KARACHI: Put three history buffs under one roof and you usually get thirty or more different opinions – with fire and brimstone thrown in for good measure. But Dr Mubarak Ali, Dr Jaffar Ahmed and the wonderfully named Swat academic Sultan-i-Rome sought and found rare convergence at the third Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday.
In his remarks, Dr Jaffar underscored the ambivalence towards good and bad in the country but pointed out that a sense of genuine history was sorely missing. In Pakistan, there is only an “official narrative of history, as opposed to many other states, where there are multiple narratives,” he said.
Instead, through doses of indoctrination, the state offers a staple of sanitised nationalist views. This, in his opinion, is little more than selective historiography, for it obscures or omits at will the contribution of a host of other factors and characters.
Later, in his talk, Dr Mubarak Ali identified several trends in the writing of the country’s history after 1947. The first was a conscious effort to delink Pakistan’s history from India and establish an affinity with the Middle East. But, according to Dr Mubarak, the saving grace of the policy was that a secular approach was taken. Next, came the perpetuation of the Two-Nation Theory and Islamic identity, before alignment was presumed with Central Asia. Years later, under Ziaul Haq, Pakistan was shown as a part of the Muslim world.
This is why, he says, there is no continuity in the threads of Pakistan’s history. Moderator Ghazi Salahuddin captured the popular mood earlier by ruefully declaring his fellow compatriots as fugitives from history because of the state’s policies.
A question was posed to the panel on what alignment would suit Pakistan better. “You cannot partition history. We need to learn about all historical figures of India,” responded Dr Mubarak. In fact, he said, the country should embrace all philosophies of history not just those close to the Middle East but elsewhere as well in China, US, for instance.
Dr Jaffar recalled a modest research effort that he had undertaken to examine the content of curricula books from class 1 to the graduation level. Not surprisingly, the cataclysmic events of 1971 went uncovered. It is sad, he observed, that Pakistani students know about the 1905 separation of Bengal under British colonial rule, but little or nothing about how Bangladesh came into being. “We don’t teach or encourage learning about history in Pakistan,” he said. Consider these shocking stats provided by Dr Jaffar: out of the 130 odd universities in the country, only 22 teach history. At the provincial level, there are just three to four general history teachers.
Sultan-i-Rome lamented the fact that though Khyber-Pakthunkhwa had many universities none apart from Peshawar University offered a history programme. Colleges in the province also keep history at arm’s length. There is a tendency to look at the market value of an academic degree. “Tareekh par kay kia milega? [What will we get by studying history]” he said, repeating a gripe he often hears in public.
BBC Urdu journalist Wusatullah Khan, commenting on the state’s tinkering with history, said other countries were also guilty of glossing over their past. He gave the example of India under the rule of the ultra-right wing Bharatiya Janata Party and Turkey for its atrocities in Armenia.
Dr Mubarak acknowledged that nation states tend to gloss over their past but they did not do so as crudely as history writers had done in Pakistan. Granted, they were also selective in certain cases but there was skill as well. He reminded Wusatullah that there is no truth in history, only perspective.
This prompted Dr Jaffar into calling for the writing of a peoples history, saying a one-sided political history was too narrow a canvas for the country. “We should adopt a holistic approach right down to the grass-root level and see the impact that other spheres of life [besides politics] have had on the country.”
Dr Mubarak spoke on the progress of a people’s history, which was first spoken of by Edward Thomson in 1960. Because research is not undertaken, he said, we will continue to be deprived of valuable, interesting facets of our history. In Pakistan’s case, he suggested starting off with exhuming the records of the CID department, which he warned could reveal the names of those who were given a stipend by the British colonial rulers. Similarly, he said, we should look up our jail records and look at dacoits and see how people became bandits. But for all this much research is required.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2012.