Few days back, Dr. Shahbaz Gill mocked Bilawal Bhutto for wearing an Ajrak-pattern mask comparing Mr. Bhutto with the calves whose mouths are tied with a colorful cloth to restrict their milk intake. While Dr. Gill was busy with his mimicry of calves and Bilawal Bhutto, the host and other guests kept chuckling and none intervened. As witnessed, this is not the first time that a politician from Sindh has been criticized for promoting a culture. Earlier, former president of Pakistan Mr. Asif Ali Zardari was also denounced for choosing to wear a Sindhi cap on his foreign tours.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People clearly states that any propaganda directed against the culture of indigenous people, imposition of assimilation by other cultures imposed on them by legislative or administrative measures, any action aimed at dispossessing them of their land or resources or any action aimed at depriving them of their distinct cultural values and identities; must be prevented. However, despite being the signatory to this Declaration, cultural genocide continues unabated targeting not only Sindhis, but people from other provinces.
Lately, a federal lawmaker raised an issue and criticized a private TV channel wherein Pakhtuns were shown as terrorists and “Naswar” addicts. Such kind of television programs and newspaper articles satirizing cultures create a divide between the masses and brainwashes them against other cultures. On different occasions Pakistani television serials show the dacoits wearing Ajrak, a pickpocket on Karachi streets with Lyari accent and terrorists from North. It is interesting to note that while dramas with the theme of rape, drugs and murder are often censored, but no TV drama promoting hatred against a culture is banned or censored.
This cultural genocide is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. How conveniently the cultural diversity of Pakistan has been marginalized can be judged by reading the script of a few school textbooks. For example, several textbooks state that “Urdu” is the language of Muslims. Little do they understand that more than ninety percent of Pakistan’s population does not speak Urdu as their mother tongue, however, the language is continued to be taught in schools as such. Likewise, we have often seen how Punjabi elites have discouraged their children from communicating in their mother tongue so as to prove them as good Muslims and patriotic Pakistanis.
It has also been noticed that some of the educational institutions have barred the students from communicating in their mother tongue and in certain cases involving in any cultural activity. There is a dire need to understand the reasons underpinning the hostility towards cultural diversity. The study of different textbooks has shown that Muslims and Hindus had a separate culture. The text taught in our schools did not take into consideration the cultural diversity of Pakistan thereby linking the culture with religion.
The textbooks have associated Muslims with the ones wearing Shalwar Kameez and communicating in Urdu. The obvious sequel to such a teaching, has produced a generation little tolerant to cross cultures and repulsive to their practices – destroying century’s old Buddha statues, mocking millennia old Ajrak, and branding peaceful citizens as terrorists due to their ethnicity, are few such examples.
The journalistic ethics call for exercising restraint and showing empathy towards their viewers while airing programmes covering divergent topics. The remarks made by Dr. Gill hurt the feelings of all Pakistanis irrespective of their ethnicity. Many tweeted in solidarity with the hashtag AjrakIsOurPride. The response from the others present in the show was quite disappointing as they never reacted to such an attitude displayed by a government functionary. At the same time the anchor and other journalists in the show cannot be absolved of their indifference to host and moderate a programme that affected the sensitivities of scores of viewers.
While mocking Bilawal for his Ajrak mask, they conveniently ignored the rich history and culture of Sindh. The first translation of Quran was in Sindhi and Islam spread in the subcontinent through Sindh being regarded as “Bab-ul-Islam”. The Sindh Assembly was the first to pass the resolution in favour of Pakistan in 1938 presented by G.M. Syed and other Sindhi leaders. By this account the people of Sindh therefore do not need to adopt a fake identity to prove themselves better Muslim and a patriotic Pakistani.
After almost 25 years of independence, Sindhi language was declared as the provincial language of Sindh on 4th July 1972. The media publications like “Urdu ka janaza hai” and mocking Sindhi Ajrak, has played a more divisive role, created miscommunication and barriers than promote healthy literature. Some of the media houses have played a historic role in creating a divide by branding supporters of ethnic and provincial identity as leftists, anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan. Instead of promoting divergent cultures as strength of Pakistan some of the media programs have alienated the people rather than integrate.
It’s high time to initiate an intercultural dialogue where people from diverse cultural backgrounds are given a platform to share their views, acknowledge difference and promote cultural diversity. For example, artisans exchange among provinces, celebrating traditional holidays and festivals are some instances of creating awareness and acceptance. International student exchange programs where students from Pakistan go abroad and stay in the host country is a perfect example of cross cultural learning and increasing their sensitivity to cultural differences.
A similar program can be replicated at the country level where students from one province can study one semester in a university outside their province. These kinds of programs will help youth to learn about different cultures besides teaching traits of tolerance, living in diversity and equity and integrating through friendships.
At the same time, school textbooks also need to be revisited to incorporate text that creates awareness, inclusiveness and increase cultural literacy so that different perspectives are valued and embraced. Also, history education about the struggle and sacrifices of our heroes like Hemu Kalani, Bhagat Singh, Rooplo Kolhi, Hosh Muhammad Sheedi, etc. can help in social reconstruction and the formation of cultural and national identity.
During these trying times when Pakistan is fraught with multiple challenges like FATF, Kashmir policy, COVID-19, flour and sugar crisis we cannot afford to have a nation divided on the lines of gender, race sexuality or culture. This is the time to unite, acknowledge differences to bring people together and bridge the cultural gap. Let’s give culture a chance this time!