Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

It is often pointed out by some historians and commentators that Pakistan’s founder ,Mohammad Ali Jinnah, did not have a single, cohesive narrative explaining his idea of Pakistan. This is largely correct. But by citing Jinnah’s inaugural address to the country’s first Constituent Assembly in August 1947 — in which he envisioned Pakistan as an inclusive and pluralistic Muslim-majority state — the liberal intelligentsia insists that Jinnah saw his creation as a democratic and progressive entity.

However, on the other hand, those who disagree with this, often produce documented quotes of the same man in which he speaks about constructing an Islamic Republic and/or a new bastion of Islam in the shape of Pakistan. Historiography would define this claim as ‘orthodox history’ and the previous one as ‘revisionist history’.

But before we further explore these, it is important to mention that both sets of commentators treat Jinnah as an ideologue. The truth is he was a politician, and a pretty sharp one to boot. Politicians are known to adjust and readjust their words according to the political and cultural orientation of their audiences.

So, in a Constituent Assembly that had a majority of ‘Muslim modernists’ and also some prominent non-Muslims, Jinnah explained the new country as a pluralistic entity. On the other hand, in the erstwhile NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), while addressing an audience of conservative Pakhtuns, he spoke about a country run by Islamic laws. Then, while talking to the Voice of America, he asserted that Pakistan was not to be a theocracy because Islam was inherently democratic, modern and progressive.

So as a politician Jinnah was choosing his words carefully and then shaping them according to the nature of his audience. Orthodox historians and revisionists have for long fought a battle over his legacy by using his words. But the following is how a relatively new strand of historiography would explain the discourse between the two: both are correct.

Post-revisionism has come to question the cherry-picking of history and the ideological lack of nuance of both orthodox and revisionist historians

This new strand is called post-revisionism. It first began to emerge in the 1970s in the US as an ‘objective’ response to revisionist as well as orthodox historiographies. Orthodox historiography dominated history till the 1950s. It is about history that is formulated by historians and intelligentsia to justify the creation and then existence of a nation-state or a polity slotted together as a nation.

The works of the prominent national historian of Pakistan, the late I.H. Qureshi is a case in point. He authored various books which emphasised the ‘historical justification’ of the creation of Pakistan, by suggesting that the national impulse in the Muslims of South Asia had developed during the 500-year-old Muslim rule in India. He saw it as an evolutionary process that culminated with the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

This thesis was adopted by the state of Pakistan and became the country’s orthodox history. What’s more, from the late 1970s, Qureshi’s thesis was pushed further still when the state, during the Gen Zia dictatorship, propped up the eighth-century Arab commander Muhammad Bin Qasim — whose army invaded Sindh in 712 AD — as the ‘first Pakistani’.

But from the mid-1980s, Pakistan’s orthodox history began to be countered by some scholars. K.K. Aziz, Sibte Hassan and Ayesha Jalal launched a severe critique of the country’s orthodox history by deconstructing it and restoring ‘facts’ which they believe had either been distorted or suppressed because they contradicted the origin story of Pakistan, as propagated by the state.

The work of these historians endeavoured to validate the more liberal sides of Jinnah. They also demonstrated how he had been reshaped as a quasi-Islamic ideologue by orthodox historians. This was revisionist history taking to task orthodox history.

In the last two decades, revisionist history in this context has picked up momentum. For example, in August 2015, the Sindh government decided to include Jinnah’s August 1947 speech in the curriculum. The speech, which was largely suppressed by the state since 1977, also made its way into a 2019 book on Jinnah published by the Inter-Services Public Relations, the media wing of the Pakistan army.

But there are historians who see some inherent problems in the revisionist school of thought. This gave birth to what came to be known as post-revisionism. It largely emerged from the works of American scholars such as J.L. Gaddis and Thomas G. Peterson. While studying the origins of the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, Gaddis and Peterson claim that both orthodox as well as revisionist historians were heavily invested in defending their respective ideologies in discussions on the Cold War.

For example, whereas orthodox historians accuse the Soviet Union of starting the Cold War ‘to undermine American democracy and freedom’, revisionists blame the US for ‘betraying the Soviet Union after World War II in a bid to sideline it in the post-war order.’

Gaddis and Peterson find this discourse problematic. Even though they see merit in the historic evidence presented by both the sides, they lament that the evidence was cherry-picked to defend their respective ideological dispositions. This made the orthodox and the revisionists miss out the many nuances which greatly contributed to the start of the Cold War. To Gaddis, these economic and political nuances made the Cold War inevitable and no one side could be blamed for starting it.

Another problem that post-revisionists have with the revisionists is that, even though revisionists want to demystify and deconstruct the ideological edifice of orthodox history, they do this by replacing it with their own set of ideological preferences.

It thus becomes a clash between ideologies in which the important historical nuances that Gaddis was talking about get ignored. Post-revisionists accuse revisionists of being as judgmental as orthodox historians, whereas the job of history is not to judge.

Critics of revisionism have also demonstrated that since revisionism is more about critiquing than documenting history, it has given birth to ‘historical negationism’. Also called ‘denialism’, this renegade school of thought piggybanks on revisionist ideas to claim that horrific episodes of genocide, such as the Holocaust, never happened.

Also, since revisionists, just as orthodox historians, are largely driven by political ideologies, there is always the danger that, in the event of their preferred account of history not being accepted according to their liking, they may and do end up substantiating the history that they set out to counter. sometimes without realising it.

For example, there is a group of Pakistani revisionists who now want Pakistani liberals to let go of Jinnah’s image as a progressive, and accept that the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim-majority country was a mistake. This does not mean that they agree with orthodox history. But, ironically, they inadvertently end up substantiating the image of Jinnah constructed by their orthodox opponents. This is when revisionism ends up eating its own tail.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 1st, 2020