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

Southasia - - BOOKS & REVIEWS - Re­viewed by Yaqoob Khan Ban­gash

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.