Some of us in Pakistan continue to speak out against the erasure of memory project pursued by the powerful elites and the institutions that serve their interests — together defining the nature and structure of how the state functions vis à vis society.

From the content offered in our school textbooks, to what is aired on and printed in the mainstream media, to the meta messages relayed to people at large by those holding responsible public and political offices, there continues to be a desire among the powers-that-be to create a common mindset on the basis of two things: a denial of the real past and pushing forward the illusory realities of the present.

From K.K. Aziz to Ahmed Salim, from A.H. Nayyar to Madiha Afzal, from Amir Riaz to Amjad Nazeer, some of our researchers and scholars have identified and highlighted, from time to time, the inherent prejudices and lopsidedness promoted through our curricula.

Likewise, in our media, we find the propagation of certain ideas, individuals, institutions and public offices that are to be considered sacrosanct. However, this doesn’t go unchallenged by all artists, scholars, journalists and activists. The challenge causes discomfort and impatience among the power-holders and power-brokers, leading to them becoming ultra-patriotic and believing in their own propaganda.

This sincere fallacy on their part creates the same disconnect between their circle of power and the knowledge residing outside their circle of power that they wish to create between the circle of the powerless and the knowledge residing outside their circle of powerlessness.

State and society thus come to a stage that marks the end of the possibility of a broad civilisational, cultural, political or social dialogue between those who possess divergent views on matters like history and politics.

The absence of dialogue begins a process of otherisation of those who dissent or hold a different view. That leads to a deep intolerance for any divergent view. Intolerance further deteriorates into extremist attitudes towards any disagreement from the narrative of the powerful. What comes next is violence, in all its prevalent forms, depending on the nature and degree of disagreements.

We have followed the same trajectory in our intellectual world as well as in our societal behaviours when it comes to dealing with diverse political ideologies, ethnicities, faiths and cultures.

But what happened in Pakistan for half a century has begun to happen in India with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its current form, with Narendra Modi at its helm. A new dominant narrative is being professed and propagated that rebukes any difference or dissent. Faith-based differences and political issues between the north and south, the centre and the northeast and the centre and Kashmir are on the rise.

For those who are great believers in the populist hype around the economic gains under Modi may find economist Ashoka Mody’s India is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today a reminder on how the prosperity of the upper and middle classes can be achieved at the expense of large swathes of populations considered disposable.

In 2018, when the Indian city Allahabad was renamed Prayagraj by the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a friend quipped that famous Urdu poet Akbar Allahabadi shall now be called Akbar Prayagraji. To this, another friend added that Akbar has a native name too, Mahabali, and thus Akbar Allahabadi should be renamed Mahabali Prayagraji.

We can crack these jokes while sitting in Islamabad like Indian friends of ours joke about our lack of a sense of history in Delhi. But the new reality built upon the edifices of hate and exclusion across our entire region is shameless and shocking.

What should we call our region though? South Asia or the Indian Subcontinent? What should we call India? India or Hindustan or Bharat (as has been used officially by the BJP-led government recently)? In front of our eyes, East Pakistan became Bangladesh and West Pakistan became Pakistan. What is in a name? Academic historian Manan Ahmed Asif’s remarkable book The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India answers this question. It is not about a name but the names that symbolise history.

Thoroughly dismembering colonial historiography, Asif establishes a truth of history: the pre-colonial political ancestry that was Hindustan — a land stretching from what is now Pakistan to Bangladesh, with today’s India in between. It had many diverse peoples in terms of race and faith and, over centuries, they were governed by different rulers in different parts at the same time. But they remained culturally, communally, politically and economically interconnected.

The book is richly referenced and demonstrates the rigour Asif has shown in building his case. There are mediaeval historiographic references, including but not limited to from the Tarikh-i-Firishta by Muhammad Qasim Firishta. Asif calls for decolonising memory. He also provides the backdrop for how communal divisions between Hindus and Muslims were consolidated by colonial historiography and continue to plague the imagination of people even after the British left.

My takeaway from Asif’s book is that there can be many sovereign countries in what we now call South Asia, but that there is a shared civilisation that needs to be acknowledged and fostered, to rid us of the institutionalised hate and exclusion on religious lines that has been left to us as a colonial inheritance.

More power to Asif’s elbow.

The writer 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 Hairaa’n Sar-i-Bazaar.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 24, 2023

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