The layman’s instinctive response might perhaps be, “Nothing.” Or they might qualify it by adding one or two words. “One is free to write if they really intend to do so”.
But the more sober commentator might ask: “What would be new in the writing project?”
And a cynical one might add: “What prevents or allows a historian is not essential. The important thing is the topic, timing and the framing of the research.”
That last might well be the closest to the truth, in the view of this scribe.
Generally, historians in Pakistan have a narrow choice in selecting topics for research. It becomes a challenge for the budding scholar to conduct research on topics as diverse as “Pakistan Muslim Leagues’ Legislation on Peasants”, “The Nexus between the Delay in Constitution Making and Martial Laws”, “Two-Nation Theory and the Separation of Bangladesh”, “One-Unit Scheme and Allocation of Sindh’s Lands” or “Bhagat Singh and Lahore” – let alone issues like “Why Small Provinces Produce Traitors”.
The standard responses to such research interests is: “The topic is very sensitive” and/or that “There is a lack of sources”. Thus, in a systematic way, scholars are diverted from the topics of their interest.
These ideological restrictions force scholars to choose topics which don’t really seek answers to difficult questions. Questions like, “Why” and “What” in their true historical contexts are discouraged.
The reader might note that these days, cuttings from old newspapers have gone viral on social media, stating that the public was not allowed to pay the homage to Miss Fatima Jinnah, who died in mysterious conditions on the 9th of July 1967 in Karachi; or about the important papers that are missing from Liaquat Ali Khan’s murder case file. These are all subjects that are difficult to properly explore for a historian, due to reasons already mentioned.
As opposed to critical thinking, young historians are encouraged to explore “When” and “Where” questions – especially around “approved” research topics. The outcome of that research is of no more scholarly value than a college term paper or the country’s so-called competitive examinations’ Pakistan Studies exam paper. And this is not lost on the budding scholar!
Many a promising scholar loses interest in historical analysis and interpretation. The very first blow that curbs the imagination is the disapproval for “Why” questions.
Another reality which hampers the writing of history in Pakistan, no less important than the issues discussed above is the scarcity – or even nonexistence! – of source materials.
Two-and-a-half months after Pakistan came into being, a five-day Pakistan History Conference was held in Karachi. It continued from the 27th of November to the 1st of December 1947, where a resolution was passed to establish a Historical Records and Archival Commission. Asa result, in 1948, the Pakistan Historical and Archive Commission was established. However, the commission failed to create substantial records. Usually, it saved its face by stating that India had denied it records.
However, it would appear that the true reasons for the failure lay in the rivalry amongst powerful groups to get the top slot at the commission. Interestingly, prior to the formation of the Historical and Archive Commission, the Record Office of the Northwest Frontier was established in 1946 on the recommendation of the Indian Record Commission. However, even until now, scholars are discouraged to utilize the full range of resources available to it. The attitude by-and-large exists in most of the governments’ departments.
One might wonder why the state allows institutions that maintain valuable historical records to be so dysfunctional. There may more than one response to this.
But at the heart of the matter is the fact that the Pakistani state is still shy to accept that we shared a common history with India before the 1947 Partition. They believe in the segregation of history in universities. Therefore, scholars are discouraged to select such topics which span the pre-Partition and post-Partition eras.
And so, history as a subject is being compartmentalized – and scholars are pushed to think by applying the Two-Nation-Theory, upholding Muslims’ historical claims over India and promotion of Central Asian links. A common cultural heritage of the Indian Subcontinent is forced to be forgotten.
These official biases create a certain pattern in history-writing in Pakistan. Scholars are compelled to write the equivalent of an officially approved “photographic” image in the name of history.
Some sustain this pressure, upholding rationality in connecting the historical pieces together in a manner that maintains scholarly credibility. Their works fits in the discipline of history.
But many succumb to the pressure to take the official line that “whatever happened, it was unavoidable.” The whole narration seems a grand abstraction, where oppressors are not mentioned, social driving forces of those times are hidden, and readers are pushed into a land of confusion where no one knows who were the actors, what was the locale and contexts, and why it all happened. Facts are fictionalized and historical dishonesty is wrapped in jargon and technical terms which are neither explained nor contextualized in the whole narration. The text is artistically laid out, but it fails to communicate.
Some of Pakistan’s history books are a true depiction of the above. However, these authors have forgotten that their books’ tautological palace may fall in the blink of an eye when a simple rational argument strikes any of its pillars.
The old guard must understand that no one is interested in reading a biased and dull history.
Aspiring historians, for their part, will have to understand that history-writing as a task is accomplished when the scholar avoids vanity, contempt and biases. The scholar must be skeptical, balanced and imaginative. Imagination helps to make learning real, and it starts with a simple question: “Why”. Why did something happen? Why did it occur at that particular time? Why didn’t it occur at another time?
K.K. Aziz attempted to offer a corrective to official distortions of Pakistan’s story and his book, The Murder of History: A Critique of history textbooks used in Pakistan (1993), created some ripples amongst official historians. But successive governments never took it seriously. Likewise, Dr. Mubarak Ali, set the tone for a historiographical approach in writing of Sindh’s history. One of his books entitled, Sindh Ke Tarekh Kia Hae (2004) became popular amongst youth.
Recently, Dr. Tahir Kamran and Ian Talbot’s books on the history of the Punjab, particularly Lahore in the Time of the Raj (2016) and Colonial Lahore: A History of City and Beyond (2017) focused on Lahoris’ day-to-day lives, and their engagement with the officials of the Raj. These works may set directions for scholars.
However, a historian before starting any project, must remember that they are a human being. They may be moved by anger, love, sympathy and judgments of others. However, in all these situations they must pass the historian’s standards of scholarship. In addition to that, the writer of history must be humble and remember that neither are they the sole experts on the subject, nor have they explored the complete truth.
None of this is possible, though, unless at the societal level, there is a conducive environment. And it starts by allowing scholars to ask “Why”. For instance, why should they be restricted from accessing historical documents in the name of “national interest”, “national ideology” or “security”?
The author is a Ph.D. Scholar at the Department of History, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The areas of his interest are Peasant Studies, Social History and the Colonial and Post-Colonial periods. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org