A crowd during Eisenhower's visit to Pakistan in 1959. PHOTO: FILE

The discontents of South Asian culture

It is this shared cultural heritage across the subcontinent which deserves more inquiry

Hassan Mirza May 30, 2020
Since the dawn of the Axial Age (8th century BC) the population levels and the size of economies of different world regions became significant enough to be recorded and quantified. Before this era, human populations and economies were very sparse and minuscule in size. Since then, it is the regions of the Indian subcontinent and Greater China (Far East) which almost always had the biggest economies and population sizes anywhere on earth, and this continued to be the case till the mid 18th century (dawn of Industrial Age). This is why these two regions still have the biggest population sizes and highest population densities on the planet, boast dynamic and complex economies, and any kind of developments in this region will have great consequences for the future of humanity.

Hence, it is natural for us in Pakistan to be concerned about the history and future of the Indian subcontinent. Currently it is the most densely populated region of the world and represents around a quarter of humanity. As a people, South Asians face grave demographic, economic, environmental and societal challenges in the 21st century. Most of these people reside in what was formerly known as British India. It now comprises of three countries, which together form a shared cultural, ethnic and linguistic space or ‘Kulturraum’. In order to face future existential challenges and to restructure our societies on egalitarian grounds, it is this shared cultural heritage which deserves more inquiry from us.

It can be said without much doubt that the region as a whole has progressed immensely since gaining independence from the exploitative and genocidal British rule. There has been marked improvement in life expectancy, education levels, material progress and per capita incomes since then. Any kind of nostalgia for the colonial era is entirely misplaced and ahistorical nonsense. However, despite making progress in some aspects, a lot of socio-cultural problems still persist, and it is not a pretty picture.

A few years before the partition of India, Jinnah wrote a scathing critique of Indian culture in Time and Tide, a British literary magazine, writing that it was entirely priest and caste ridden. This still appears to be the case even as we are marching towards the mid 21st century. Casteism and extreme sorts of tribalism are the Achilles heel of South Asian societies, which makes it a disorganised mess. We as people tend to stick only to our kith and kin, family, social circle and castes. We never dare to think on a societal, regional and national level since doing this threatens to break the bonds of clan and caste based mentality; which in turn can lead to the social ostracisation of thinking individuals. Because of these numerous divisions, the ideas of state and nationhood do not hold much currency among the people. The basic building units of family, clan or caste have far more importance over national social cohesion. Therefore, one can observe the phenomenon of family and clan oriented mafias ruling over the industrial, commercial and political areas of life.

When people around the world imagine poverty, they tend to think of Sub-Saharan Africa. What many South Asians don’t realise is that the real poster child for poverty is not Africa but our region. It boasts the world’s largest poor population, mostly residing in India, where hundreds of millions of people have little access to clean drinking water and decent living conditions. Foreign visitors to India (like Noam Chomsky) are shell shocked by the economic disparity, general ugliness and filth which they come across. The country is mostly not a success story by any means, rather a massive human rights vacuum. Such ugliness can be observed in most of the regions of the subcontinent along with other problems like food insecurity, lack of basic healthcare and rampant illiteracy.

A lot of the problems of our culture emanate from our obsession with religion and rituals, and our subservience to the priestly classes. While any rational person should acknowledge the need for spirituality and religion, and no demonisation of any religion is ever useful, one must also acknowledge that religion and metaphysics has a particular domain and it must not be continuously mixed with other areas of life. This sadly does not happen in our culture. Every kind of superstition, uncivilised tribal traditions, societal evils, dowry, extreme forms of misogyny, violence against women and thuggery of the religious right is done in the name of religion. In that way people don’t have to be logical and rigorous with their thinking and arguments. What is worse is that such social traits and behaviors are transmitted very faithfully and verbatim to future generations, and very few people question them. This helps to sustain the disorganised mess in which we already live, and quells any thoughts of improving the societal situation and give our societies the stability of a graveyard. Therefore, any Pakistani claims of Islamic piety and Indian claims of ‘ancient spirituality’ are ludicrous since both societies are in utter shambles and drowning in degradation.

All of these problems are exacerbated by the very high population density levels, which are among the highest in the world. Because of this, green spaces and clean air are a thing of the past, and hideously over-populated cities and a contaminated environment are the norm now. Pandemics such as coronavirus can spread very easily because of this close living and cause devastation. People keep having many children without thinking about their food, clothing and housing needs, thus creating heart wrenching social problems for themselves and those around them. Hence, the living spaces, attention, and financial resource of the parents are divided unequally among children. By wearing their mental and financial resources thin, they immensely contribute towards personal and national misery.

Furthermore, the state school education system is in shambles and in most cases has totally collapsed. Most well off people prefer to send their children to posh schools so that they never have to speak proper Urdu or Hindi again. Their teachers will make sure that they speak English (with completely fake British or American accents) and unnecessarily lace their mother languages with English vocabulary. Those English medium schools will rarely make them critical of the unsavoury societal norms and inequality which surrounds them. They will emerge from their bubble as much of a conformist as a hapless local language school graduate. This linguistic imperialism sustains its hold on us because we are not capable enough to organise and do important scientific and intellectual work in our local languages.

Since independent minded decision making is a burden and requires critical thinking, it is often taken away from children at an early age. Parents rarely allow them to develop a critical mindset and instead make them as obedient and unquestioning as possible. All of this pushes society towards fatalism, determinism and conformism, which become the main guiding principles of life. This leads to the belief that everything in life is predetermined and controlled and different outcomes of our efforts are next to impossible, so one can leave decisions related to most of the areas of life to fate. When it comes to solving national issues the masses are subservient to the elite (both of the democratic and undemocratic varieties), and do not engage in much thinking for themselves.

In a thoroughly caged society like ours (which is just a collection of castes, tribes, hodgepodge of bickering ethnicities), each person is dysfunctional wherever they are. When it comes to addressing caste based, ethnic and sectarian conflicts people choose to stick their heads in the sand. When it comes to the pressing issues of global warming, depleting water resources and overpopulation, which pose an existential threat to the region, the attitude is often that of outright denial. If someone points out these glaring discrepancies between our articles of faith and real-life conduct, they are branded as traitors or unbelievers. Since change is hard, very few will ever bother with it. In fact, the demonisation of liberals and reform minded conservatives is quite common, which leads to calls for their persecution.

The working classes are already invisible in our societies and are voiceless people. Their exploitation is quite open and ruthless, so much so that many of them don’t realise that they also have some fundamental human rights. The same goes for the terrible amount of misogyny which is meted out to women. In case of any conflict people do not shy away from verbal and physical violence against the weak. However, despite these enormous problems there is still hope out here.

Pakistanis, particularly the complacent middle classes, should realise that excessive misuse of religion by the Pakistani state and non-state actors, for the purpose of geopolitical gains and statecraft, has damaged the image of Islam globally. It has destabilised the country internally, has immensely increased social problems like poverty and illiteracy, and has threatened regional peace. It has also damaged the standing of Indian Muslims in India, who are now at the mercy of Hindutva goons and thuggish Indian politicians. State imposed top-down piety and pseudo religiosity has done us no good either. In order to combat religious orthodoxy, cultural backwardness and any future misuse of Islam, we urgently need Islamic reform in Pakistani society. It has to be based on modern and rationalist schools of thought, which is not possible without developing an intellectual, skills and inquiry based culture. Moreover, we have to make peace with all of our regional neighbours and work with them to alleviate our suffering. Hatred of India and Hindus has harmed Pakistani society immensely.

Famously anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan, Dalit hating, jingoistic and ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ chanting right-wing Indians and the hypocritical NRI crowds are well advised to take a closer look at the discontents of their much touted ‘tolerant’ and ancient ‘society’, and grow a thicker skin in order to take criticism about their country. It might help them grow intellectually and will improve the deplorable living conditions of the Indian masses. Please stop blaming Jinnah or subcontinental Muslims exclusively for the partition of India and other ills, and try to annihilate caste in its entirety as envisaged by B R Ambedkar. Few successes in scientific, technological and economic areas of life do not absolve the Indian state of being an ecological and economic basket case, where extreme social apartheid is still maintained against the majority of the population.

Ours is an unequal, caste based (a uniquely Subcontinental plague) and superstitious culture, and it is up to us to solve these enormous problems. Unless we as a people start to address these cultural problems seriously, organise and cooperate in a better way, and become like other developing countries in the world where natural divisions of ethnicity, languages, regions, class, rural-urban divide are managed in a civilised manner, there is very little hope for future generations. We will either improve together or we will continue to swim in poverty and ignorance for many centuries to come; and ours will remain a region of the walking dead, without much progress or sense of shame.
Hassan Mirza The writer is working as an applied scientist in Germany and specialises in Computer Simulations, Applied Artificial Intelligence, and Energy Modelling. In his free time he reads extensively in multiple languages (Urdu, English and German) and is interested in writing about scientific and socio-economic issues.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

Facebook Conversations


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ