The changing of the names of cities, roads and parks has become a preoccupation in the Indian Subcontinent. On both sides of the border line, people are still continuing it. In Pakistan, especially in Karachi and Lahore buildings, roads and parks which were once named after Sikhs and Hindus got new names. In Karachi Ram Bagh was renamed as Aram Bagh. Likewise, in Lahore Krishna Nagar was renamed as Islampur. Afterwards, the maniacal wave was halted till 1965. But in the late 1960s, it resurfaced, and lots of towns and districts were renamed. Now, the scheme was embodied in religious fervour and politics. Therefore, Montgomery city became Sahiwal and Lyallpur became Faisalabad. The trend got an official endorsement: the federal and provincial departments changed the names of places, which were technically under their jurisdictions. A case in point is Sita Road Railway Station, which was renamed as Rehmani Nagar. The idea of changing names again took root in the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, when there was a move to change the name of Jacobabad town. But the idea was rejected by the local people. After a long silence, Asif Ali Zardari revived the trend. He renamed Nawabshah city as Shaheed Benazirabad. Afterwards, there was silence. But, we were wrong. Here goes the story.
Last weekend, my cell phone rang and I hurriedly picked it up to find a journalist on the line. After exchanging some pleasantries, he told me that I would receive a call from his assistant, and it would be so-and-so number. I wanted to avoid it but his insistence induced me to get to know the background. He told me that local news channels were continuously broadcasting discussions that Karachi University should be named after Pir Sibghatullah Shah Rashidi II, a spiritual leader of the Hurs in Sindh. In mid-conversation, my cell phone blinked. The flash indicated that the caller is not registered in my address book. Quickly, I recalled that it was the same number from which a call was expected. I answered the call. The caller bluntly asked, “How do I look at it?” I asked him, “What do I have to look at?” He paused. Perhaps, he was surprised that I was not up-to-date about the current situation. He emphatically told me that there was a move that Karachi University’s name should be changed. I responded that changing the names of institutes, roads, parks or towns to some extent apparently gives a sense that the person was being recognised. But that move in real terms doesn’t serve the purpose. Often, neither a new building is constructed nor a new vision is associated with it. He paused for long, continued with a sigh, and asked me what would be my suggestion. I told him that none of us could deny Pir Pagro’s role against the British Empire. I continued that he, along with his family had suffered a lot, and finally he scarified his life. Therefore, it is the duty of the federal as well as the provincial government to create a robust public-serving institute in his name. Then, there comes the role of his followers and admirers. They should come forward and establish a hospital or a university in his name; even establishing a Pir Pagaro Archive could be an option.
In Karachi Ram Bagh was renamed as Aram Bagh. Likewise, in Lahore Krishna Nagar was renamed as Islampur. Afterwards, the maniacal wave was halted till 1965. But in the late 1960s, it resurfaced
As I ended my sentence, he abruptly asked, “How do I comment on the demand of people regarding that move which is linked with the ‘historical consciousness’?” My response was the same. However, the term ‘historical consciousness’ compelled me to ponder how that term is being used in this and other discourses.
I gathered some questions in my mind. I discussed these points with a Karachi-based group. Almost everyone failed to communicate beyond some dates and events. I can’t categorise them historically literate. I think that I have to choose some other phrase. Perhaps, I would say that their discussion was naïve and emotional. Likewise, their knowledge revolved around facts and dates. Additionally, their understanding about the historical events was beyond considerations of time frame, causation, motivation of individuals/groups and their morality. Again, I repeated the same exercise in Qasimabad, Hyderabad. I also enhanced the context of the discussion: adding a note on the relevance of changing the names of towns and buildings with the idea of exploring historical consciousness. I was surprised to note that the arguments advanced by participants were an ideal example of historical illiteracy.
If I synthesise both discussions, I would say that I encountered historically illiterate groups. I am concerned that ‘historical illiteracy’ would diminish our democracy yet more. It would also discourage citizens to participate in political projects. For its part, our educational system has failed to promote history education that might have helped develop a historically literate society. The situation has conditioned citizens to become silent about the past and its remembrance in public places.
Interestingly, in the case of Sindh, the government of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has preserved and renovated a number of historical buildings and historic sites. But all these efforts are purely engineering works, and till now nothing has been done to preserve stories that these buildings and sites offer to the general public
Interestingly, in the case of Sindh, the government of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has preserved and renovated a number of historical buildings and historic sites. But all these efforts are purely engineering works, and till now nothing has been done to preserve stories that these buildings and sites offer to general public. However, in the context of the historical literacy it is important that these stories should reach younger generations. One could argue that some relevant stories already exist in textbooks. But we must be vigilant that most of the content of the textbooks is selective and faulty, leading to historical illiteracy.
Now the question before us is how to escape from this name-changing mania and historical illiteracy dilemma. One way is to start from the basics — readers have to be exposed to a range of documents on the theme. In doing so, the readers should be encouraged to search archives and visit libraries. An important task is to get oneself exposed to more than one narrative. For instance, they must know the Bengali narrative about the separation of East Pakistan, and founding of Bangladesh. Likewise, Sindh’s point of view around the imposition of One Unit shouldn’t be missed, and in the same spirit the case of Qalat State and toppling of the Congress Government in NWFP (Now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province) also shouldn’t be hidden, glossed over or censored. In this way, the readers would acquire multiple point of views. Such exposure would enhance readers’ historical literacy.
Some major points that I learned from discussions in Karachi and Hyderabad are that most of the people ignore (or they are not trained to consider) the context of the eras when movements were taking place or documents were prepared. Therefore, they interpret those events and documents from an attitude of ‘presentism’ – i.e. events that happened in the past or documents prepared in those times are being evaluated and argued in present time’s ideologies, demands and expectations. In addition to that, another observation was the compartmentalisation of history in terms of eras, and geography. One must realize that the histories of Sindh and Punjab are connected to the history of Hindustan. It must be understood that segregation or compartmentalisation promotes historical illiteracy.
I have noticed that many journalists are also unconsciously victims of that historical fallacy. Their views on the leaders of past are often lacking in understanding and empathy, and they devalue their actions. Consequently, those commentators fail to understand the morality, traditions and values of those times – all of which form the backdrop in which this or that leadership was groomed or events took place. The lack of such empathy pushes them towards intellectual shallowness. It must be realized that such shallowness is one the signs of historical illiteracy.
Our bureaucracy also suffers from problems of this category. However, when at a later stage of their lives, their superficiality, shallowness, and sweeping commentary are challenged, they suddenly become prey to dual thinking syndrome.
It must be understood that the point where historical literacy ends, that is where a historical consciousness or historical thinking starts. Professor Emeritus Peter Seixas at the University of British Colombia in his book Historical Consciousness and Historical Thinking book states that both terms have different didactic traditions. The latter has roots in the Anglo-American education systems, and the first one has a background in the German tradition. Both complement and also diverge from each other. However, in various situations, interpretations and explanations of both systems are in agreement that historical thinking or historical consciousness must emerge from historical literacy. Historical thinking and consciousness require that readers, amateur historians or professional historians should ask questions from the authors of books about their intentions and methods. In addition to that, readers have to come up with evidence in support of their independent points of view. Afterwards, they have to come up with their narratives. But, their narrative should be revealing, interpretative, connected in terms of time and change in society.
Let me conclude that the name-changing mania and such other moves is a sign that our country is an ideal example of historical illiteracy. In such an intellectual desert, it might perhaps be asking too much to expect meaningful historical consciousness or historical thinking, if things stay as they are.
Dr. ZaffarJunejo has a Ph.D. in History from University of Malaya. His areas of interest are post-colonial history, social history, and peasants’ history. Presently, he is associated with Sohail University and Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi