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The politics of culture

Cultural policies have always remained an afterthought for most political parties. Will things be any different this election season?

The politics of culture
A mural at Loke Virsa, Islamabad.

Culture has never been a priority with the political parties in the country. It has to be seen whether culture gets even a mention in elections manifestoes as these political parties prepare for electioneering in the seven odd weeks at their disposal.

If there has been any party that has considered culture to be worthy of being part of the overall programme in the country it has been the Pakistan People’s Party. With its formation of the government in the early 1970s it set up a Culture Division in the Federal Ministry of Education and much greater state intervention was slotted in the setting up of cultural infrastructure in the shape of National and Provincial Arts Councils, Lok Virsa, Nafdec, State Film Authority, Academy of Letters, National Book Foundation and other such institutions at the provincial levels. Some of these decisions were reversed by the following Zia ul Haq regime or their nature twisted to give it a totally different spin. He truly conceived culture to be a handmaiden of religion. But it also took the People’s Party another twenty odd years to formally announce its first culture policy in the second term of Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s.

During the Ayub Khan tenure, culture was given priority, if taking something out of the bin, dusting it off and presenting it as something shiny can be seen as caring for culture, but the emphasis was more on preventing the ideological spread of the left. A staunch ally of the western world, the entire focus of the government was to curb and even eliminate such institutions and even writers, poets, painters who were progressive, so to speak. At the same time, the spectre of the right was curtailed and repressed and there was a feel of openness that also contained a hangover of the Raj.

The vacuum that it resulted in was filled in by liberal thought and proponents of the free world. There was plenty of music, dance, poetry, novel and film as a consequence.

But, in the recent past, one has seen the over-the-top mixing of cultural expression with politics, making it part of a performance in the rallies of Tehreek-e-Insaf. As the politicians prepare to address the people, the scene is warmed up by the singers, vocalists, and DJs who happen to represent the younger lot in forms that espouse and are popular with the youth. Salman Ahmed has strummed his guitar, singing topical numbers, all very kitsch, truly representative of the society that we have become. The spectacle is inclusive of offering prayers on stage in full view of the crowds as part of an overall performance.

Ayub Khan’s era was freer in the sense that it kept the religious right on the margins. Many steps that were taken may appear to be impossible to restart or reenergise in present times as the zeal to find a modernistic interpretation of religion dominated his policies. Culture had to be free of the left’s colouration and also of the right’s dictat so what was left was an open area in the middle that appeared to be a-ideological.

This openness was made use of by many and it generated an atmosphere where the oppressive censorship of the arts, the performing arts in particular, did not seem to breathe down one’s neck. Making use of that space much was achieved in that era.

General Mushrarraf’s decade was characterised by holding culture, — particularly the performing arts – as an antidote to extremism. It was not culture as an organic expression of the people, rather a showcasing of an entity that was supposed to answer the many questions that extremism posed. In time it became a prop that needed stilts to be big enough to counter the growing menace of extremism. Despite all the talk of ‘enlightened moderation’, the duplicitous policy on being selective about the war on terror ended up as a cosmetic directive pushed down from above. People had actually disowned it as not of their own.

In the early years after the creation of the country, the entire thrust was in carving out an identity that was different from the overarching Indian one. The rationale was that since a new country had been created it should have a different cultural basis for dong so. As an afterthought, pruning and selective picking took place in all forms only to attain a poise of stability in the Ayub Khan era. The true indigenisation of ‘Pakistani’ culture set in in earnest after the separation of East Pakistan. All this selectiveness became easier with the breaking away of the Eastern wing, as a more homogeneous narrative was clamped down with greater antecedents to Persian and Arabic culture. Bengal with its syncretic hue always popped up awkward questions to which there were no ready answers in the construct of the west wing ideologues.

Its nadir was experienced in the Zia ul Haq’s era when even the Persian part was minimized or treated as deviation and the Arabian portions exaggerated beyond its scope. The Allah Hafiz — Khuda Hafiz binary was supposed to hold profound implications. This resulted in trivialising important historical cultural constructs and the struggle has continued since, in wanting to offset these disproportioned assignments. The People’s Party and General Musharaf tried but in the thrust of a raging religious fundamentalist challenge it seemed to fritter away.

Pakistan Muslim League (N) announced its culture policy in the dying days of its rule and the Tehreek-e-Insaf too in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the twilight months of its term. This, in a way, posits the lack of priority that the two parties assigned to this important area which to many is not central but only an appendage to the real working of the government. If both these parties come to power, in whatever political configuration after the next general elections, they will not be in a position to deny the existence of a cultural policy but can parry citing over pressing issues as an excuse for its delayed implementation.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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