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Killing history

February 22, 2019

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

FEBRUARY has been a busy month for the official choreographers of Pakistani public life in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and the infamous visit of the Saudi Crown Prince, arguably the most absurdly grandiose event of its kind in Pakistan’s history.

A good chunk of this country’s almost 220 million people know little about the ‘other’ news doing the rounds on social media platforms, not least of all the popular resistance movements currently challenging unaccountable state institutions. Many who are exposed to ‘other’ news often see it through the prism of our official choreographers who constantly decry popular resistance movements as foreign conspiracies against the Pakistani state.

This is of course not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. Arguably the very first popular movement subjected to such criticism was the one spearheaded by East Pakistani students demanding the status of national language for Bangla. Yesterday, the world celebrated International Mother Language Day to commemorate the sacrifices of those students who gave up their lives in Dhaka in 1952 as part of their struggle to secure their right to speak their native tongue.

For all the public holidays and demonstrations of pomp of this past month, Feb 21 passed by without a mention in official circles. It confirms that what the historian K.K. Aziz wrote about some decades ago continues to happen uninterrupted here, namely the murder of history.

They write and rewrite history to create pliant populations.

All states do it, of course. They write and rewrite history to create pliant populations willing to support, or at the very least remain silent, in the face of all kinds of excesses and absurdities. This is an ongoing process, because history is made every day, and so there can be no let-up in the choreographing of public life, both present and past.

The current targeting of ordinary Kashmiris in different cities of India — both figuratively and in some cases literally — confirms how the ostensibly secular ideals instilled into the body politic through the Nehruvian period have been undermined by the steady rise of the Hindu right. The latter has sanctified its growing cultural power via the murder of history.

In Pakistan’s case secular history writing has always been anathema to the establishment and its loyalist intelligentsia. Remarkably, the PTI government has put further ‘rationalisation’ of education on top of its policy agenda, with the prime minister himself chairing a meeting earlier this month to ensure inclusion of ‘Iqbaliyat’ into the official curriculum.

All this while we face an economic crisis to which we are responding by extending the begging bowl to everyone and sundry. One would think someone would advise the government to focus on skilling our exceedingly young population (approximately 140m under the age of 25) so that it can adapt to the demands of the global information age. Instead, we are preparing yet more generations of Pakistanis to exhort official narratives of history, always ready and willing to blame some proverbial foreign enemy for problems that have their roots not in prosaic ‘us vs the enemies of Islam’ binaries but in the complex and generally cynical dynamics of politics and economics.

Indeed, a critically conscious public discourse would surely produce satirical comment on the madness of India making hay about Pakistan as an alleged sponsor of extremism and then welcoming the Saudi Crown Prince to Delhi to sign contracts about energy cooperation.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of our contemporary intellectual and political crisis is that almost no mainstream political party is willing to identify the real contradictions of the established order and then do something about them. The Indian National Congress and even the mainstream communist parties worry about being called ‘anti-national’ by speaking up against the BJP’s jingoism and neo-liberal policies more generally. Meanwhile, here the PPP, PML-N and ANP (rightly) resist selective accountability against their leaders but are considerably more reserved when it comes to challenging the national security narrative or the dominant political economy of foreign aid.

In Pakistan, India and the world at large, the social democratic parties of the 20th century are complicit in the murder of their own history. They won’t own their own political traditions; once mass parties with strong bases of support in labour movements, an ideology of anti-imperialism and a commitment to challenging social conservatism, they now compete with the populist right wing to be deemed sufficiently nationalistic and pro-business to survive in the political mainstream.

This is a race to the bottom, and we are descending at a rapid pace. To move beyond the current crisis of political representation, then, we must rescue a real people’s history from the ruins of the official archive.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2019