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Imran Khan’s Veiled Criticism Of Aurat March And Bureaucracy’s Unhealthy Obsession With Cultural Uniformity

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Prime Minister’s veiled criticism of Aurat March is another example of him being out of touch with reality and in the bad company of Pakistani bureaucratic elite, argues Umer Farooq.

I have no doubt that Prime Minister Imran Khan is not a fascist and his party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) is not a fascist party – ideologically, practically and from the standpoint of party organization. But at the same time, I have no doubt either that Prime Minister Khan sometimes sounds extremely naïve—both politically and intellectually. This is because he has undergone no political or ideological training of any kind since he joined politics in the mid-1990s.  He was a Cricket superstar and a heartthrob before joining politics and he had no experience of governance before coming to power in July 2018 parliamentary elections.

In such a situation, borrowing ideas and concepts from Pakistan’s bureaucratic elite and presenting them as his own intellectual products is a mistake that might cost him dearly as a politician. The other day he repeated an age-old outlandish idea, which originated in Pakistan’s highly bureaucratized state machinery. This idea originated among the narrowly based political and bureaucratic elite that ruled Pakistan in the initial years after independence, and this idea projected Pakistan as a ‘unified’ country, which needed to have a unified cultural and social life.

Prime Minister Khan repeated this idea while referring to Aurat March and said that this march was the manifestation of different cultures that the education system in Pakistan has been producing. First, let’s have a look at what Prime Minister Khan has to say about this.

“A culture clash is developing in Pakistan due to different education systems”, Prime Minister Imran Khan said, adding that this was most visible in last week’s Aurat March 2020. “We will, hopefully by next year, introduce a core syllabus for all schools that will be mandatory for students apart from the additional subjects each institution chooses to teach,” Khan said in a speech marking the groundbreaking ceremony of housing projects for low-income people. “This is how you create a nation. This is how you end rival cultures from developing,” he said. “The Aurat March that just happened… a different culture was visible in it… this is a cultural issue and this comes from the schooling system,” he added.

First of all, Pakistan is culturally a highly diverse country and this diversity of cultures is the basic feature of its social life. Any attempt to produce a unified culture will be a fascist project, precisely speaking. And it will be a failure, both politically and culturally, and will cause political and social dissension in the society.

This was the project started by the narrowly-based political and bureaucratic elite that came to govern Pakistan after independence and this project caused centrifugal forces to grow in the provinces, which were away from centers of power – making Urdu, spoken by only 9% of the population according to the first census, the national language, and discouraging the promotion and development of more secularized and locally embedded regional languages was a case of cultural fascism. This project left the project of nation-building in the newly formed Pakistani state in tatters.

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Imran Khan is probably unaware of this history – a history, which led to the separation of East Pakistan in 1971. It all started with Urdu versus Bengali and with the project of imposing so-called Western Pakistan’s bureaucratic elite-defined ‘Islamic Culture’ on East Pakistan’s Bengali population, which had a very distinct sense of cultural identity. So, as the great British drama writer George Bernard Shaw once said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. Pakistan’s bureaucratic elite is a classic example of this fact. They have lost one part of the country as an outcome of this fascist project and yet they are not ready to part with these fossilized beliefs.

Pakistan is not only a diverse society, but it also has well-entrenched political groups in its political system, which are bent upon resisting any attempt to impose the culture of the center on the periphery through the use of tools that include political protest as well as armed resistance.

The process of globalization has brought uniformity in the cultural practices of different societies and their middle classes. But at the same time, the same processes of globalization have led to culturally distinct nationalities, tribes, and societies asserting their uniqueness and exceptionalism in a fast-shrinking world.

Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar has recently written a book titled ‘Indian cultures as Heritage’. Thapar didn’t use the singular word “culture” to describe Indian social life. She instead used the plural word ‘cultures’ to project Indian cultural and social reality. In the book, she argues that it would be wrong to talk about any society as having a singular culture. This rule also applies to Pakistani society.

Prime Minister Khan didn’t have this background in mind when he made a statement regarding Aurat March and the existence of different cultures that this march brought to light as a result. What Prime Minister Khan probably meant to say was that Aurat March was brought out by women of the elite society and that they come from certain educational and cultural backgrounds that are very different from the backgrounds that the majority of Pakistani women come from. But the Prime Minister stopped short of saying all these things. He only said that Aurat March reflected the existence of different cultures in Pakistani society, which in his views was the product of different systems of education that exist in the country.

Here again, the prime minister is extremely ill-informed and found to be under the influence of the bad company of the bureaucratic elite. He didn’t realize that different cultures that exist at the level of different social and economic classes in Pakistani society are the product of economic inequality, which as a political and social reality is upheld by the political system which Prime Minster Khan is presiding over. Stratification of the society into social and economic classes is the supra-reality, which is an outcome of economic inequality and a class-based education system is only a public manifestation of this deeper malaise. These different social and economic classes having different cultures is a fact of life in Pakistani society which pre-dates coming into being of Pakistani state’s created education system. And no matter how much effort the state puts into this exercise, these differing cultures of social and economic classes will never go away, as they are based on well-entrenched economic inequalities.

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Prime Minister’s veiled criticism of Aurat March as a project of the women of the elite classes and the reaction to it coming from the majoritarian orthodoxy is another example of him being out of touch with reality and in the bad company of the bureaucratic elite.

Two things are important in this regard: Prime Minister’s sources of information are keeping him ill-informed about the huge and vast response, from every class of women, which the Aurat March has generated. Secondly, the ruling elite is also keeping Prime Minister away from the reality of Aurat March being the source of new and fresh ideas that the closed pond of Pakistani society is greatly in need of.

Aurat March’s messages and slogans have attracted the imagination of every class of women in Pakistani society. This assertion is based on my interaction with different segments of society during the past week. Pakistani electronic media and the coverage it gave to the Aurat March played no small part in making the issues and slogans of the march into topics of discussion in every household.

Besides, there is a great misunderstanding in Pakistani public discourse – and Pakistani state machinery is the prime culprit here – that culture is something static that has been sent down from heavens. That it is unchanging and should remain fixed.

This definition of culture is as poor as the fascist idea of a uniform culture that Pakistan’s bureaucratic elite wanted to impose on Pakistani society right from the beginning. These ideas originated in the air-conditioned rooms of Islamabad’s concrete buildings, completely detached from Pakistan’s mainstream culture. It is high time Mr Prime Minister realized that Pakistan and its culture are situated 20 kilometers outside of Islamabad.

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