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Interventions in culture

Another new government, another culture policy…

Interventions in culture

It appears that another culture policy is to hit the deck pretty soon. Since it has been announced by the Punjab Minister for Culture and Information, it is bound to reflect the outlook of the PTI government. Though one is constrained to ask, what exactly is the policy of the government except crying foul over corruption.

Each new government wants to stamp its own authority and image, and the easy way out is to pooh pooh the policies of the previous setup. The ongoing implementation is either stalled or slowed down and new projects started, some actually already in progress that are rechristened with new names and labels.

So there has been a surfeit of culture policies. In the early years of the country, there was no culture policy. During the Ayub Khan years, there was no policy as such but, at that time, many institutions were put under some kind of state umbrella like the creation of the National Press Trust and bodies regulating higher education. Radio’s role was expanded and television, set up under the ministry of information, was strictly placed under the direct supervision of the government.

Pakistan People’s Party under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto laid down the first comprehensive plan on culture as something that needed to be addressed but there was no policy as such. It was only left to the second government of Benazir Bhutto (1993-96) to formulate and announce, with a degree of fanfare, a formal culture policy. Then her government fell and not much was achieved in this respect.

General Musharraf laid down a culture policy based on “enlightened moderation”, as indeed at the far end of the last PML-N government, there was yet another attempt at announcing a policy. Much was made of it in the dying days of the government but there was not enough time for its implementation.

Some governments have treated it like a necessary evil. For instance, the last culture policy of the Nawaz government was announced so late in the tenure of the government that it betrayed its lack of interest in the entire enterprise.

One dreads to think what is going to be the culture policy now, headed by a minister who has a very conservative bent of mind and a background that has called for massive surgeries, cutting off much that is not supposed to be ours.

With culture being treated with such indifference, it would be better if the government totally forgot about it. The fear always is that the government in power may launch a plan or policy that is more exclusionist in nature and lay down standards of censorship which, if applied crudely, would be detrimental to all.

What does a culture policy imply? That the government should set a direction for culture to develop. Or should it be that by not interfering, the government should allow the cultural activity to grow and prosper on its own. It should only provide space and facilitate the cultural activity without undue interference by the government.

In a country like Pakistan which is sliding towards a more conservative ideological framework, the fear is that the ideological clampdown will squeeze freedom of expression further.

As it is, the difference between state institutions and those run by the government has minimised, if not gotten obliterated altogether. It could be said that there is no awareness as such or there has been a conscious attempt at erasing that subtle line.

In the beginning, one wanted greater role of the state in all spheres of life. But, in retrospect, perhaps it is not advisable to let the state overplay its role.

In the last twenty years or so, the impetus of intervention in culture has been driven by the desire to project the image of the country in foreign lands as being different from the general impression that has hung like a pall of bad news. This should never be the purpose of a culture policy because the promotion of culture and its free expression should be the aim rather than a mere effort at projection abroad. If the country has enough vibrance and dynamism within itself, the image that will get projected abroad will reflect it. Any extra gesture over and above that can only result in a fake one — like the holding of fashion shows in and outside the country to project an image of being modern — as it happened in the tenure of Shaukat Aziz.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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