KARACHI: Important historical documents from before and after the creation of Pakistan lie locked away in a forgotten room in the basement of Dr Mahmud Husain Library at Karachi University. Box files, made of cardboard and wood are stacked on top of one another next to a window on an iron shelf.
The room hasn’t been cleaned in so long that besides the cupboards and files, even framed pictures in a see-through glass and wood shelf are coated with a thick layer of dust.
The documents used to be known as the Archives of the Freedom Movement. Now, the section is simply referred to as the Pakistan Section or the Muslim League Section. It was set up when the university acquired the original records of the All India Muslim League (AIML) in 1966.
According to Muslim League Documents (Vol.I:1876-1937) (1990), compiled by Professor Sharif Al Mujahid, when General Ayub Khan declared martial law in 1958 and all political parties were banned and their records seized and assets frozen, the documents were stuffed in bags and dumped on the rooftop of the Muslim League House whose premises had been allotted to Pakistan Insurance Corporation.
Syed Shamsul Hasan, the joint secretary of the AIML, who kept the records and brought them to Pakistan from Delhi, requested the then foreign minister, Manzoor Qadir, to look into the matter. The records were then moved to the barracks of a building which served as the Pakistan Secretariat.
In 1966 Dr Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, the vice chancellor of Karachi University and Dr Zawwar Hussain Zaidi, who was a senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the UK, decided to salvage the documents.
Dr Qureshi approached President Ayub Khan who passed the formal orders on October 7, 1966, for the transfer of documents to the KU. Thus, the records stuffed in 123 gunny bags and 46 steel trunks made their way to Dr Mahmud Husain Library.
Over the years, 13 private collections and newspapers dating back to 1943 have been included in the archives.
The English dailies present in the archives include, the Morning News (from 1943 till 1956), The Times of India (1959) and Dawn (from 1944 till 1947). The private collections include those of Sardar Abdurrab Nishtar, Haji Abdullah Haroon, Sir Ali Imam, the Quaid-i-Azam and Manzar-i-Alam.
However, in 1997, the federal government decided to centralise all the Muslim League documents. All the 625 volumes were photocopied and the originals were shipped to the National Archives in Islamabad.
The photocopies were kept in the university and the Quaid-i-Azam Academy. The rest of the documents are still housed in the little forgotten room.
But with the passage of time and continuous neglect, the condition of the records has come to a state that if they are not preserved immediately, they will be lost in a few years. The pages have turned pale and brittle with age and crack when they are touched. Dust has even penetrated inside the box files and dust mites have grown inside it.
The library also had microfilms of the Dawn newspaper before 1947 but they were destroyed because the temperature of the room they were kept in was not maintained. What could be salvaged from the remaining films was burnt onto six CDs, said Khalid Hussain, who has worked here for 35 years.
“They are the primary sources of history,” said Professor Sharif Al Mujahid, who has served as the director of the Archives of the Freedom Movement and the Quaid-i-Azam Academy. “We will not be able to reconstruct our national history without them.”
Professor Mujahid also played a key role in compiling the documents and adding to the archives themselves. He told Dawn that he had bought the collection of Dawn newspapers, from 1948 to 1957 and included them in the archives, from the records of a former assistant editor who had left the country.
A corridor away from the archives is another room called the Quaid-i-Azam Section. Though the room is in a much better condition, its musty smell and layers of fine dust on dark wooden furniture give away that this room is just as forgotten.
Two beautiful book cases of delicately carved oak line two adjacent walls of the green-carpeted room. In the centre are two wooden sofas and two centre tables. On one of the tables lies a book titled ‘Quaid-i-Azam in Pictures’. Its glossy pages which are turning yellow from the edges have photographs from the beginning of Mr Jinnah’s political career to the bed on which he lay when he left this world.
On the top of the bookshelf in the centre of the room, there are framed originals of the letters written to Mr Jinnah and his sister Fatimah Jinnah from various political leaders and heads of organisations.
On one shelf at the end of the room, is a pamphlet on Direct Action Day of 1946, passed unanimously by the Muslim National Parliament in then Bombay, with Mr Jinnah’s signature adjacent to the proposed map of Pakistan.
The big khaki piece of paper has turned brown and brittle over the years and its clumsy cover of translucent butter paper is torn from several places.
This section was established when a part of the Quaid-i-Azam’s book collection was donated to the university when Mohtarma Fatimah Jinnah died in 1967.
Even after more than three decades the room is a surprise to many, even to some faculty members. There are 1,995 books which date back to as far as 1826. The Quaid took great care of his books and all of them are in excellent condition. The room stays locked, unless a special visitor comes along.
A professor of the KU history department said that the department had planned a two-year diploma course for archival management and was also able to get funds for the project. But they could not find any trained archivists so the project had to be abandoned.
However, Waseem Rana, the incharge for both the sections, claimed that the rooms were open to all. If anyone wanted to come they could ‘take permission’ and see the records.
“We get a lot more visitors now,” said Ms Rana five minutes after her assistant had dusted off the sofas in the Quaid-i-Azam Section.
When she was asked if any steps were being taken to preserve the documents, she said that they were being scanned and burnt onto CDs, but it would take time and there were a lot of projects to be completed before that.
The chief librarian, Rashida Aman, didn’t seem to be aware of the fact that there were still original documents present in the archives.
She insisted that there were only photocopies of the original documents. But when she was informed about the many documents which had not been shipped to the National Archives, she said that she had written to the university administration many times, but hadn’t received a reply.
She also claimed to have spoken to ‘an expert’ and a firm about restoration of the documents, but could not remember their names because she was not in her office.
She later said that she had also requested to close the open ceiling, which opens up in the reading room, of the archives’ room but, she added that the KU was a big place and these things took time.