By Aziz Ali Dad
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to diverse linguistic, religious and ethnic groups. During the last two decades the word culture has become very popular among the people there, the youth in particular. That is why culture is invoked by different sub-regional groups, nationalists and language communities to lend legitimacy to their respective causes.
However, the debate about culture in Gilgit-Baltistan does not stem from a clear definition. Within localised discourse the very word ‘culture’ is employed to signify an assortment of things, ranging from history, tradition, mythology, rituals, folk literature, cuisine, material heritage, dance, art to entertainment and incompatible entities. That means that the word culture is internalised not in all its theoretical purity, rather it has been appropriated by different groups to provide a unifying point for their practices and ideas, which are not always shared by all people in society.
A practice or act becomes part of culture when its meaning is shared by the members of a society. The signifying practices in society tie its diverse members within the unifying whole of culture. For the last ten years the region of Gilgit-Baltistan has witnessed a mushrooming of organisations that claim to protect and promote culture. Most of their effort aim to revive rituals and lifestyles that were products of a bygone age and space, which was to a great extent immune from external influences.
An analysis of prevalent practices that have been covered under the rubric of the culture of Gilgit-Baltistan shows that the very debate over culture and efforts of cultural revival stems from an identity crisis begotten by disruption of power centres in society. A society sans power and authority of culture operates in an ideological vacuum. Such a rudderless society is more likely to be at the mercy of forces that have the power to change its course. Similar is the case with the culture of Gilgit-Baltistan.
A culture with a vacuum of political, economic and intellectual power within cannot survive the changes of time. But narcissistic and nostalgic guardians of culture in the region tend to ignore the very question of power in culture for fear of actors who subjugate culture either for their myopic agenda or support the status quo to perpetuate existing power arrangements. They remain oblivious to the obsolete nature of certain practices and rituals, increasing role of modern means of cultural production and subjugation of culture to a sectarian form of religion.
Gone are the days when local princely states in the region decided about their fate. The people of Gilgit Baltistan had to rely on locally available intellectual resources to create their life world. With the dissolution of local power centres and social structure, and dominance of new lifestyle and ideas, the role of exogenous forces has become more important.
There are internal and external dimensions of power. The new and modern power structure permeates every aspect of life and yields its influence in imperceptible ways. The collective power of a particular society in the modern age manifests in the form of political authority. In the case of Gilgit-Baltistan the disconnect between culture and power is best evident at the political and constitutional level in Pakistan where it is still in a state of limbo.
Now the question that arises is: where does the internal power or authority lie? Matthew Arnold in his book ‘Culture and Anarchy’ terms culture as the centre of authority in a society where state and religion fails. Since this authority is internal, it is, therefore, imperative to develop a counter-narrative and strategies against the actors and factors that inhabit or are in control of the internalising process by establishing their hegemony over society and state.
The structural hegemony over cultural transmission and communication can be illustrated through the example of local languages in Gilgit-Baltistan. Language contains the whole life world of a particular culture. It is through language that human beings connect with the world and form their selves through interaction with the society, collective consciousness, and historical memory.
With the dissolution of the old order in the region the connection between language and the world was severed. It is not necessary that a rupture in continuity always lead to total disengagement with the fountainhead of culture. Modern schooling could have provided a strong platform for indigenous languages to further cement the bond between language and the world. Being powerless the society of Gilgit-Baltistan was not able to do so.
Another factor that is playing a crucial role in the formation of contemporary culture in Gilgit-Baltistan is the modern means of cultural production and communication. The communication revolution of today has rendered all the traditional and even early modern mediums obsolete. Along with these mediums, the associated processes of message formation have also been rendered obsolete.
In the early period of modernity in Gilgit, modern mediums, such as cinema, radio, newspapers, magazines, television and to some extent rudimentary theatre found a space within society. These developments could have paved the way for new modes of cultural production or activities. Unfortunately, society took a different turn under the influence of commercialisation and conservatism fostered by clerics who are averse to every novel medium and message. Today the cultural landscape in Gilgit has been turned into a wasteland as cinema, theatre, entertainment and other modern forms of aesthetics were nipped in the bud.
Culture is a space for interface between the internal and the external. Therefore, internalisation is considered an important process in cultural refinement. By creating a habitus for beauty, civility, rationality, and empathy in the external world, we can create a mental ambience for the emergence of the cultured self.
In the existing scheme of things in Gilgit-Baltistan, the clergy has assumed authority and subjugated all other sides of human personality to the religious. Religion is a part of the whole called culture, but it is subsumed under religion. Today the external world or society of Gilgit-Baltistan is filled with religious hatred. Therefore, the prevalent cultural ethos is marked by sectarianism, which manifests itself in bloodshed, mayhem and chaos in society.
Matthew Arnold believes that religion is only one of the many voices of human experience. A society dominated by religiosity is inimical not only to multiplicity of experiences and expressions, but also to the very experiences of the religion. Religion can freely express itself in its varied forms only by blending within a particular culture. However, because of its blind zeal of painting everything in the world in religious colours, the religious thought police has reduced diverse ways of religious expressions and interpretations into a monomaniac mode.
After capturing religious space and imaginary, this mind is intruding into the cultural space. Emancipating culture from the clutches of parochial authority will not only enable it to flourish, but also open multiple avenues for religious experience and expression.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad and can be reached at email: firstname.lastname@example.org