, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was invited to contribute to pluralist cultural policymaking. New entities such as the Pakistan National Council of the Arts and Lok Virsa, as also several other forums both at the federal and provincial levels commenced work to conduct research, to catalogue and document heritage.
With July 1977 there began about 11 years of a near-reversal in the constructive statist approach. The blatant use of Islam by the military regime to mask personal greed for power bred an unprecedented social obscurantism. The persecution of journalists, intellectuals and outspoken women, their exclusion from state electronic media and the deliberate promotion of showy religiosity repressed the potential for healthy, continued cultural growth.
Curiously, in the 1980s, Pakistani state TV drama serials and satirical shows, like Fifty Fifty, achieved excellence of content applauded in, of all the places, India. Prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo did attempt to change the regressive direction of the statist approach between March 1985 and May 1988. With Zia’s death in August 1988, the advent of Benazir Bhutto held out the promise that the world’s first Muslim woman prime minister would light up the darkness. Through the next nine years, alternating with Nawaz Sharif, that promise was partly fulfilled.
The Musharraf impact
Through yet another irony, it took an unelected military leader in the person of Gen Pervez Musharraf, who was diametrically opposite in personal cultural terms to Zia, to authentically invigorate a relatively liberal, forward-looking statist approach to culture and the media. Through substantial increase in reserved seats for women in all legislatures, through the introduction of private electronic media in March 2002, through measures such as the creation of the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi in 2005, the state showed that it can be a positive catalyst for cultural development. In the past 13 years since his exit, all civil governments have retained the thrust of those reforms, give or take a few changes.
One other outcome of the statist approach to culture arose from the economic sphere. The past two decades have seen the phenomenal expansion of a new multi-level middle class in both rural and urban areas, but more so in the latter, spurred by facilitated consumerism and social media connectivity. This facet of the country’s culture exudes a striking mix of conservativism and creeping modernity.
The religion-based approach
There are different strands within the religion-based approach to culture. The balanced perspective was best represented by scholars, such as Fazlur Rahman in the 1950s and early 1960s, and about 40 years later by Javed Ghamidi. It is a sad, telling truth that both these enlightened intellectuals had to leave Pakistan due to death threats.
The imbalanced view interprets Islam in medieval, insular terms. Unable to cope with the exponential growth and speed of new knowledge, technology and change, this perspective, in turn, features variations on the theme. From the extreme of seeing the shuttlecock burqa as compulsory to make women invisible, to tolerating questions from non-burqa-clad women on TV shows, from judging everything Western, Christian and Jewish to be inherently anti-Islamic to reluctantly accepting birth spacing as a legitimate form of family planning, from being unable to secure more than a small percentage of votes in 11 general elections since 1970 to wielding disproportionate influence on the state and government, the religion-driven approach has made its most superfluous contributions in the government-school educational sector and by brainwashing youth in non-governmental seminaries.
Permitted to exhibit undue sound and fury, this approach bullied its way into the formulation of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) and blocked the adoption of a bill in the National Assembly to prohibit early child marriage.
Official versions of acknowledging religion-related aspects in all public events are notable. A few years ago, Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, an MNA, moved a resolution in the National Assembly to make the rendering of naats mandatory after tilawat, and before the start of each sitting. Also often, one now hears naats being played inside PIA aircraft before take-off and after landing, to replace music. With interruptions for making announcements by the cabin crew, and with people having their routine ‘worldly’ conversations, the playing of the naats actually becomes a disrespectful practice.
Fortunately, though many Muslims have succumbed to wearing their religion on their sleeves, the large mass of Pakistanis remains mindful of all faiths, and is refreshingly cosmopolitan.
The modernist perspective
The modernist approach to culture also contains a variety within, but, in principle, it is secular, without using that word because the religious lobby has deliberately mistranslated the word in Urdu as being laadeeniya” (without faith; atheism). It is apt to recall Allama Iqbal’s insightful observation during his lectures on The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam: “All that is secular is deeply sacred at the roots of its being.”
Modernism is simply a form of pragmatism, a recognition of objective reality and radical change in a rapidly transforming world. That does not require a wholesale abandonment of tradition or belief, but only to encourage a reappraisal of primitive customs and practices which suppress women’s and children’s rights in particular under the guise of honour and religion.
Segments of the legislatures, particularly in Sindh, as well as media, civil society, armed forces, intellectual discourse, the private sector, and even elements of the public sector, like certain centres of excellence in universities, either forthrightly or cautiously apply the modernist approach in lawmaking, in cultural practices and in social conduct.
To summarise, our negative sub-cultural traits include sloth, squalor, emotive inability to conduct candid discussion on religion, bribery, self-abnegation, a virtually separate culture in cantonments, traffic indiscipline, misogyny, suppression of women’s and children’s rights, insensitivity towards non-Muslims, neglect of ancient monuments, sites, disregard of animals, and apathy towards ecology.
The positive traits include extraordinary compassion, generous charity, friendliness, warm hospitality, being helpful, democratic-minded as evident by elections held year-round for professional associations, chambers of commerce and industry, private clubs, even mohalla committees, readiness to adopt/consume new products, lifestyles, risk-taking, adventurous, brashly brave, ready to give blood to the ill and for the country, and, despite adversity, a blind faith that tomorrow will be better than today.
With a vast history still only partly explored and poorly transmitted to new generations, Pakistan’s culture at 75 is evolving robustly. It is a composite of widely contrasting features and trends that have already become distinct and which will most likely deepen and mature in the times to come.
The writer is a former senator and federal minister, and author of several books (www.javedjabbar.net).