Pakistan’s National Culture: A Mosaic of Regional Identities

14th August is not only the day for celebration of national independence, but also a day for the reclamation of the cultural paradigms of Pakistani nationhood. It is a historic day to remember that the very etymology of the word Pakistan, as coined by a young Muslim nationalist, Chaudhry Rahmat Ali in 1933, is rooted in its regional identities. Like the acronym itself, which draws from the initials of the five regions of Northern India, including Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir, Pakistani culture is the sum total of its constituent regional parts.  


The word culture has come to acquire a variety of meanings. In popular parlance, it stands for a refinement in traditions, customs, manners and the cultivation of arts and aesthetics. For the social scientists, who study human behavior in a society, culture is a lot more than the idealized and creative forms of expressions, as expressed in literary, visual and performing arts. It not only includes the material artifacts of culture such as food, clothes, houses, machines and  means of communication and transportation but also the non-material aspects of culture such as religion, morality, law, philosophy, art, literature and political systems. 


Culture permeates the life of an individual as well as of society. All elements of a culture are learnt by individuals through socialization, transmitting the knowledge and values of a society from one generation to the other. As part of learned behavior, culture is a unique feature of human societies, as the animal behavior is largely determined through genetics and is inherited. 

Pakistani culture is a conglomerate of multiple historical, cultural and religious strands, which must be weaved together to form a distinct Pakistani identity. The religion of Islam provides the ideological and ethical basis for the construction of Pakistani cultural identity. The indigenous cultures of various linguistic regions form the cultural core of Pakistani national identity. The elements of western culture, absorbed during the British colonialism inform the modern construction of Pakistani cultural identity. The distinctive cultures of minority groups are organic part of the cultural mosaic. All these cultural elements have been absorbed into the bloodstream of social and historical life of Pakistani people.


Each culture nurtures certain unique cultural traits, which informs the patterns of consensual behavior in a society. The cultural traits carry the stamp of social approval and force of moral authority in a society. The social groups which tend to follow similar cultural practices live together in closer proximities leading to the existence of human settlements with distinct cultural identities. 


A road trip through the length and breadth of Pakistan is a visual equivalent to a walk through an ethnographic display of diverse patterns of behavior, drawn from historic past to contemporary modern, exhibited through architecture, food, clothing, language, and manners among others.


A popular myth about culture is that it is static and backward looking, as it relies on the traditions and customs of the out-dated past. On the contrary, anthropologists who study human cultures observe that all human cultures continue to adapt and change in response to changes in the society. Inventing new traditions and abandoning old customs, cultures continue to evolve over time. The diffusion of technology is a major driver of social, cultural and economic change in a society. 


The changes in material culture such as technology, architecture or clothes are likely to spread faster than changes in the value systems, beliefs, and practices. The use of modern technology, born out of rational thought, can be conveniently used by social groups professing completely irrational ideas. The sociologists call this the phenomenon of cultural lag, whereby certain cultural traits, such as use of mobile phones are readily adopted by majority of population, whereas the diffusion of rational thought, which produced the science and technology in the first place, has not taken place in society. Therefore, it is equally plausible to drive a car believing that it is not fueled but powered by preternatural forces. 

For the social scientists, who study human behavior in a society, culture is lot more than the idealized and creative forms of expressions, as expressed in literary, visual and performing arts. It not only includes the material artifacts of culture such as food, clothes, houses, machines and  means of communication and transportation but also the non-material aspects of culture such as religion, morality, law, philosophy, art, literature and political systems.


It is wrongly presumed that different cultural areas of Pakistan have arrived at their uniquely different patterns of behavior in isolation from each other. The truth is just the opposite. In fact, the cultural patterns in different regions of Pakistan have developed through diffusion and cross fertilization with the cultural traits of the region and the world through migration, trade, pilgrimage, and war. 


The integration of diverse cultures into a national cultural mosaic is a challenge that every modern nation state has faced in its national life. With the formation of the state of Pakistan, the process of nation building in a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic polity began in earnest. Although the majority of Pakistanis belong to the Indian Muslim population in India, they shared common cultural traits, religion and historical experiences, which bound them together as a cohesive social and cultural group. Yet, the Indian Muslims formed an internally differentiated group, which carried the cultural traits of the regions they had originated from such as Bengal, Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, and so forth. Pakistani nation, therefore, is a composite of diversified cultural patterns of the regions, which will stay together in the bonds of nationhood as long as their individual identities are recognized and harmonized in the national culture. 


Though resisted by Bengali national groups, Urdu was selected by the Quaid-i-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to be the national language of Pakistan. In the words of Quaid-i-Azam, which he uttered during his address at Decca in 1947, “Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function”. Through state school system, Urdu was used as the language of the curricula for Pakistani youth, to fulfill the dream of national integration through language. As a testament to the Quaid’s vision of mono-lingualism, Urdu, today, has become a lingua franca of the nation. It is learnt and spoken by vast majority of Pakistanis, across the vast stretches of country, from Khyber to Gwadar. After more than half a century, far from being an alien cultural imposition, Urdu language has come to define the very core of what it means to be Pakistani in the world today. Notwithstanding the historic lineage/spread of Urdu language in the medieval India, Urdu language and literature, in the post-independence period, has rapidly diffused into the regional literary cultures of Pakistan. Among the best literary works in Urdu language, most are being authored by writers who have learnt Urdu as a second language.
Pakistani culture is a conglomerate of multiple historical, cultural and religious strands, which must be weaved together to form a distinct Pakistani identity. The religion of Islam provides the ideological and ethical basis for the construction of Pakistani cultural identity. The indigenous cultures of various linguistic regions form the cultural core of Pakistani national identity. The elements of western culture, absorbed during the British colonialism inform the modern construction of Pakistani cultural identity. The distinctive cultures of minority groups are organic part of the cultural mosaic. All these cultural elements have been absorbed into the bloodstream of social and historical life of Pakistani people. 
However, a critical scrutiny of the historic past in the light of contemporary experience is as important a task as the interrogation of the western modern thoughts in the shadow of colonialism. Cultural traditions are not the beacons of light for the future; they are the historic signpost of cultural evolution of a society.

It is wrongly presumed that different cultural areas of Pakistan have arrived at their uniquely different patterns of behavior in isolation from each other. The truth is just the opposite. In fact, the cultural patterns in different regions of Pakistan have developed through diffusion and cross fertilization with the cultural traits of the region and the world through migration, trade, pilgrimage, and war.


Pakistan as a country is a political union of its constituent territories. Pakistani national culture is an aggregate of these regional cultures. The regional cultures are not antagonistic rivals to each other or to the Pakistani national culture. Instead, they jelled together to collectively form a distinct national culture, which will not flourish without its constituent parts. 


The consolidation of a vibrant Pakistani national culture cannot be brought about by coercive administrative means. The process of assimilation of regional cultures into a national mainstream will happen only through voluntary accumulation of cultural traits and development of regional affinities in a democratic framework. The block printed cloth of Ajrak, a symbol of Sindhi indigenous cultural traditions has risen in popularity across Pakistan to become an icon of Pakistani national culture. 


A genuine national culture will emerge only if the expressions of cultural diversity are not mistakenly interpreted as the signs of national fragmentation. Neither chauvinistic revivalism nor indiscriminate modernism, but a conscious selection of the foreign and indigenous elements from Pakistan’s historic past will yield a progressive Pakistani national culture, which respects the ideological grounds of Pakistani national identity while mainstreaming the multiple regional strands of identities into a seamless mosaic of national culture.



The writer is Director of National College of Arts & Vice President of the Council of Social Sciences.
Email: [email protected]
 

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