Culture and national integration

Culture is one of the most essential ingredients of national identity, just like religion, ethnicity, class and caste. Yet, how to define culture and then to delineate its link to national integration is a moot question. Here in Pakistan, attempts have been on since 1947 to arrive at a proper definition of Pakistani culture. However, that has not always been easy since Pakistan’s state and ruling elite has been susceptible to influences from without, now in thrall to Saudi Arabia, then beholden to the United States, which reflects more the priorities of its ruling elite rather than popular perceptions of culture. These days the Pakistani ruling elite is fixated with the Turks, as evidenced by the Prime Minister’s fascination with the Turkish historical season Dirilis Ertugrul and the recent decision taken by him to make a Pakistani documentary on the mystic Maulana Rumi. This latest comes in addition to the confusing recent statements of the PM regarding whether the Chinese or Iranian revolutionary model is more suitable for Pakistan!

In such a scenario, it was an interesting experience to attend the two-day National Conference on National Integration and Cultural Assimilation held at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad earlier this week. Even before the academic sessions had begun though, one was perplexed by the choice of Pakistan’s President Dr Arif Alvi and the Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood as the Chief Guests at the opening ceremony. Both had nothing substantial to add to any aspect of culture or the conference topic. However, when the academic sessions began, there were interesting sessions on Pakistan’s film policy; the decline of Otaque (sitting) culture in Sindh; the role of Urdu in national integration and the role of Urdu writers in the literature of various Pakistani languages. Other papers sought to problematize the relation between Pashto and Punjabi sufi poetry and national integration. The link between the various papers presented at the conference and the topic at hand was not always clear. It was also disappointing to note that the various sessions of the conference were held simultaneously which meant that the participants could only attend one session at a time and missed many other interesting and relevant papers.

Also, the absence of a keynote speaker was acutely felt after two government ministers namely Shehryar Afridi and Zobaida Jalal attended the closing ceremony as chief guests. The angry and foolish tirade by Afridi was totally irrelevant and left a lot to be desired. The conference, on a pressing national topic, was welcome but like many other such seminars and conferences, it wound up without any conclusive definition of Pakistani culture. It would have been more appropriate to invite some renowned literary or cultural figure to the opening and closing ceremonies.