As the old gives way to the new, Pakistan’s newly formed government must be prepared to discharge a duty which has gained traction in policy-making circles only very recently. The failure of past governments to realise the gravity of the situation means our cultural heritage lies barren and neglected. While, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has promised a ‘rigorous campaign of cultural diplomacy’ in Chapter 6 of the party’s manifesto, one can only hope that this promise is not one void of conviction.
The value of our cultural past can be gauged by UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage List’, drawn up by the World Heritage Centre, that proscribes 6 sites within Pakistan as international heritage sites, including the ruins of Mohen-jo-daro, Rohtas Fort and the city of Taxila. Another 26 sites located within Pakistan are on the tentative extension of this list.
Such international recognition is not surprising, considering one of the world’s earliest civilizations took root in the area that now belongs to Pakistan. Beside the Nile in Egypt, proximal to the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China and most importantly in our case, adjoining the Indus in India, societies first emerged.
After the Indus Valley, the Vedic Civilization followed suit, laying the foundations of Hinduism, a religion that flourished in Taxila, Multan and across parts of Punjab. Alexander was next to place his mark on the region, followed by the Mauryan and the Rai Dynasties before Muhammad Bin Qasim conquered the Indus Valley from Sindh to Multan.
As Islam spread across the subcontinent, the foundations were laid for a succession of Muslim empires. The Ghaznavids, the Ghauris, the Delhi Sultanate, the Lodhis, all at some point, ruled over the vast, expansive territory of undivided India, only to be overthrown by the Mughals, who chose to ink their own chapter in India’s history.
Pakistan, owing to the many conquerors and invaders who descended upon its land, has become an infusion of complex cultures and proud peoples. At the same time, our land is home to numerous monuments of the past, ruins and fragments of a world that once was.
In March, 2017, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2347, which proved to be a historic occasion, Resolution 2347 being the Security Council’s first resolution on cultural heritage. UNESCO’s then Director-General, Irina Bokova stated that building peace required the ‘education, prevention and transmission of heritage’.
Resolution 2347 has made the protection of cultural heritage an international obligation, stressing in clause 5, that all ‘member states have the primary responsibility in protecting their cultural heritage’. In the following clause, the resolution ‘invites’ all organizations to ‘assist’ UN member states in protecting their cultural heritage.
Hence, not only has there been a general, ideological shift towards the importance of cultural heritage, Resolution 2347 has made it an obligation under international law to protect cultural heritage.
There is undoubtedly a moral responsibility bestowed upon every government to work towards the protection of cultural heritage. Resolution 2347 adds a legal dimension to this moral duty. Fulfilling international obligations and abiding by international law and treatise now constitutes an important part of our foreign policy.
Apart from polishing our international image, compliance with Resolution 2347 could mark the beginning of a new phase for Pakistan’s tourism industry. The work undertaken by the previous government is commendable, including the restoration of the Shahi Hamam and the Lahore Fort. The National History Museum in particular, nestled inside the Greater Iqbal Park in Lahore, and completed in collaboration with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, is a remarkable example of what can be achieved through committed and informed work on our cultural heritage.
Apart from continuing the work initiated in the past five years, there remains a need to extend such projects to more far flung areas of the country, which offer a tremendous value of cultural capital. Plus, existing museums and heritage sites need similar restoration work and must be alleviated to international standards, the likes of which were seen in the projects mentioned above.
This ‘repackaging’ or ‘rebranding’ of our cultural heritage is important in educating the local population as well as making sure that people from all social strata are attracted to museums and historical sites. Equally as important, this work could foreseeably offer a boost to the tourism industry and therefore, should be at the top of Mr. Shafqat Mehmood’s priority list, as he now handles matters relating to national history and literary heritage.
Most interestingly however, as we try to somehow knit together the diverse people that co-exist within our land, we almost always overlook our cultural heritage. The association of people with their culture and their cultural capital is a bond that has never been tapped into by Pakistani governments as they have commonly tried to tackle the problem of provincialism.
There is the argument that people scarcely care about the well-being of cultural heritage, especially when there are more teething problems to deal with. A good example is how the people of Lahore were never drawn to the decay of their city’s cultural past until the government itself took responsibility and the consequent work it did helped people realise how things should have been in the first place.
Considering that the alleged disrespect of the Bengali language was one of the causes of unrest in East Pakistan that led to the formation of Bangladesh, the new government should be pulling out all the stops to win public support across Pakistan. While people may not protest over the lack of proactive cultural policies, any efforts to protect their culture will never go unnoticed.
Pakistan’s cultural divide can only be healed once each and every culture within Pakistan is respected and given due credit and recognition. With Abraham Lincoln’s echoing warning in mind— ‘a house divided against itself will not stand’— the new government must make it a point to ensure the protection of our cultural heritage, anywhere and everywhere, whether its Hunza’s Altit Fort or Thatta’s Historical Monuments at Makli.
The author is an A-level student at Aitchison College.