Sorry state: ‘Post-colonial societies have terrible disconnect with their past’

Published: October 21, 2016

KARACHI: At the Karachi University (KU) Arts Auditorium on Thursday afternoon, intellectual historian Dr Nomanul Haq heavy-heartedly summed up prevalent exclusivism in our society, tracing its roots through a historical process.

The talk, organised as part of the KU Distinguished Lectures Series, saw a select crowd of students and faculty members from different departments of the varsity listen to the professor. The lecture was titled ‘In Search of Roots of Exclusivism in a Multicultural Milieu’ and KU faculty of social sciences dean Dr Moonis Ahmar accompanied Haq on stage as he masterfully unpacked his thesis for a rather calm and interested audience.

“For me, milieu is the larger picture of culture that is created by languages and values,” he said. “Back in the day, it made little difference whether a writer was born in Lucknow or Sialkot or Peshawar. Iqbal, for instance, was not from Delhi or Allahabad but look at his writings. They are such because he was writing in that milieu.”

Haq said it is ironic that this milieu is no more and there is internal tension in a society like ours. Citing Edward Said, Haq said post-colonial societies have a terrible disconnect with their past. “Colonialism has forever dislocated us epistemologically,” he said, adding that although he has reservations over the idea of nation states, by ‘us’ he means humankind. “Manto has encapsulated this dislocation quite brilliantly in Toba Tek Singh.” In the absence of historical anchorage, we are in what he calls a state of suspension.

“Education has become a means of landing jobs with multinationals,” he said. He added that this careerism has further widened the rupture because it has ended the will to turn things around. Mentioning the several KU departments working on applied sciences and not pure sciences, he said, “All our educational institutions are doing is striving to make things that can be sold in the market.”

Drawing parallels between the Islamic and Christian traditions, Haq said plurality of thought has always existed in the former. “In Islam, no one promulgates official truth,” he said. “This is why I say that you cannot call the ulema clergy or madaris seminaries because these terms are loaded with a history of institutionalism.”

In a passing reference, he lamented how Iqbal has today gone out of fashion. “He is everywhere around us but in [reality], nobody knows his poetry,” he said. “One has to apologise for talking about him.”

The question-and-answer session largely saw participants asking the professor about the ways in which the younger generation can reclaim their roots. “The responsibility for depriving you lies with our generation, yes, but you cannot go on like this,” he said.

“It is more about conviction. If you want to, you can do it. Hebrew was long dead but the Jewish youth revived it. The Sindh and Punjab archives have piles of historical documents written in languages such as Persian. But who has the time and ability to go and read them?”

Answering a question about capitalism causing this rupture, Haq said he cannot give capitalism causal agency in this problem. “The Kashf al-Mahjub is taught in a capitalist society like the US but not in Pakistan,” he said. “Children of the cabinet division secretary here would not want to do languages. That work is left for the underprivileged.”

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2016.

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