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K.K. Aziz: Murder he wrote

Updated April 27, 2014

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K.K. Aziz is a well-known name among academics and students of history in Pakistan. Many young people in this country are thankful to him for liberating them from the stranglehold of the myopic and slanted histories and ideological narratives that they were indoctrinated with at school and college.

In Pakistan, histories related to the ideological make-up of the country have been gradually mutated; a process in which, over the decades, every major political debacle has seen the insertion of a series of brand new half-truths in school textbooks. This has entailed the ‘extraction’ of those truths that might contradict the state’s rationale in explaining these debacles.

It’s an almost Orwellian process that (even till the late 1980s) was not fully studied or questioned, in spite of the fact that there was ample evidence available to challenge the spotty yarns and spins that had begun to enjoy a two-fold growth in the country’s textbooks (especially after the 1971 East Pakistan tragedy and then during the military dictatorship of Gen Zia in the 1980s).

However, ever since the mid-1990s, a vibrant wave of scholarship has slowly developed comprising historians and intellectuals deconstructing historical claims featured as facts in school textbooks.

The results have been startling, even intellectually liberating, for those wanting to study the history of the country in a more rational and detached manner. The leading architects of such studies include Ayesha Jalal, Dr Mubarak Ali, Dr Tariq Rahman, Rubina Saigol, Professor A.H. Nayyar and Dr Iftikhar Ahmed.

However the first noted Pakistani historian to initiate such a study was the enigmatic Professor K.K. Aziz. His 1985 book Murder of History was one of the first studies that directly challenged the numerous claims made (about Pakistan’s creation and ideological evolution) in school textbooks.

Aziz’s book failed to sell well when it was first published in 1985. But it did reach all those who (from the mid-1990s) would eventually initiate a robust inquiry into the material that was being taught to school children in the name of history and ‘Pakistan studies’. Today Murder of History is one of the most popular books among local history buffs and has enjoyed numerous reprints.

But what made Aziz write it? First of all he had closely witnessed the state’s project to revise many parts of the history books being taught in schools after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle. Because (ironically) when this project was first initiated (during the populist Z.A. Bhutto regime), Aziz was part of that government!

Before all this, Aziz, after receiving a PhD from Manchester University (in the 1950s), returned to Pakistan and became an active member of the time’s ‘progressive crowd’. But unlike the many scientists, poets, intellectuals and politicians that he befriended in Lahore’s coffee houses, Aziz decided to become a dedicated historian.

By the early 1960s he had already authored a number of books on the history of colonialism in South Asia. But more interestingly (in the late 1960s), he helped conservative historian, I.H. Qureshi, in authoring The Struggle for Pakistan — the book that would go on to inform the state-backed history of Pakistan (during the Bhutto and Zia regimes), and the book that Aziz would then go on to deconstruct in his Murder of History.

Aziz was teaching at a university in Khartoum (Sudan) when he was invited by the Bhutto regime to head the Pakistan Commission of Historical and Cultural Research (PCHCR).

In 1974 he was given the task to shape and streamline the findings of the hefty Humoodur Rehman Commission. The commission had conducted an extensive inquiry into the civil war in former East Pakistan and on its consequential seperation from the rest of Pakistan in December 1971.

However, in 1977 just when he was about to convert his hectic research into a report and a possible book, Bhutto’s regime was toppled in a military coup by Gen Zia.

Zia immediately removed Aziz from the PCHCR and then got the police to raid his home. All of his research material was confiscated. Heartbroken, Aziz moved back to Khartoum but after Sudan also began to experience political turmoil, Aziz managed to bag a research chair at a university in Germany.

It was here that he began to collect the material from which some of his most well-known books would emerge.

In 1985 he returned to Lahore and stayed with his brother-in-law who helped him publish Murder of History. Once again, this landed him in a confrontation with the Zia regime.

He was now struggling to make ends meet. No one was willing to publish him and he needed a proper facility where he could conduct his scholarly research and write his books.

He was still staying with his brother-in-law in Lahore when in 1993 the second edition of Murder of History was published. This time the book did relatively well. Also, Benazir Bhutto’s second government had come to power and she instructed the Pakistan Embassy in the UK to provide an office to Aziz and a nominal monthly salary.

He travelled to the UK and began work on at least eight books simultaneously! In 1996 he lost his post at the Embassy when Benazir’s second government fell. With the help of some Pakistanis in the UK, his stay in London was funded before this too fell away and he had to return to Pakistan.

But in Lahore he had a falling out with his brother-in-law and stayed with a friend instead. During Nawaz Sharif’s second government he again faced intellectual isolation and in 1999 packed his bags and left for the UK again.

However, he had already managed to finish a number of books. The manuscripts of these books were left behind with various publishers who began to publish them.

Though he had vowed never to return to Pakistan, in 2008 he landed in Lahore but died the next year due to an illness.

As fate would have it, by the time Aziz decided to return the reputation of this once rejected and isolated academic had been transformed and he was hailed as a thorough scholar and pioneering historian.

Murder of History enjoyed its third edition in 2010 and is now widely quoted by noted Pakistani and Western historians. Also, ever since his death, a series of books authored by Aziz in the 1990s have appeared. The history sections of books stores across Pakistan now carry a number of works authored by Aziz, something that was almost inconceivable even till the mid-1990s.