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Cultural plurality & state ideology

A timely query raised by the Punjab University incident

Cultural plurality & state ideology

A couple of weeks back in the Punjab University, the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT) and Pakhtun students took a collision course which did not surprise many when it resulted in a violent physical clash. That was a punitive measure, for the Pakhtun students were ‘guilty’ of demonstrating their culture, which stimulated the ire of the religiously-orientated Jamiat.

The foremost irony with the religious in Pakistan is their disdain for anything cultural. For the last few years, the IJT had a subdued existence at the Punjab University campus where the former Vice Chancellor (Prof. Mujahid Kamran) relegated it to the very margins of university politics. The Baloch-Pakhtun alliance of students united on the campus which the IJT considered as a scourge descended from the sky. The youth from both the ethnicities, ostensibly at the behest of the University administration, posed a serious challenge to the three decade long over-lordship of the Jamiat. Thus IJT, once the unequivocal masters of the Punjab University, became a pariah.

With the change of administration, the IJT again tried to flex its muscles, and their bid to reduce the Pakhtun students to size was a success initially, but it entailed a backlash. Not only did the Pakhtun students very well manage to settle their score, they were also projected in the media as a bunch of hapless youngsters, whom the IJT had maltreated with its ‘usual’ ruthlessness.

Consequently, a wave of sympathy for the Pakhtuns became ubiquitous. As the situation exists, the IJT has been palpably discredited. This begs an important question as to why the baton-wielding episode orchestrated by the IJT evoked such powerful scorn from the public; more significantly, the state apparatus also made its intentions very clear by apprehending the perpetrators in a prompt fashion. The message was clear: baton-wielding will no longer be tolerated. Such militancy has been a hallmark of the IJT right from the outset, reaching its pinnacle during the Zia rule (1977-1988) when the Punjab University was completely ‘leased out to the IJT’.

That pattern continued until quite recently. However, now the winds of change have started blowing. The binary of ideological unilateralism versus cultural plurality as the marker of identity is posited to us. The former believes in and practises obliteration of differences — social, religious or ethnic — and the latter tends to accept and in some cases celebrate these differences.

The University administration would have served the cause very well had it given the guideline to the students by way of emphasising on them to underline the similarities instead of differences.

In this moment in our national history, the question about which of these two paths we are heading down is a timely query. Are we as people moving towards culture (with its multiple ways of articulation) rather than religion with its exclusionary streak as the principal constituent of our ideology? Have we started realising the perils and portents of fomenting a singular identity predicating on religion instead of the plurality that cultural diversity warrants?

In these days when we as a nation are in a quest for a counter-narrative, these questions become all the more pertinent. The public reaction against the IJT’s highhandedness and the state’s timely action are suggestive of a change in people’s perception. It will be interesting to scratch the surface in order to ascertain the changing priorities of the people at the helm and the new thinking patterns of the general populace.

Without obfuscating the argument, one may aver that the state ideology must reflect all the cultural identities inhabiting Pakistan. The way religion has been re-formulated (and re-framed) since the British took over the subcontinent has become an inhibiting force. Professing and preaching of religion as an inhibiting force has become the norm ever since the text acquired primacy as a mean for authenticating religion.

That happened to all religions in the Colonial South Asia. Hinduism in India with the likes of Yogi Adityanath exemplifies the voices of inhibition and exclusion reaching a crescendo. In such circumstances, exclusion and not similarity is played out with full vigour. Culture, on the other hand, if not circumscribed by religious fundamentalism, sets people free to express themselves.

Such expression brings forth plurality and variety which in usual cases is lying latent in the society. Society grows in its creative potential only when people are allowed to express themselves to the fullest extent. Since cultural patterns vary in essence and texture in almost every society, the state therefore has the role of a moderator. Therefore, the state works as an agent that strikes the balance.

Culture, if allowed a proper, optimum expression, infuses historicity into the tradition and also into religion. It binds religious tradition, historical process and values emanating from geographical specificity; thus, different identities and factions are held within a larger fold — that of a nation. Cultural vivacity is the best antidote to socio-religious stagnation.

Here, it will not be out of place to underscore the intellectual content that underpins culture and the way it gets articulated. It is important with particular reference to the Pakhtun cultural event that became the cause for the whole ruckus at Punjab University on March 21. At this point in time, we need intellectual clarity regarding ‘culture’ as an epistemic category. Therefore, holding academic seminars on university campuses, on various aspects and the modes of expressions of multiple cultures, which synchronically exist in Pakistan, is more important than going for amateurish performances.

The University administration would have served the cause very well had it given the guideline to the students by way of emphasising on them to underline the similarities instead of differences. Similarities in different cultures, when synthesised, become the strongest possible social glue that may place on firm footing a nation lacerated and atomised by sectarian and ethnic particularities.

That also presents to us the best recipe for hammering out the counter-narrative.

Tahir Kamran

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

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