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Modernity and onto-epistemic rupture

About a social ethos with plurality

Modernity and onto-epistemic rupture
A few days back, prominent laureate Prof. Mirza Athar Baig while speaking at the launch of Cultural and Heritage protection society in GC University Lahore made a couple of pertinent points, which stirred a debate among the history faculty and students alike.

Alluding to the diversity of cultural articulation in Pakistan, he pointed to Khadim Hussain Rizvi-led agitation against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, which was violent and unilateral in its tone and tenor. Quite conversely, at GCU, a cerebral activity was being carried out that aimed at making sense of culture, its different variants in Pakistan and their nexus with Pakistani history, populace and the landscape. These variegated cultural expressions could hardly have any possibility of converging at any point.

One culture pertaining to Rizvi, as I understood his viewpoint, referred to ‘tradition’ whereas the debate on culture at GCU was essentially ‘modernist’. That sort of a binary describing one as tradition and designating the other as modernist seemed a bit simplistic to me. A crippled cleric, travelling in a vehicle that no ordinary person can afford, living an opulent life, Rizvi is quite a modern man. The exclusionary vision that he vociferously projects is the outcome of modernist version of Islam. The politics of agitation that he has come to epitomise is a modernist method of asserting one’s authority.

‘Traditional’ Islam, on the other hand, called for an inclusionary social ethos, centred on saint and shrine (in medieval times). It is important to underline the fact that from eighteenth century onwards, Sufis resorted to violent means to make a self-statement.

I vividly recollected my protracted discussions with Prof. Baig when he was Chairperson of Philosophy department and his office was next door. Local culture, knowledge and its indigenous form as well as colonial hegemony were the themes we used to discuss threadbare. In fact, Prof. Baig has been engaged with cultural essence and its multiple expressions in literature for many years. That also was the liet motif of his lectures and literary publications.  His scholarly engagement with local culture(s) goes back many years. His profundity of thought and ability to construct a literary narrative found expression in his novels and short stories, Ghulam Bagh and Hassan ki Soorat-i-Hal. Prof. Baig is one of the very few Pakistani academics who have analysed cultural tangles in post-colonial societies in a profound manner. He came up with his own theoretical formulation which he calls onto-epistemic rupture. That rupture in cultural and epistemic continuity was caused by modernity whose conduit was colonialism.

Every culture has its own system of knowledge, usually relevant to its own socio-historical context. Local tradition through historical continuity nurtures that system of knowledge which supposedly has the potential to throw up its own modernity. Unluckily, since eighteenth century colonialism emerged as a dispensation that not only dominated the political and economic domains but also when the local socio-epistemic structure was dismantled, that severing of epistemology from the local tradition conjured up what Prof. Baig terms onto-epistemic rupture.

Now the question which has niggled many minds is whether the onto-epistemic tradition with its indigenous context can ever be retrieved. A straight answer to this question will be in the negative. Colonial modernity and its attendant experience has become an integral part of our collective being, which of course expresses itself differently but the overall expression of our being(s) is essentially mediated through modernity.

That particular act to retrieve our onto-epistemic tradition is not possible for another reason too. The historical context to our existence in the present (moment) is embedded in modernity, which cannot be dispensed with. All of us being a post-colonial populace, we are incarcerated by our colonial past. A break from that past is virtually impossible. In the words of Homi Bhabha, we (the post-colonial people) are the ones with ‘hybrid’ identity. We therefore are bound to view our own tradition from the prism of modernity. Thus tradition was an act which had been played out in the past and is thus irretrievable in its actual essence. The onto-epistemic rupture is a phenomenon that is etched in stone and we are bound to live with it.

In this scenario, why not to make it a part of our collective experience by coming up with a novel synthesis of the two.

We should not let go of our tradition (whichever shape it is in) and make it express itself through instruments of modernity. However, one precaution is extremely important. We must guard against the proclivity of exclusion which is an abiding trait of modernity. My own concern is that in modern nation states, the value of plurality could not strike its roots. Diversity in such situations usually gives way to differentiation eventually leading to the perception of ‘Otherness’. Thus violence becomes inevitable because every culture vies to dominate instead of following the dictum ‘live and let live’.

That probably is the most formidable challenge that modernity has posed to the people from diverse ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds in the post-colonial world. Accepting people with a cultural difference instead of obliterating them seems to have become the norm. India presents an avid illustration of that trend.

One must be cognizant of the subtle difference in plurality and differentiation. In a plural dispensation, diversity is celebrated which adds to the social vibrancy of any culture and social formation. Differentiation breeds antipathetic feelings among people of diverse cultural backgrounds. Our predicament is the combination of religion and modernity, which has made religion into an instrument of exclusion. Now the challenge for such luminaries like Prof. Baig is whether they can re-invent the social ethos where plurality is an accepted norm even only at the epistemic level or not?

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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