A Challenging Endeavor
Book Title: Challenges of History Writing in South Asia. Special Volume in Honour of Dr Mubarak Ali Edited by: Syed Jaffar Ahmed Publisher: Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi Pages: 506, Hardcover Price: USD 22 ISBN-13: 978-9698791438
History writing has always been a challenging endeavor in Pakistan and ‘ Challenges of
History Writing in South Asia’, edited by Syed Jaffar Ahmed in honor of Dr. Mubarak Ali, articulates this well. Although Dr. Mubarak Ali was trained in the older tradition of historians, he chose to write popular history. Throughout his career, Mubarak Ali has not written high-brow political histories and has instead focused on issues which interest the ordinary public. Long before William Dalyrmple popularized history in English in South Asia, Mubarak Ali had achieved the same success – significantly in Urdu – in Pakistan.
The volume begins with an article ‘Mubarak Ali and his work’ by the editor, Syed Jaffar Ahmed. Syed Jaffar Ali contextualizes the beginning of popular history writing by Mubarak Ali within the effects of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s which, in Sindh, infused ‘‘…a spirit of defiance but also encouraged the Sindhis to reassert their identity and foster their self-expression through creative literature and arts’’. Against this background, Ali’s writings quickly gained currency in various circles in Pakistan due to their twin merit of historical depth and popular outreach. Mubarak Ali’s contribution is also significant because of his ‘‘courage to question the inadequacies of the existing history writing tradition in Pakistan’’. In a country dominated by official narratives and official historians, Mubarak Ali’s writings are certainly a breath of fresh air and continue to raise a number of critical questions in their readable yet academic scope.
Sharif al Mujahid’s article on ‘History – the State of the Discipline: An Overview’ is interesting but suffers from a lack of focus. A longer and more detailed piece would have done the issues raised more justice. For example, one of the most important sections of the article on ‘problems confronting the discipline’ is written as a set of eleven points, while a lot of space is unnecessarily given to the development of historiography from the Delhi Sultanate period and Professor Sharif’s attempt to show historians of the medieval period in a positive light. However, the discussion on a lack of emphasis on methodology and interpretation is very apt as is the assertion that most historians who criticize the ‘murder of history’ are themselves perpetrators of the same.
Eminent historian Harbans Mukhia’s article on the topic of how historians view things – ‘India Thorough Indological Prisms: Filling in Some Voids’ – is a useful overview of the development of European Indology and how it still prevents a holistic view of human experience in South Asia. Professor Mukhia argues that it is high time we ‘abandoned the colonial baggage’ which saw India as the ‘spiritual East’ and Hinduism and Sanskrit as its ‘essence.’ He maintains that we must move from ‘binary opposition whether of continuity vs. change or class vs. class or empire vs. colony, etc. to one of continuums where interactions and interrelationships comprise the totality.’ Highlighting the importance of the ‘popular construction of history,’ he calls for historians to ‘understand the tales as part of the encompassing culture’ and provides examples from his own experience as a medieval historian to illustrate the point.
This article is followed by an article of yet another giant of South Asian studies, Professor Gyanendra Pandey, who succinctly analyzes notions of nationalism, communalism and violence and the everyday issues he has been working on for decades. Professor Pandey’s pathbreaking contribution to South Asian studies has been his exploration of the development of nationalism and nationhood as a ‘process’ and his focus beyond the elite leadership, showing that ‘‘the initiatives and struggles of the masses in diverse economic and cultural situations with diverse claims
on liberation’ are equally important. Professor Pandey’s 1990 book on communalism also provocatively argued that ‘ communalism was a category of colonialist knowledge’ and was more layered and complex than hitherto understood. His work on the 1947 partition and its violence, both ‘historical’ and in other manifestations, also serves to offer a new direction in history writing. The concluding remark by Professor Pandey is pertinent and so fitting in the context of a tribute to Dr. Mubarak Ali that it deserves a full quotation.
Dr Pandey writes: ‘What we need to work for is the recognition and presentation of a far more capacious and contested past than we have so far admitted into our history texts for the peoples and inhabitants of South Asia – in all their variety, indeterminacy and contradictoriness. Such a view of the past… is likely also to contribute to the production of a richer, more receptive and tolerant present – and more equitable futures’.
It is in these few lines that Professor Pandey has given the historians of modern South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular their future charge. With Pakistan as a case in point, unless we move forward from ideology-based official history writing – which only serves to create a fictitious and sanitary past and lends itself to creating deep ethnic, religious and identity-based fissures in the present – South Asia will not move away from cycles of hatred and violence and towards real human development.
The anthology’s greatest strength is that it has excellent articles from the best of South Asian academics, including Sarah Ansari, Kamran Asdar Ali, Ishtiaq Ahmed, Pervaiz Vandal, Rubina Saigol and others. However, the collection of these top academics with their focus on different subjects gives the work a haphazard feeling. Since the volume is entitled ‘Challenges of History Writing in South Asia,’ it would have been best for the writer to concentrate on articles which actually focus on the topic and perhaps collate the other articles in a separate volume.
Also, the classification of articles seems very odd. The explanation offered by the editor that a thematic arrangement might have put some senior academics at the end and would seem ‘a bit rude’ appears to me to be exactly the mould these senior academics seemed to have written against. Indeed, even the classification as in ‘Pakistan,’ ‘India’ and ‘Beyond’ seems to run against the grain of a lot of what has been argued in the articles themselves and unnecessarily segregates authors on the basis of where they may have been born.
The anthology’s greatest strength is that it has excellent articles from the best of South Asian academics, including Sarah Ansari, Kamran Asdar Ali, Ishtiaq Ahmed, Pervaiz Vandal, Rubina Saigol and others. However, the collection of these top academics with their focus on different subjects gives the work a haphazard feeling.
All said, the volume is certainly a welcome addition to history writing in Pakistan. One of its main achievement is its local publication, hence availability in the local market and, therefore, easy accessibility to people who should actually read it. Pakistan suffers not only from a singular focus on official hagiographies but also from no real ‘history’ of either a political or social nature. I hope this volume serves as a wake-up call to all of us. The writer is the chairperson of the Department of History, Forman Christian College, Lahore.