There is a widely believed story in Pakistan, that there is a shrine in Gujrat where an iron cap is placed around the heads of infant children to restrict their growth, in order to turn them into beggars to work for the shrine. These small-headed beggars that are known as ‘Shah Daula ke Choohay [the Rats of Shah Daula] can be seen sometimes at city junctions and train stations together with their handlers.
The story that I’ve heard from someone who has researched this is that Shah Daula was in fact a saintly man who would care for children born with primary microcephaly, who were abandoned by their families and left at the hermitage of the saint. Primary microcephaly is a genetic disorder usually caused by generations of interfamilial marriage and, according to one report , the incidence rate of primary microcephaly in Pakistan is 1 in every 10,000.
After the hermitage got turned into Shah Daula’s shrine, the successive keepers of the shrine continued the tradition of feeding the children, but also started involving them in the shrine’s upkeep by encouraging them to beg for alms.
Whatever the real story is, the image of a child forcibly having an iron cap placed around his head to constrict its growth is a chilling one; not only because it portrays man’s inexplicable wickedness, but also because it symbolises the ‘iron-cap-of-mind-constriction’ that restricts the growth of our critical faculties and creativity.
Massive funds were spent recently on the re-recording of the national anthem for the 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s Independence Day. The result was a recording which is the same as the old recording, except in better quality. Isn’t it time we rethought the constraints we have placed around our own imaginations?
After the creation of Pakistan and the death of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, those who forcibly put themselves in charge of the ‘nation-building’ project of the new country fooled themselves into thinking that a nation is created by imposing a uniform identity upon its citizens.
What they did not understand was that, though a nation may indeed share certain core values, the cultural tools to express those values might be as different from each other as the people expressing them. Thus, one person may speak Potohari and another Marwari; one might identify as a Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Parsi; or live in the city or in the village; and yet share core values such as looking after elders, protecting the vulnerable, being hospitable and charitable, compassionate and humane…
The self-proclaimed ‘nation builders’ sought to herd everyone under a single language, a single ideology, and a single expression of culture and religion.
Nations are built where people are encouraged and protected to develop voluntary channels of communication and collaboration through art, discourse and cognitive education; where individual expressions of culture are allowed to flourish and interface with the collective; where free thinking is nurtured to produce new innovative ideas for social progress. All projects of nation-building that have sought to impose a socio-cultural regime from the top-down are doomed to failure.
Empires may have been forged like this so long as they retained the brute force to suppress their subjects. But all empires in the end inevitably become victims of their own repression and end up cannibalising themselves.
The proverbial iron-cap-of-mind-constriction started being forced upon the people of Pakistan fairly early, where the ruling establishment sought to differentiate the Pakistani identity with the Indian one. Once the rebellious block of East Pakistan — which was obviously culturally different from its western wing — became independent, the military-bureaucratic establishment of what remained of Pakistan felt even a greater need to develop a cohesive narrative that would hold the country together.
But the further they started to ‘otherise’ their ‘national identity’ from the perceived identities of their neighbours, the further they started to find cultural variants within themselves and became more and more selective about which variant to allow and which to disallow.
The 75 years of Pakistan’s history have thus seen a decline in the plurality of cultural expression and variety of social lifestyles, resulting in not only the prohibition on alcohol and cannabis and the ban on nightclubs in the cities, but also the smothering out of indigenous festivals such as Basant, and the ever-growing disapproval of the spontaneous culture at shrine melas. Dance, particularly by women, also became blacklisted, with several arts councils in Punjab prohibiting the artform altogether.
Punjab, which is the centre of the military-bureaucratic establishment of Pakistan, bore the brunt of this artificial project of nation-building, and thus suffered culturally more than the other provinces. More and more educated Punjabis started speaking Urdu or English with their children, switching to their native Punjabi only when telling vulgar jokes or speaking with those that they perceived to be inferior in status.
State suppression over cultural expression took its worst form in Pakistan under the regime of the dictator Gen Ziaul Haq, when pop music and even classical dance got banned altogether from public media, and all music venues across the urban centres of Pakistan were forcibly shut down.
During this time, it became mandatory for all women appearing on television to cover their heads and, upon presidential order, the traditional greeting of ‘Khuda hafiz’ was replaced by the more exclusive greeting of ‘Allah hafiz’ on all media channels and official functions. During the 11 years of Gen Zia, the state forcibly outlawed all and any cultural expression that was deemed to be contrary to the myopic “national narrative” of Pakistan.
The constricting laws that were forced upon Pakistani society in the ’80s left their mark on the development of the collective mind of the nation; even during successive, more-tolerant administrations, the germs of self-censorship continued to spread and poison the minds of ordinary citizens, who had become conditioned into a Pavlovian response to react against any ideas and concepts that challenged their conservative mindsets.
The horrific results of this are evident in the ever-growing incidences of murderous violence against people for simply expressing contrary opinions about religion.
All this has resulted in a nation that is unable to agree upon anything that is of national value, except the most basic traditional myths and symbols surrounding the creation of Pakistan. To even think about adding someone else’s picture besides the Quaid’s on our banknotes would be considered too controversial, unless perhaps it were that of Allama Iqbal’s, Pakistan’s only “national poet”.
We recently witnessed the re-recording of our national anthem on the 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s Independence Day. For this massive project, exorbitant funds were allocated and musicians flown into Islamabad from all quarters of the country.
The producers worked extra hard to recreate the symphonic music of the old national anthem in a country that has no philharmonic orchestra or music education in its school curriculum; and managed to produce a recording which is the same as the old recording, except in better quality.
Would it be too presumptuous to ask whether the funds allocated for this massive project might not have been better spent in creating the foundation for Pakistan’s own philharmonic orchestra, or in establishing a National Music Academy in our capital city Islamabad or, indeed, in training music teachers on a national level and introducing music education in government schools?
India on the other hand also re-recorded its own national anthem on the same occasion of independence, in which they featured several of their own well-known artists uniquely interpreting their hymn in their individual ways, to create a rendition that is fresh to the ears — thus breathing life into an old composition.
Similar experiments with the Pakistani national anthem have been done before by musicians on the electric guitar, and on folk and classical instruments but, on this occasion, our government felt more secure spending a fortune to simply re-record the old arrangement as it is, instead of risking innovation.
This same timid mindset has defined our educational curriculum, where anything that is deemed contrary to the “national narrative” has been omitted and erased. This becomes particularly problematic in a country which has much diversity of culture, languages and belief systems.
One can go to the best schools in Pakistan and learn about what Allama Iqbal and William Shakespeare wrote in Urdu and English, and yet learn nothing about what Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid and Guru Nanak wrote in Punjabi; or what Shah Lateef and Sachal Sarmast wrote in Sindhi; or Khwaja Ghulam Fareed in Saraiki; or Mast Tawakali in Balochi; or Rehman Baba or Ghani Khan in Pashto; let alone the several poets of Gilgit Baliststan who wrote in their own languages.
Instead of paying lip-service to all these indigenous cultures of Pakistan, would not the project of “nation-building” be better served by allocating significant resources towards their development? A useful book on Pakistan Studies should teach us about the wealth of our cultural diversity so that we may understand each other better, not try to indoctrinate us into a single national narrative.
The iron-cap-of-mind-constriction has affected the development of science in our country more than anything else, since most teachers in our schools and madrassas are trained to follow rote-learning methods rather than cognitive methods of education, and suppression of critical thinking has resulted in a dullness of the creative faculties.
Yet, despite decades of destruction caused by the flawed concepts of nation-building, Pakistan still remains an astonishingly diverse and resilient nation. All across the country, we still have no shortage of inquisitive and fertile minds that can excel in any field, if provided the right environment for observation, introspection and cooperation.
It’s high time that those that truly care about the nation break free from their proverbial iron caps and lead the collective path towards excellence.
The writer is a musician, musicologist, festival curator and producer based out of Islamabad with a keen interest in the role of culture in human development
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 25th, 2022