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Cultural diversity and state ideology

A pluralistic cultural ethos is the solution

Cultural diversity and state ideology

Some of my critic-friends urged me to dilate on the central postulate of the last column in which it was suggested that culture instead of religion should be an anchoring force for state ideology.

One critique in particular perplexed me, which absolutely dismissed my contention of forging a connection between ideology and culture. The obvious fact cannot be denied that ideological polities never countenanced the cultural identity of the people because culture’s pluralising impact could evolve as the countervailing force to ideology. Therefore, in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, culture and its expression in any form was suppressed because it was deemed antithetical to ‘ideology’.

Ideology in that particular connotation pulls people from divergent socio-cultural backgrounds together and binds them into a singular-monolithic identity. Ideology was deployed by conjuring up a tightly knit polity that comes to a pass only through an act of suppressing cultures with their distinctive features. In such polities, ‘culture’ was reckoned subversive as it might unravel the whole political edifice which had ‘ideology’ as its underpinning.

Thus, ideology and culture according to one of my detractors are mutually repelling categories whereas I tried to project the two as mutually constituent, a fact which is historically unfounded if not completely erroneous.

For a moment, I was perplexed but then the feeling of gratefulness for that gentleman overtook the gnawing perplexity. More importantly, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the premise of my theory (if at all it was one). One problem with that critique was its euro-centrism — the situation which arises as a result of the interface between the theoretical categories which are western in their essence and the indigenous objective conditions. Western categories can hardly be dispensed with when it comes to post-colonial dispensations. When such categories tend to interact with the local condition which is intrinsically diverse, the outcome may spring surprises.

In my analysis, I tried to retain ideology instead of throwing it on the scrapheap. However, I tried to give ideology a de novo constitution. Instead of propounding any religious, ethnic or lingual basis of state ideology, I prioritised culture as singularly the most important determinant of ideology. Pakistan had to pay a heavy price for allowing religion to be the founding principle of its ideology. Religious figures acquired undue importance and have come quite close to unravelling the very state of Pakistan. Culture and its rootedness in the soil do not figure at all in their list of priorities.

Ideology in that particular connotation pulls people from divergent socio-cultural backgrounds together and binds them into a singular-monolithic identity.

In South Asia, cultural diversity is the most significant fact to be reckoned with. Therefore, state ideology must reflect this diversity which, of course, is daunting but not impossible. The cultural rub will make ideology amenable and relevant to the people, and also will serve as an umbrella for different social identities too. Predicating on culture, ideology will have to shun its coercive modes and methods.

Additionally, the nexus between ideology and culture might waive off the disconnect that exists quite markedly between the society and the state. Society in all likelihood will act as a conduit to the state. Thus, the conception of the state and its ideology, if re-envisioned in this manner, would come to rest on sounder and surer footing.

In the case of Pakistan, all cultures must be allowed to demonstrate their existence through their fullest expression. The issue of standardisation of cultures is quite crucial yet contentious. Generally, the nation state has a preference for a singular (national) culture. In order to cobble up a national culture, the myriad cultures existing on the margins are subsumed into the definition of a ‘national culture’. In that case, state ideology comes to hold precedence over every other thing; therefore, due to the overriding power that ideology arrogates to itself, culture is reduced to a subsidiary category of the former.

I am arguing against the interference of the state in pushing certain cultures to the core at the expense of several others which are consigned to a marginal status. It would be better to allow every culture to have a shared space in our polity. Every culture should be free to interact with other cultures which might lead to the creation of a rich cultural synthesis. The state, with minimal interference, can act as a mediator.

One must appreciate the fact that the right of self-expression is fundamental to all and sundry, be it an individual or a particular group. Allowing them to exercise that right will make them responsible towards others (people adhering to different cultures). The dichotomy between the state and the society — the latter includes various cultures and sub-cultures — would cease to exist. More importantly, self-expression is the most significant pre-condition for creativity to take roots.

A recent reminder of why cultural pluralism is the lifeblood of any ideological detail was furnished in the Punjab University, where a Pakhtun cultural event was sabotaged by the hooligans of the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), which is the student wing of the state’s ideological arm, the Jamaat-e-Islami. That cultural activities of any sort are curtailed in the name of religious sentiments being hurt is deplorable to begin with, but a far deeper malaise is the undercurrent of denying minor ethnic cultures the right to self-expression in the form of secular Pakhtun music and dance.

Another extension of the ideological apparatus of the state ricocheting and providing counterproductive results is Thursday’s terrible and inhumane on-campus lynching of a university student in Mardan on unproven charges of blasphemy. If ideology were not embedded in the religious culture of society, such incidents could be avoided.

I must therefore reiterate that state ideology must be embedded in a pluralistic cultural ethos for it to remain relevant.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.


  • Mr. Tahir Rahman has described an ideal, which perhaps no country in the world has been able to fulfill, at least not in its entirety. However, the Indian example is perhaps the most relevant for us to consider. The theory of Indian state is enshrined in the Constitution. The Preamble of the Constitution reads: “We, the People of India having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic and to secure to all its citizens; Justice, social, economic, political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and opportunity; and to promote among them all: Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation…” The preamble − this wonderful theory − should largely satisfy Tahir, but what is the reality on the ground? How come the spirit of the Constitution gets subverted in practice, for instance, currently and in its worst form by the BJP and its Hindutva ideology? The civil society is divided into religious groups and communities and Hindus of a particular persuasion believe that as the majority they have the right to dominate and their culture the right to prevail. The Government is formed by elected representatives of the people and only those get elected who proclaim loyalty to the dominant community and its ways. The constitution gets compromised because institutions meant to take care of it – the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police, etc. are not wholly autonomous and remain subservient to the Government and civil society in many ways. India has degenerated over time instead of progressing towards the fulfilment of the constitutional ideal. Unfortunately, Pakistan does not have a secular theory to guide it, whence will come the desirable practice of supporting cultural pluralism? It is Partition Mr Tahir which is chiefly to explain our joint ruin. India was divided on the basis of two-nation theory and it is still active in the two nations. There is no scope for authentic pluralism in these God-forsaken nations. Alas !

  • Inadvertence led me to write Tahir Rahman instead of Tahir Kamran. My regrets.

  • The initiative taken here is commendable. No doubt, it is very thought provoking and meaningful article. Thank you so much Dr. Tahir Kamran for this valuable article.

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