Pakistan's Rich Cultural Diversity Is Under Threat From Extremists

Pakistan's Rich Cultural Diversity Is Under Threat From Extremists
Pakistan is culturally rich and diverse. Cultural diversity can simply be defined as a “social setting” in which people of different languages, complexions, ethnicities, and religion live in harmony. Despite these differences, they learn from each other’s cultures and share common values. However, that diversity is under grave threat due to terrorism, technological advancement, and surprisingly, due to development of road networks as well.

First, the network of roads works as a double-edged sword. Roads not only give access to people to far-flung areas such as Tharparkar, Kalash valley and Gilgit Baltistan but also open them to external influence. Such access has profoundly affected the culture of these areas. Development is a need of modern times and it must take place everywhere. However, it shouldn’t be haphazard as is the case in Pakistan. Kailash, a vicinity in Chitral district, is a case in point. This far-flung area, where descendants of the Great Alexander lived, was an isolated place for too long. 

This isolation helped them stay away from any external influence which resulted in growth of people of Kailash and their culture. However, according to a recent report of the National Commission for Human Rights, the community is under great threat. So is the case of Tharparkar. A network of roads has been developed to facilitate the extraction of huge coal reservoirs. 

People from all over Pakistan and some foreigners visit the area which has exposed them to new values, morals and beliefs. Tharparkar is the only district in Pakistan which has a majority of non-Muslims. However, religious and other sectarian organizations are now extremely active in the area. They propagate their sectarian venoms in the minds of innocent people. Children are taught Sindhi in schools instead of their traditional language “Dhatki”, which is a variant of Sindhi language and their cultural language as well. Due to excavation of coal, the environment of Tharparkar is under threat. The cultural milieu of the area is going through various changes as even Salwar Kameez has become the usual dress of Thari women

It is not just the remote areas that are culturally under threat. The situation in urban areas is not very encouraging either. For example, Lahore is a cultural hub of the country and is known for diversity in every walk of life. Even the city is divided in three parts: Walled city, where remnants of pre and post Mughals era are most visible; British era which includes Mall road, Lawrence Garden (today’s Jinnah Bagh) and Quaid-e-Azam library and the third part which is the rest of the present day Lahore. Today Lahore has exceeded its geographical limits. The point here is that such an old and culturally diverse city is under the shadow of haphazard development. Orange Line Project threatens many buildings including Shalamar Garden which comes under protected world heritage by UNESCO.

Secondly, technology has altered our identities. While the majority cries over the westernization of our society, the culture and language of the minorities are more vulnerable and are being replaced by the culture of the majority. Mass media and social sites play a cardinal role in this regard. As per the above mentioned report, there are only 3500 Kalashi people left due to forced conversion. Besides, Islamic studies and Urdu are compulsory parts of their curriculum. Their own language “Dardic” is not being preserved let alone being promoted and taught. 

Third, and especially in the Pakistani context, the rise of religious extremism and bigotry is wreaking havoc. The Kalash population, which once dominated the Chitral Valley, has fallen to merely 4,000 people. Forced conversion and cajoled marriages are threats to Kalash identity. Such cases aren’t particular to this area only. Vandalizing temples has become a norm in Sindh. Hindu girls are forced into marriage and no one is ready to pay heed to this helpless community. Kot Radha and Youhanabad incidents against Christians are a grim reminder that diversity has no place in the country. Hazara’s persecution is an open-secret.   

Despite the importance of cultural diversity in national life and nation-building, the diversity is dying all over the world particularly in Pakistan. Flawed policies of states, monotonous and biased curriculum and un-holistic approach to security and patriotism, there is no room for dissents let alone acceptability for cultural diversity. There is a need to make an effort for preserving and promoting cultural diversity, spreading pluralistic narrative and celebrating diversity in order to make this country internally strong and to expedite nation building process.

Kashif Ali is a geologist-turned civil servant.  He holds a degree in Geology from University of Sindh. He has interest in global politics and current affairs and writes extensively on diverse subjects ranging from culture and education to religious extremism and public administration.