The Institute of Historical and Social Research (IHSR), Karachi — set up by progressive activist-turned-philanthropist Dr Tariq Sohail and most ably run by leading social scientist Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed — has established itself as a pro-people institution of knowledge generation.

It is said that the conqueror writes the history of the vanquished. The powerful tend to create a collective memory that suits their vested interests over generations. The piece of land that constitutes Pakistan had not just been invaded for almost a millennium and then totally colonised for more than a hundred years but, after its creation, the powers-that-be and the ruling elites in the country — state institutions and the wealthy classes alike — have continuously distorted our history and tried to erase the historic sources which could be used for generating people-centred knowledge.

Pakistan has individuals such as Dr Mubarak Ali, Dr Shah Muhammad Marri and Dr Tahir Kamran, who would challenge the official ‘history-telling’, but never had an academic movement of any kind similar in stature to subaltern studies — including historiography — that was developed by scholars of Indian origin such as Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Shahid Amin, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and many others.

That makes institutions such as the IHSR even more important in our context. Here, I must also mention that Ranajit Guha, who is considered to be the founder of subaltern studies, breathed his last on April 28, 2023, at the age of 90. We owe so much to him.

The IHSR’s work has sped up the process of inverting both the colonial gaze and the elite rendition of our social, political and cultural history. One of the latest books they have published in Urdu is Nigah-i-Aina Saaz Mein: Aik Inqilabi Kaarkun Ki Yadein, Tajrubaat Aur Mushahidaat [In the Eye of the Mirror Maker: Memories, Experiences and Observations of a Revolutionary Political Worker]. It falls within the genre of oral historiography, which the IHSR believes will enrich the comprehension and recording of history from the people’s lens.

Nigah-i-Aina Saaz Mein is the rich life story of Rishad Mahmood. The story is told through a brief introduction about his familial roots, early life and education, penned by Mahmood himself, which is then followed by a somewhat thematic interview he gives to Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed, the editor and compiler of the book.

In 1922, Mahmood was born in Bombay [Mumbai]. His father came from the port city of Surat in the Indian province of Gujarat and his mother was born in Bursa, Turkiye, to a father from Kasur in Punjab and a mother of Turkish origin. His father died early and, at a tender age, he and his siblings found jobs as factory workers in Bombay. As he grew older, he became active in labour rights movements and communist politics. In 1946, he also witnessed the famous naval mutiny, in which Indian communists lent their support to anti-colonial soldiers.

Mahmood developed a keen interest in Urdu literature from a young age. He was one of the most regular participants of the literary meetings and events organised by the Progressive Writers’ Association in Bombay. The interview with Ahmed also highlights that Mahmood was a voracious reader of both fiction and poetry — he fondly mentions a large number of writers whom he met or read, from the likes of Krishan Chander to Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, to Ali Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi.

Soon, Mahmood began spending time with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, which was led by Habib Tanvir. He recalls the whole event of staging Munshi Premchand’s short story Shatranj Ke Khilarri [The Chess Players] by Tanvir. At the same time, he read every available work in Urdu on Marxist ideology. The memories of people, places, events, political campaigns, theatre, film, newspapers, magazines and journals published by writers and progressive thinkers from Bombay in the 1940s are not just related plainly; they are interspersed with Mahmood’s own insights and observations.

Ahmed skilfully has Mahmood present his journey of experiential learning as a revolutionary political worker before and after Partition. In the early 1950s, Mahmood moved to Karachi and continued his political association along with an economic struggle to survive. He responds avidly and effortlessly to questions about his take on the changes occurring in communist politics after the creation of Pakistan, the 1948 Chinese revolution and the death of Josef Stalin in the then USSR and its impact on the world, etc.

Something that stands out is the international connections and solidarity among the anti-colonial, anti-imperial and freedom movements and socialist parties across the world. Mahmood mentions various individuals from other parts of the world who would either correspond or travel in solidarity with each other.

In the 1950s, since the communist party had been proscribed, Mahmood chose to join the Awami League for some time before getting inclined towards the National Awami Party. He spent some years in Lahore and witnessed the martial rule of Gen Ayub Khan, the killing of communist leader Hassan Nasir in the Lahore Fort, the takeover of progressive papers including Pakistan Times and Imroz by the Ayub regime and the death of Mian Iftikharuddin, the owner-founder of Pakistan Times.

Mahmood used to spend time reading in the Dyal Singh Trust Library during his Lahore years, and moved back to Karachi later in the Ayub period.

Mahmood has an acute ability to evaluate the local impact of the Sino-Soviet divide in the then international socialist context and the contemporary neo-imperial role of Western powers in our supposedly postcolonial world. On the other hand, he has both factual and informed insights into local politics.

He has spoken about the 1971 East Pakistan debacle and the Sindhi-Mohajir conflict in Sindh, which he closely observed. He has also drawn a comparison between Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s and Gen Ziaul Haq’s eras. Mahmood, at 90, with a history of struggle of 75 years, continues to espouse an unwavering belief in struggling for an egalitarian socialist economic order.

The columnist is a poet and essayist.
He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 7th, 2023

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