WHEN I was little, I read history books, even textbooks, with a great deal of reverence. The record of the past, I thought, must be revered for it represented a sort of truth of the ages, the story that connected to the present. I had no idea that history, like so much else, can be created and laid in service for the accomplishment of this or that political or religious goal.
Like a good Pakistani nationalist, I believed that history began when Muhammad Bin Qasim, that particularly intrepid commander of Arab pedigree, sailed over to somewhere along the Sindhi coast. The people living in the unhappiness of the Indian caste system, I imagined as eagerly awaiting his arrival. Even the age of the British Empire appeared not a particularly dark and defeated chapter of South Asian history. The Muslims had been brave all along, my book said, and had killed many Britons during the war of independence of 1857; they remained the more vocal and less obsequious of the ruled and all insisted on separate states.
In a history boiled down only to a religious past lies a simplistic moral clarity that may never be present in a truthful reality.
I had faith in all these things for an inordinately long time. It was not merely the paucity of textbook knowledge that led me to cling to them; it was, instead, something far more complex, deeper than the absence of other perspectives. This something was the consequence of the sort of programming that history in the service of nationalism can accomplish. I was and am still a believer in my faith, so I kept the compendium of hyperbole regarding the Muslim conquest and the 1857 uprising and the Muslim role in the partition of the subcontinent without questioning why they had been tagged on. I also believed one could not be a good person or a good Pakistani without doing so.
I read the other books and I learned the other perspectives, I saw facts that directly contradicted them and theories that explained them, but in my mind’s eye and my heart’s chambers there was still and only that swashbuckling Arab commander, those forever undaunted freedom fighters.
The sum of it all was and is simple: I could not imagine being a Pakistani, a good Pakistani, without the confabulations of the past. In a romanticised history boiled down only to an Islamic past lies a simplistic moral clarity that may never be present in a truthful reality, mottled and grey and true to the chaos of how things actually happen. The story of the glorious past, the underdog but ever victorious military, the doggedness of my own ancestors against the subservience of the Hindus, seduced and tempted and forever inhabited my psyche as the truth of things past. It could not be erased simply because I knew much of it was a distortion; as a Pakistani, a good Pakistani, I had to believe in it; I did not know how to stop believing.
The generation that is in school now and has grown up in the interim is likely afflicted with the same addiction — but it does not have to be this way. Decolonising the past is now a global endeavour with many post-colonial nations participating in it. The models of textbooks and post-colonial histories from all over the world are present for Pakistan to take tips from. The new government poised to begin its tenure could start a new chapter in this regard, expunging the hateful content of textbooks that vilify religious and sectarian minorities, replace ‘K for kalashnikov’ with ‘K for knowledge’.
Nor is it simply a matter of schools: given the millions that consume television programming, grants can be given to organisations that sponsor plays and discussions that promote a more balanced and inclusive perspective of our past. In addition to the patriotic milli naghmas that take over the airwaves every Aug 14, we could also have historical documentaries that present the past not in the same old stodgy frames and references but in a way that it is actually relevant to young people of our global age.
Such a future would be one closer to facts than fantasy, a desire to achieve rather than a desire to receive. Imagining that all was good and brave before, and that all has been upright and eminent all along, has been the tune of the past and present. A different one is in order for the future. What is required of the country is only not good governance and capable policymaking, the boring and unglamorous work of reports and tabulations and statistics, but leadership that believes that Pakistan can be proud of more than just its cricket team and its nuclear bomb. For Pakistanis to be deservingly ebullient and happy about the ‘potential’ of the country as it remains burdened by debt, plagued by fiscal uncertainty, and teeters to stabilise itself after a contentious election, this sort of turn is crucial, absolutely necessary.
Pakistan cannot afford another decade of apathy and undeserving celebrations. If they remain as they have done before, then patriotism will not be our pride but our poison. So bring out the flags and tell the news anchors to bring out the clichés, newsreels of children and their little flags and of people enjoying the day at the Minar-i-Pakistan or Quaid’s mausoleum; bring out the usual quotes from leaders typed up next to their solemn faces. But remember that celebrating Independence should and must mean more than that. If the celebrations of our present do not envision change, then the evaluations in our future will count us as having fallen short — and Pakistan deserves better than that.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2018