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Past present: History without historians

January 26, 2013

Recently, I was approached by the department of culture, government of Sindh, to attend a meeting in regard to writing the history of Sindh.

It can be written with a fresh perspective based on new material available. But who will write the history and secondly, where are the historians?

These questions highlight the dilemma of Pakistani historiography which has no tradition of research, neither of training young historians. Our universities and other educational and research institutions do not produce well trained or professional historians.

In the 1980s, I recall, Waheed-uz-Zaman — the Director of Pakistan Institute of History and Culture — proposed writing a multi-volume history of Pakistan. Subsequently, topics were suggested and assigned to historians but nothing materialised.

In the 1990s, attempts were made again by the same institute and topics were assigned to historians for writing respective volumes against handsome remuneration.

When they approached me, I warned them not to waste money on such projects and wrote an article on writing history without historians. It was not appreciated by the authorities.

I wanted to suggest that instead of asking history teachers to write history, the institute should launch a programme to train young historians and invite prominent historians from abroad to teach them research techniques. Nobody paid any attention and their project failed miserably.

After partition, Sindhi Adabi Board had launched an ambitious project for a multi-volume history of Sindh. Despite the fact that there were historians who could accomplish this task, just a few volumes were published and the project remained incomplete. Perhaps, the department of culture, government of Sindh, could have learnt a lesson from the past but they didn’t.

Moreover, there is a need to understand new trends and theories of history. So far, the emphasis is on political history or history of ruling dynasties. Other social, cultural and economic aspects are ignored. There is a concept known as history from below which includes the contribution and role of peasants, artisans, workers, women and other marginalised groups. It is time to change our historical outlook which is outdated and obsolete. History should be traced from below and not from above.

Before making any attempts to write history, it is important to publish primary sources. One laudable task of Sindhi Adabi Board was that it published the Persian sources of the history of Sindh. Since we have no scholars with a sound knowledge of Persian language, research on the medieval history of Sindh could never be done.

The Sindh Archive Department has rich material on modern history including records from the colonial period which could provide rich information. Recently, the department has acquired documents pertaining to revenue, police, CID and judiciary.

On the basis of these archives, the social and cultural history of Sindh can be written. However, the first task would be to edit and publish these records.

Unfortunately, it appears that neither concerned authorities, nor the society is interested in promoting the discipline of history. Public universities offer traditional history courses which hold no inspiration for students. There is no training offered in research methodology and no space for creativity. People do their Masters and Doctorates in philosophy to get promoted to higher grades while the topics selected for research are irrelevant and boring. Considering the situation, there is no hope for changing the way social sciences are taught nor to improve the discipline of history.

The department of culture must first train young historians and then develop projects for history writing. Without trained historians, plans for writing history are a waste of time and money.