The district government of Lahore recently tried to rename a square in the city after the famous Punjabi freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. The effort was part of a larger civic activity for revitalising the city by restoring historic buildings and renaming roads and buildings after remarkable
figures, reclaim the city’s Punjabi history and to connect with its South Asian cultural roots, something that has not happened in Pakistan in the last 65 years.
Unfortunately, the project was stalled after 13 members of a 19-member committee objected to the renaming of the square. Their argument: it is against the Islamic ethos of the country and a significant place in a Muslim country cannot be renamed after a Sikh. This may sound vicious but I am not surprised: it only proves that nothing has changed in Pakistan and powerful stakeholders like Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) are still calling the shots and forcing the nation to stay stuck in an artificial ideological bubble. A couple of week ago I visited Lahore and spoke to some Left-leaning youngsters. They did not agree with my argument that key segments of society are becoming more susceptible to cultural conservatism and latent radicalism. Pointing out that certain segments of the civil society wanted to rename the square, they argued that an equal space for an alternative narrative was being built slowly but gradually in Pakistan. This thinking reflects their desire but not the reality: the Pakistani society has slowly and gradually moved away from its pluralism to search for a singular coherent identity.
This situation is not inconsistent but part of the process of de-colonisation of a State. There are many who would remember the days of a seemingly more liberal Pakistan. I have seen comments and articles in newspapers talking about how international and multi-cultural were cities like Karachi.
So, what is changing in Pakistan and why is it changing?
The change in Pakistan towards a more singular, conservative and religious narrative is partly a natural process of the change in society as it travels away from its colonial past. In fact, any post-colonial society would echo its colonial legacy in the formative years. The shift in the ensuing years then depends on the dominant political, social and cultural narrative.
In Pakistan, the dominant ideology has always been religion, irrespective of the type of government. So be it liberal generals like Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Pervez Musharraf, conservative general like Zia-ul-Haq, or liberal civilian leader such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto or conservative politicians like Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, religion has dominated the discourse in the country.
The situation became even more intense after the 1980s when the Zia regime brought religion into all aspects of the State and society. This was a watershed and after this the direction of society began to change. Therefore, the ruling elite of the pre-1980s was culturally and socially more liberal and had a different character than the post-1980s elite. Today, it means nothing when people try to invoke the concept of a liberal Pakistan as envisioned by Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
There are people who are fond of quoting Jinnah’s August 11, 1947, speech in which he welcomed religious minorities to pursue their own faiths without any intervention or interruption by the State. The question whether he might have stuck to this secular position if he was alive is open to debate. However, the important thing is that the subsequent incorporation of religion in the Objectives Resolution 1949, a fundamental document that provides a roadmap for Pakistan’s constitution, the State agreed to adopt religion as a defining principle of law-making and structuring the State and society.
Then the State got into random partnerships with religious entities (though for pragmatic reasons) and that sharpened the religious colour of the State. Today, after six decades of Independence, the Pakistani State and society is irretrievably close to a right-wing religious identity. Given the issues of politics, skewed distribution of resources and other similar problems confronted by a Third World developing State, the bulk of the poor people or even those in the middle class are made to believe that liberal secularism is part of some foreign agenda that society must stay away from. Pluralism has become a victim of such a mindset. So the Pakistani State today is not comfortable to associate with its own indigenous legacy because it extends beyond its adopted religious-cultural discourse.
When I heard two weeks ago that there was a plan to rename the square after Bhagat Singh, I wondered if it would happen at all. Perhaps some fledgling liberal might put a name plate on the square that no one will notice, and life would move on. But I don’t feel disappointed now because at least, I know that society is comfortably on the path of a single religion-laced identity. The JuD has sufficient influence to block such moves that may remind the ordinary people that they are also part of the rich heritage of South Asian.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.
The views expressed by the author are personal.
(C) Right Vision Media Syndicate, Pakistan
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