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Archivists help preserve history

KARACHI, Aug 19: If you think that the language issue in the subcontinent reared its head a decade after partition of India, think again. It had been brewing ever since India was divided into two.

The headline of a news story published in the Deccan Times on Feb 18, 1949 reads, “Jawaharlal Nehru Solves – India’s Language Problem – Recommends Hindustani in Devnagri and Persian Scripts”.

Three months on (May 19) the same newspaper writes “Medium of Instruction in Osmania ‘Varsity – Hindi with Persian and Nagari Scripts.”

This, and pieces of information such as these, can be had by paying a visit to the Sindh government’s archives department, though these days it is in a rebuilding phase and things are a little less organised.

Let’s begin with infrastructural changes. A couple of years back it was decided that a new block should be built next to the original Sindh Archives building because the existing facility was not spacious enough to store the large quantity of archival material and the equipment installed for archiving. To date, construction work is on. The old building, though, still contains quite a few historic manuscripts, documents and books.

The good thing about the material kept in the department, even in its present not-so-organised form, is the wide variety which might interest people of every sphere of life. For example, literature buffs will find it fascinating to see more than a century old edition of Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif with Faqir Abdul Wali’s calligraphy.

Relatively modern literature has its fair share too. Readers of 20th century Urdu poetry can have a closer look at the famous Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem ‘Hum Tau Majbur-i-Wafa Hain’ — and in the poet’s handwriting at that. All these wonderful pieces are safely encased in one corner of a huge hall of the old block. By the way, next to it is the celebrated Makhtut-i-Khusrau-i-Shireen.

How can anyone ignore colonial times while discussing historicity of the subcontinent? Among the many documents pertaining to court proceedings and laws, there is one very interesting bit of record from the last quarter of the 19th century. It is to do with the age-old problem of land and landowners.

The caption accompanying the document reads, “In order to provide relief to the indebted zamindars of Sindh, the Bombay government promulgates Sindh Encumbered Estate Act 1876.

Under it the zamindars sought government help.” Not too far from that is a piece of paper that those who like to keep track of demographics might find worth flipping through. It is volume IX of ‘Census of India 1921’.

Speaking to Dawn, Deputy Director Sindh Archives Department Makhdoom Zulfiqar Ali said, “To upgrade the facilities at the department we have undertaken three projects.

(1) We are trying to strengthen our surveillance system, which is why we have added a number of CCTV cameras and an effective firefighting mechanism has also been put in place.

(2) We are in the process of expanding our lab facilities. The conservation and preservation laboratories that we had were good but were limited in terms of space. We have shifted them to a bigger area and made them well-equipped with lamination machines, fumigation equipment and conservation machines etc.

(3) We are making efforts to improve our district record room. In that regard, we have been collecting material from 10 districts of Sindh, including Larkana, Sukkur and Mirpurkhas. Most of the material belongs to the deputy commissioners who served in the region during British rule. We have recently got hold of 900 files from Jacobabad. They include among others Bombay Gazette, Sindh Gazette and Sindh Official Gazette.”

Apart from that, Mr Ali said, efforts were being made to better the facilities related to oral, digital and photo archiving. “There is a decent quantity of rare manuscripts. And if you are interested in quality books, you must be aware that we have books from the personal collections of eminent people like Dr N.A. Baloch, Khalid Shamsul Hasan and Pir Hassamuddin Rashdi. Last but not least, the department has also started publishing books.”

All of this sounds appealing to a history buff. However, nothing could be more appealing to a Karachiite than to see how the city was once spelt on a courtroom document: “In the Court of District of Kurrachee.” Notice the two Rs and two Es. Karachi has changed in every sense of the word. Hopefully, when the archives department has gone through its rebuilding phase, it will keep track of the city’s changed shape as well.