Cultural diversity is the product of the human evolutionary journey over time, as the first homo sapiens migrated from Africa to populate all the continents. The unique features of human cultures are the consequences of thousands of years of adaptability and innovation in response to diverse geographical and climatic conditions. Never growing in isolation, the uniqueness of human cultures is an outcome of intense interactions between different cultures, owing to migration, trade and war. In the last few hundred years, nation-states began to appear on the world map, subsuming the diversity of culture under the emblem of a nation. Nation rather than culture emerged as the primary identity of every individual in the world today. The strengthening of national culture became the conduit to nation-building. The uniqueness of a national culture depends on its distinct traditions. These traditions are the accumulated creative expressions of the past generations of ethnic groups, and are rooted in diverse geographies, but bounded by national borders.
The uniqueness of Pakistani culture lies in the diversity of geographical locations that comprise the territorial map of Pakistan. From the deserts of Sindh to the highest mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan, from coastal regions of Balochistan to irrigated fields of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there is a diversity of cultural expressions. The variety of languages, folklore, costumes, cuisine, and/or culture correspond directly to the diversity of regional identities. As a nation-state comprises different territories inhabiting different ethnic groups, so is the fabric of national culture which is built on the diversity of local traditions. The unity of national culture rests on the endorsement through state patronage of the creative forms of ethnic traditions. The streams of regional cultures intersect and flow together through the national river, never merging into the river, nor flowing too far from it.
The inherent democratization of digital media poses a threat to the established social, economic and political order. The new age of technology will bring its own structures of governance. There would be revolutions in the future that have yet no model.
The interplay of tradition and culture in Pakistan has a chequered past. The two landmark identity markers of the national culture, Urdu as the national language and Islam as the state religion were in place long before the Muslim League led Pakistan to be a majority Muslim state. The project of nation-building after the independence was to replicate the pre-existing national cultural map on the cultural geography of the state territory. Sporadic attempts were made to let national culture evolve in sync with unique local cultures that have existed before the national borders were drawn. Instead of serving as roots of national culture, the unique cultural traditions of diverse geographical regions of Pakistan were by either narrow mindedness or some ulterior motives brought into play as hotbeds of antagonism, creating roadblocks in the nation-building process.
Beyond the national horizons along the ethnic divide, there is an emerging urban culture, which is more cosmopolitan than regional. The forces of globalization through mass media and overseas education have created islands of global cultures within the national borders. The youth of every country subscribe to a global popular that is not in sync with national or ethnic cultures. The global youth culture is being mediated through digital media which have redrawn the ideas of borders and control. The state monopolies over the flow of communication have been compromised, opening virtual doors of the nation to the global mass culture. The postmodern utopia of a borderless world is beginning to take shape at the global level. The medical regime of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19 as we know it), quantum leaped the entire planet into the digital age. From a child in a preparatory school in a village in Punjab to the top executive in a multinational cooperation in Japan, the socialization into the digital world has been fast and brutal. The consequences of the new normal for the real world as we knew it before are murkier.
One thing is clear. The computer-generated virtual space has become the primary cultural arena of conflict and cooperation whose changing social and political dynamics are rarely mapped. For a long time in human history, the potential to reach out to the masses in millions was reserved for the leaders of society. Now, every individual with access to digital media on the planet holds the same potential. The means to achieve that potential differs across human hierarchies and national borders, but the playing field is leveled equally for all corners of the world. The inherent democratization of digital media poses a threat to the established social, economic and political order. The new age of technology will bring its own structures of governance. There would be revolutions in the future that have yet no model.
The interplay of tradition and culture needs to be reworked in the world which takes ‘think globally and act locally’ as an uncontested axiom of the age. The global aspirations of national youth are being harnessed by western markets through a pervasive cultural influence, deployed through modern gadgetry and information products. With the increasing hegemony of global digital media, anchored in western capitalist civilizational ethos, both the tradition and culture of Pakistan are equally at a stake. The uniqueness of Pakistani culture, the very reservoir of its creative cultural and intellectual inheritance, is being fast depleted. The extent of inter-generational loss of cultural knowledge of traditions of the past has reached staggering proportions. Our national cultural heritage, a legacy of more than five thousand years old Pakistan, is almost lost to the young generation, who like the fictional character of Aladdin’s wife in Arabian Nights are selling their old magical lamps in the lure of the glittering new wares of the Western culture. Unless Pakistan’s policymakers choose to take culture as a strategic resource, to nourish and cement bonds of provincial fraternities, in a few decades we will have only the proverbial genie out of Aladdin’s lamp left to bring our culture and traditions back to life.
The writer is an anthropologist working for the Center for Culture and Development (C2D), Islamabad. He is also the Vice President of Council of Social Sciences Pakistan.
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