A nation in search of its culture

This article was sent to me by the writer’s daughter, Sarah Siddiqi. Zuhair Siddiqi was a senior journalist who died in a road accident in 1979

 By Zuhair Siddiqi

guest-contributorIt is not surprising that Pak­istan, which has now completed 29 years of her life, should still be involved in a debate on the roots and character, the substance and orientation, of her culture.

Perhaps, no other newly libera­ted nation has experienced cul­tural problems of such complexi­ty. The birth of Pakistan was not the mere emergence of a country from political slavery into sovereign independence. Nor was the partition that it in­volved a simple case of separa­tion, like that of Burma from British India ten years earlier. The new State came into being as the result of a three-way parti­tion — of the Indian sub-continent, of Muslim India, and of the two major Muslim provinces.

On the other hand, the emer­gence of Pakistan involved the union, in a single body politic, of two parts separated by over a thousand miles of foreign terri­tory. This vast geographical distance, with its concomitant diffe­rences between the two Wings, presented extremely difficult problems in the sphere of cultural integration.


We had barely begun to face those problems when serious strains developed over political and economic issues. Five years ago, the union broke-down and the eastern wing broke away, blotting out some of the old prob­lems of integration and leaving us with some new questions about the cultural roots and orientation of the Pakistan that remained. In the changed pers­pective, a fresh cultural debate was only inevitable. It has gone on for nearly two years, now vitiated by unreason and con­fused thinking, now thoughtful and lighting the way to some kind of a synthesis.

The search for the roots of our culture, which in normal circum­stances should have been an ob­jective exercise, has often arous­ed emotions of surprising intensi­ty. A certain degree of interest and pride in the ancient roots of one’s native culture and its sur­viving relics is natural and desirable. It serves to maintain the people’s links with their cultural moorings, and strengthen the foundations of territorial national­ism. But beyond a reasonable degree, it often tends to degene­rate into atavism, an obsession with the past, and a generally backward outlook. In a country of many group cultures, this tends to alienate the groups from one another and hamper the pro­cess of integration.

Equally morbid

Equally morbid is the vehemen­ce with which a certain group, wedded to the so-called Nazariya­i-Pakistan, asserts itself against any reference to the pre-Islamic past of this ancient land. A typi­cal expression of this attitude of mind is this concluding para­graph of an article on culture by a noted Urdu poet and journalist of Karachi:

“Don’t ask us to go to Mohenjo­daro and Harappa, Taxila, and Gandhara, for spiritual enlighten­ment and creative inspiration. This is beyond us. For, our mind, as it is now has evolved over the past twelve centuries. We do not belong to the age before Christ. Our spiritual birth took place much later”.

The advent of Islam in this part of the world in the eighth century A.D. was no doubt a turning point in the history of its people. But it did not abolish their old culture. Slowly and gradually, a new culture grew out of the impact. Culture is a continuous process involving the whole gamut of a people’s life — their modes of living, emotions and aspirations, moral values and intellectual endeavours. It is not possible, therefore, to fix any his­torical date or event as the start­ing point of any national cul­ture.

Change is, of course, the law of nature, and from time to time great revolutions occur, sweeping away a whole social order and radically changing the people’s way of life. But no revolution can be treated as a cut-off point in the cultural history of a peo­ple. For instance, in the cradle of Islam—the Arab world—the great poetry of the days of ignor­ance has always been cherished as one of its most valuable cultural treasures. In Iran, more than three centuries after the Islamic conquest, Firdousi still found the source of his creative inspiration in the ancient history and legend of the land, and immortalised its heroes in his great poetry. In our own times, modern Iran and Turkey and Egypt have reclaimed their an­cient past with a new fervour. Christian Europe has never thought of renouncing the glori­ous legacy of pagan Greece and Rome. And the vital contribution of Arab civilization to the awak­ening of Europe at the turn of the medieval era is now liberally recognised in the Chris­tian West.

The two greatest revolutions in modern history—the French and the Russian—shook the exist­ing social orders down to their foundations and brought about radical changes in social, econo­mic, and political life, and in moral values and intellectual out­look. But in both countries the cultural achievements of the pre­revolutionary generations are still cherished as integral parts of their respective national cultures. Indeed, in the Soviet Union, there has been a revival of inte­rest in the works and achieve­ments of the great Muslim savants of Central Asia.

It is true that, in Pakistan as in many other countries, the generations of today cannot feel equally attached to the various eras of our cultural history and their surviving manifestations. But indifference to, or contempt for, any period of our history can only impair the growth of a healthy sense of nation-hood rooted in the soil. The acceptance or rejection of any existing sur­vival from a past culture should have nothing to do with the period of its origin; it should be determined with reference to contemporary values and the pre­sent demands of social and econo­mic progress.

An even more fierce contro­versy has raged round the ques­tion of the frontiers of our culture. It is not long since we heard histrionic warnings of a cultural invasion heralded by Amritsar TV, and demands for the erection of a ‘great China wall’ around the precincts of our culture. One of the crusaders even went so far as to suggest that the use of the term ‘sub-continent’ for this part of the world should be banned. The shouting has since subsided, although, unfortunately not due to any sensible rethink­ing in the relevant circles. Those who found it profitable to raise such fatuous slogans during a period of exceptional strain in our relations with India have never been indifferent to the fruits of keeping in line with the Estab­lishment. Perhaps, they have perceived the risks involved in continuing their old songs and slogans in the changing climate of Indo-Pakistan relations.

The amusing gyrations of these `intellectuals’ apart, the question of the frontiers of our culture does call for some serious dis­cussion. The sub-continent that was divided to create Pakistan had for centuries been a great melting point of nationalities, cultures, religions and languages. The two main streams of culture —the Hindu and the Muslim—never really merged, but they in­termingled at many points. The demands of physical neighbour­hood often proved compelling and found satisfaction in many respects. A certain degree of community developed in emo­tional attitudes, in modes of liv­ing, in fairs and festivals, in cus­toms and social ceremonies, in art and music, and in language above all. In the sphere of reli­gion, the great sufis, with their message of love and human bro­therhood, sought to pave the way for mutual tolerance and accom­modation.

Some of the manifestations of this many-sided community of life have naturally continued to be a part of Pakistan’s culture. Such of these manifestations as are not in harmony with the rapidly changing conditions of our life should, of course, go, and they will, in due course, not only in Pakistan but in India also. But no ‘China wall’ or poli­tical edict can banish them.

This, however, is perhaps the least difficult aspect of the prob­lem of our cultural frontiers. Before the establishment of Pakistan, the Muslim culture of these regions was an integral part of the culture of Muslim India. It is true that our relationship with the valuable part that has been left behind can never be the same again; but it is equally true that we cannot renounce it as alien and turn our backs upon it. The treasures of poetry and literature, of art and architecture, of reli­gious learning and mystic lore, that formed the crown of the culture of the old Muslim India, continue to be the common legacy of the Muslims on both ides of the border. And not of the Muslims alone. The far-reach­ing influence of Islam on Indian culture is self-evident; many as­pects of the culture of the old Muslim India have become a part of Indian life and are acclaimed as such at least by liberal Hindus. Not to speak of Mir and Ghalib and Hali, even Iqbal, who is re­garded as the intellectual foun­der of Pakistan, and lived all his life outside the frontiers of the present India, is claimed by them as part of their cultural heritage.

­The status of Urdu

 To say all this is not to ignore the fact that the bulk of our peo­ple do not speak the principal language through which the cul­ture of Muslim India found ex­pression for several generations in the vast areas that now lie outside the frontiers of Pakis­tan. But that language was never an alien tongue in these parts of the sub-continent, parti­cularly for the Muslims. It was generally understood and widely studied at different levels of edu­cation. It served as the only popu­lar medium of inter-regional communication and as the principal medium of intellectual endeavour. In certain areas of the Punjab, it naturally became a kind of second language not only for the Muslims but also for large num­bers of Sikhs and Hindus. It be­came part of the stream of Mus­lim consciousness.

It must be admitted that the position of Urdu in the main­stream of national culture in Pak­istan has suffered during the past two decades. For this, part of the blame must be accepted by its own overzealous protagonists. During the earlier years of free­dom, short-sighted attempts were made to force it as a symbol of Islamic solidarity and Pakistani patriotism. It was pitted against the regional languages, which were treated with a measure of contempt, if not openly dubbed as instruments of national dis­ruption. In the natural reaction that set in, many among the other linguistic groups came to regard Urdu as a symbol of cultural snobbery and an instrument of domination in the hands of a minority. “Language”, to quote an eminent historian, “touches life in all its departments and is, therefore, closely bound up with sentiment. Nothing is resented so keenly, and resisted so despe­rately, as an attack, real or fan­cied, on one’s language”.

It must be stressed, however, that the reaction has often be­come confused and irrational, and tended to degenerate into linguistic chauvinism. The langu­age itself, rather than those who exploited it as an instrument of domination, has come under fire. Much of argument is obscure and some of it makes nonsense of his­tory as well as the science of linguistics. For instance, the assertion that Urdu grew under royal and feudal patronage and is, therefore, incapable of serv­ing as a medium for the expression of popular sentiment in a revolutionary situation.

With the passage of time and the change of circumstances, the possibilities of Urdu being used as an instrument of domination by a minority group have rapidly diminished. Now, they exist only as an imaginary fear in certain obsessed minds, and is exploited as a bogey in certain chauvinistic circles. In the search for a new cultural synthesis, it must be recognised, on the one hand, that the Urdu language has be­come part of Pakistan’s culture matrix, which is all the richer for that element. On the other hand, it should be obvious that Urdu cannot claim in Pakistan the same position as other national languages enjoy in their respec­tive homelands. Urdu can sur­vive and grow in Pakistan only if this natural handicap is duly recognised and its position is properly adjusted to the claims of the regional languages in edu­cation, in culture and generally in social life.

In any discussion on culture, the heroes of the past naturally figure, and it is here that atavis­tic inclinations express them­selves most intensely. Here, again, the debate is vitiated by deeply ingrained pride and pre­judice. On both sides of the fence, the vision of many is clouded by fanciful views of his­tory, a morbid obsession with the past, and a gross overestimation of the role of the individual in history. We have in our midst many who are still obsessed with the glories of Muslim rule in India, and think that the empire would have survived and flourish­ed if Mir Jafar had not betrayed Sirajuddoula. For them, every great Muslim king or conqueror is a hero carrying an almost spiritual halo, and any exposure of his weaknesses would be sacri­legious and unpatriotic. If they had their way, they would purge our history of all references to the dissolute lives and senseless cruelties of some of the Muslim kings and princes; to the ghastly murder of Jalaluddin Khilji, the impalement of Khusrau’s parti­sans, the imprisonment of Shah Jehan, and the liquidation of Shikoh.

On the other hand, the champions of regional cultures have lately been projecting their res­pective ancient heroes with a passion filled zeal worthy of better causes.

The scientific study of history in our times has brought more and more into focus the vital economic and social factors in­volved in the historical process. It has exposed the fallacy of Thomas Carlyle’s view of history as a series of heroic feats and achievements; and helped us to see the role of the individual in its true dimensions and proper perspective. Moreover, psycholo­gical research has cut many heroes to size and shown their feet of clay. A scientific approach to the study of history should render much of the fierce con­troversy over national and re­gional heroes entirely pointless. It should also dissuade us from seeing the devil in the adversaries of our own heroes, and even enable us to admire and res­pect rival heroes at the same time. For instance, Iqbal’s great admiration for Aurangzeb did not blind him to the greatness of Khushhal Khan Khattak—one of the bitterest and most implacable foes of the Emperor. Iqbal’s poem on the Khan’s testament, which reflects an intense hatred for the Mughals, is well known. What is not so well known is Iqbal’s complimentary article on Khushhal Khan, in which he has quoted many of the Khan’s blis­tering verses against Aurangzeb’s malice, his imprisonment of his father and his responsibility for the tragic end of his brothers.

Another example of this en­lightened and objective attitude to the great figures of history is provided by the eminent Indian historian Tara Chand. He has not allowed his aversion to Aurang­zeb’s bigotry to distort his total assessment of the man and the king. Nor has his disagreement with Muslim separatism preven­ted him from recognizing the greatness of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. His History of the Freedom Movement in India, published by Government in several volumes, opens with a long paragraph of tribute to Aurangzeb.

An obsession with the past, and the worship of its heroes, whether imperial or regional, is one of the most potent weapons in the armoury of revivalism. It induces various groups to relive the past under the banners of their respective heroes. It often rakes up ancient tribal jealousies and naturally tends to deepen cultural exclusiveness. It encou­rages internal dissension and tends to hamper the growth of understanding with other nations. It diverts the people’s gaze from the problems of the present and the possibilities of the future to a largely imaginary picture of a past that will never return.

Source: Viewpoint, 13 August 1976