IN January 1956, Soong Ching Ling, a founding member of the Peoples Republic of China, visited Pakistan and gave a speech broadcast over Radio Pakistan. She commented on the relative newness of the two nations — both, at the time, created less than a decade ago — as well the “ancient civilisations” that both had inherited. She crucially linked the progress of the two nations to “a general national awakening” and the “galvanisation of public spirit.” She stressed the importance of the study of “history as a science”, so that the various superstitions and colonial distortions could be eliminated. “Colonialism is incompatible with peace”, and so she argued for the need for an anti-colonial project of history-writing.
The question of writing history had already become an urgent matter by 1956. When the British partitioned the subcontinent, they were also meant to separate the colonial archives, but that did not happen. The records of the Viceroy went to London, the records related to the princely states were burned, and the imperial records of the colonial state, which were housed in Delhi, became the National Archives of India. There was never a division of the records of the colonial state or other functioning archives in 1947. Pakistan was created with a deficit not only in funds, armies, bureaucracies, but also in history.
This was recognised at the first (closed) meeting of the Pakistan Historical Records and Archives Commission which took place in Karachi in 1948. At that meeting, a Central Directorate of Archives was created with the aim of streamlining and preserving the main repositories — the Central Record Offices in East Bengal, Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab which were created and modelled on the already existing office in what at the time was the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
In 1954, a second meeting of the commission was held in Peshawar. A survey was presented highlighting the severe lack of resources and infrastructure. Not only was the new country without any historical or bureaucratic records to help guide it, there was a lack of funds and a national vision for even undertaking such a project.
Pakistan’s failure to formulate a vision or allocate resources to the writing of history since 1947 will have catastrophic consequences, argues historian Manan Ahmed Asif.
While the new state made repeated claims to the government of India for sharing the indices or catalogues of the archives in Delhi, they were rebuffed. In 1955, the commission requested the government of Pakistan to create a new physical building to house the national records and archives. This did not end up materialising until 1973 when the National Documentation Centre was set up.
Already, there were concerns about what records would be preserved or who could even access these records. As early as the 1954 meeting, it was clear that the Department of Defence would keep its own records. At the 1970 meeting of the commission in Dhaka, historians complained that the records of the Pakistan Muslim League were seized by Field Marshal Ayub Khan and given to Karachi University, but the university would not give access to scholars from East Pakistan wanting to consult the records.
Others mentioned the difficulties of knowing where papers of political leaders, national poets or even the official legislature were to be made available to scholars. Still more was the vexed question of private papers and private libraries, and their relationship to the national urgency of archiving and preserving the past.
After the creation of Bangladesh, there was a new National Commission on Historical Cultural Research, led by K.K. Aziz, that was established in 1973. The commission held conferences in 1973, 1974 and 1975. There was now a new concern: how does one write the history of ‘modern’ Pakistan — that is, post-1947?
Aziz would summarise the problem facing the historians of modern period as lack of independence of thought and resources, lack of institutional sources, professional security and a general neglect for any consideration of historical truth. Most critically, Aziz produced a long list of individuals and organisations whose papers needed to be collected in the National Archives. None would eventually make it there.
Thus, parallel to the crisis of the archives of Pakistan was the crisis of history-writing itself. Where the question of the archives wrestled with current geography, bureaucracy and repositories, history-writing almost immediately looked to the early history of Islam and not to capturing the history of the newly founded state.
The Pakistan History Society was founded in 1950 at the behest of Fazlur Rahman, then minister for education and commerce. It was meant explicitly to create translations of medieval Persian histories — making critical editions and translations of Jaffar Aftabchi’s memoir of Humayun, and Ibn Bajjah’s Ilm-ul-Nafs.
It began publishing the Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society in 1953. Fazlur Rahman introduced the journal, and the work of the society, as the task to “start seriously the work of re-writing the history of Islam”. Notably, not of Pakistan. The focus was explicitly on early Islam, and Philip K. Hitti was the guest of honour at the inauguration of the journal.
This was a history meant to highlight “the glorious conduct of Muslim rulers under the guidance of Islam” outside of the subcontinent. A quarterly, in its first 12 issues, there were 100 articles and only 12 were on the medieval period in Hindustan — mostly on Emperor Akbar. The vast majority were focussed on the Umayyad and Abbasid periods.
Two further organisations concerned with history-writing, ominously divided, came into being after the Pakistan History Society. The Asiatic Society of Pakistan in East Bengal was founded in Dhaka in 1952, with the aim of being akin to the “Asiatic Society of Bengal in undivided India”. The Historical Research Institute was founded at the University of Punjab in 1960.
It was the latter that would begin to publish the Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan (West Pakistan) in 1964 as a quarterly — with the aim being “to be modern as well as earlier, with special emphasis on ‘West Pakistan’.” This journal was chaired by S.M. Ikram. Many luminaries published in this journal, including A.H. Dani, Yar Muhammad Khan, Pir Hissamuddin Rashidi, Iftikhar Ahmad Ghauri, Muhammad Bashir Hussain, Nabi Bakhsh Baloch, M. Kabir, S.M. Jaffar and others. The bulk of their work concerned textual and material pre-partition histories of polities in West Pakistan.
After 1971, there was sharp switch to the national policies on understanding history itself. The study of the earliest period of Islam and the arrival of Muslim rule to the subcontinent became the key focus for historical writing.
The 1980s gave a new ideology and a turn towards writing the history of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and a small group of men engaged in the freedom struggle. This was enabled by the creation of the National Archives and its nearly exclusive focus on the collections of Jinnah’s papers. Even a cursory survey of the articles published in the 1980s onwards shows that most articles are focussed on the founding figures (largely biographic and hagiographic) and on religious history.
The crisis of the archives was never resolved. One can peruse any recent history of Pakistan published and found nary an archival document listed in the footnotes. A much more significant lack is in understanding the history of Pakistan after 1947. The military remains absent from any publicly accessible archive, as well the religious political organisations and political parties. The personal papers of any prominent political figure, even heads of state, such as the Bhuttos or the Sharifs, are submitted to no repository. Important bureaucracies, such as Police, Civil Services, Water, etc., do not register their archives for any scholarly purpose. Often, any records available are simply working papers at the municipal or field level — literally policed by the working officials.
The crisis of history-writing is even less resolved. In today’s Pakistan, there is not a single historical journal published that is recognised for scholarly excellence in the global scholarly community. There is not a single PhD-granting history department that can claim a reputation for producing excellence in scholarship. Pakistan has given no historical schools of thought, method or analysis to the world of scholarship.
There are no great demands for historians as intellectuals or interlocutors in the public sphere. One hears rumours about the gutting and hollowing out of history departments in Dhaka, Karachi, Quetta and Lahore, and the elimination of any scholarly voice capable of addressing a forbidden perspective. However, these rumours cannot be verified, for there is a lack of records for what may have transpired at any given moment.
If journalism is the first draft of history, then history remains in the drafting stage for Pakistan. Paradoxically, there is a great deal of emphasis on history by the political and religious establishments. There, it is a claim on a golden age — long gone — to which the nation-state must tether itself. This ahistorical rendering of the past is made possible precisely because the tools of historical trade as well as the practitioners of history could never flourish.
The flourishing is rather of memoirs and first-person reportages masquerading as ‘behind-the-curtain’ or ‘corridor-of-power’ views written by generals, journalists, bureaucrats and personalities. Such a biased, self-referential and closed ecosystem reproduces itself. It emphasises the individual and sinister, unaccountable forces as actors (remember: no one has to ever cited any material evidence, just hearsay, innuendo or testimony). It produces a messianic and apocalyptic politics where the hidden world and the empirical world cannot be differentiated.
Pakistan is among the 50 poorest nations in the world, with an average life expectancy of around 67 (it was under 45 in 1947). The adult literacy rate hovers around 60pc. We are also among the top 10 countries with the largest external debts. These lines are being written in English for a very limited audience that may be comfortably removed from the harshness and precarity of daily life for the vast majority of Pakistanis.
The history available to reflect with, or learn from, is delivered via WhatsApp and Facebook and is very far from the ‘science’ that we know it must be. The public spirit galvanised by this history is sectarian, identitarian and orthodox. The oxygen-deprived archives and historians can only watch in silence.
The writer is a historian of Indian Ocean World focussing on the medieval and early modern period. He teaches at Columbia University in New York, USA.