Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Presented at the International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, 30 July- 1 August 2015.
I would like to discuss history writing in Pakistan, the different interpretations offered in the history textbooks of Pakistan. Just after Partition, the question for the ruling classes and for the Pakistani state was: How do we interpret the history of this country? There were three opinions. One: that Pakistani history should start from 1947, the year when it was created. Two: that it should start from the Arab conquest of Sindh. It is important to note that those who suggested this date—711—linked the history of Pakistan to the Arab past or the Islamic past and disconnected it from the Indian past. And three: that we should trace our emergence from the Indus Valley civilizations.
Following the first opinion, just after Partition, in 1949 and in 1950, two individuals were asked by the Pakistani state to write its history, neither of whom were professional historians. One was Prof. Ahmed Ali, novelist and author of Twilight in Delhi. He wrote an article on Pakistani culture, which is included in the Richard Symonds book, The Making of Pakistan. The other was Mortimer Wheeler, famous archaeologist and author of The Indus Valley Civilization. Both made an attempt to determine the identity of Pakistan and its separation from the Indian subcontinent. Professor Ali’s opinion and argument were very interesting: he traced the cultural and commercial relationship of ancient Pakistan to the Middle Eastern Babylonian and Aramaic civilizations, and suggested that the name ‘India’ should be adopted by Pakistan, and not India. ‘India’ was derived from the word Indus, which is a river located in Pakistan; therefore Pakistan should be the legitimate inheritor of this name.
Wheeler, in his book Five Thousand Years of Pakistan, traced the cultural and commercial relationship of ancient Pakistan to the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations.
Professional historians traced, on the basis of the two-nation theory, the separateness of Islamic identity from the medieval period. I. H. Qureshi’s work on the Muslim community in the Indian subcontinent is worth mentioning here, for he attempted to present the Muslim community of India as a monolithic community. According to him, as soon as the Muslims arrived from the different parts of the Muslim world, from Iran or Afghanistan or central Asia, they abandoned their ethnic identity and became absorbed into the Muslim community.
This is historically incorrect because those Muslims who arrived from different parts of the Muslim world retained their identity. Which is why we still find surnames like Ansari, Bukhari, Samarkandi and so on. Qureshi therefore distorted the historical fact and tried to argue that the Muslims had an entirely separate identity in India. A similar argument was provided by other historians.
Something else we must keep in mind is that Qureshi was anti-Akbar, especially with regard to his policy of Indianizing the Mughals and of treating Hindu subjects without cruelty. Qureshi accused Akbar of causing of the decline of the Mughal Empire, and for distorting the Muslim community in India.
These three historians laid down the foundation for the different interpretation of Pakistani history, with Qureshi becoming the ideologue for Pakistani historical interpretation.
After 1971, when Bangladesh became independent, there was a strong anti-India feeling and the Peoples Party formed the government. During this period there was an attempt to trace and interpret the history of Pakistan along different lines. The government of Pakistan set up a department in Islamabad, and the cultural department published a journal to which different historians and authors contributed. Their interpretation was that this part of Pakistan was never a part of the Indian subcontinent except during the Mauryan, Mughal and the British rules. So this region was never, culturally or linguistically, a part of the Indian subcontinent. Clearly, their attempt was to now link it to Islamic countries like the Middle East and the larger Islamic world. This was also the time that Pakistan organized the Muslim summit. It was obviously in the interest of Pakistan to have close association with the Arab countries, given their oil reserves and their overall prosperity.
Later, another attempt was made in 1989 when the USSR collapsed. Professor Ahmed Husain Dhani presented the argument that Pakistan should have close relations with the central Russian states. He also proposed that Russian be declared the language of Pakistan, making Pakistan even closer to the central Russian states as well as Iran.
These attempts created a lot of confusion in Pakistan about the identity of the state. It is important to remember that these people were all state-sponsored or state-patronized, and either professors at different universities or government employees. Unfortunately, we do not have independent researchers, although there is now a small group in Pakistan arguing against this.
In the context of textbooks in Pakistan: the early textbooks displayed no anti-India bent. In 1962, there was a new education policy in Pakistan and this new policy was formulated by American experts who were asked to come and help the government. The subject of history was dropped from school textbooks; instead, social studies was introduced. History became a victim of the new educational policy.
In 1965, after the war with India, another change occurred, and two important elements were included in the textbooks. One: the anti-Indian sentiment, because the war was fought with India. Two: the army, its generals and its soldiers were portrayed as heroes. These became the focus for social studies.
After the independence of Bangladesh and during the Peoples Party government, Islamic studies and Pakistan studies were introduced. Most of the Pakistan studies textbooks contain anti-India material alongside the glorification of the army and strong Islamic sentiments.
Every author is trying to emphasize the separateness of the Muslims against the Hindus. Although that was not uncommon even when that region was a part of the subcontinent. Once I visited Multan and a professor presented his book to me. There is a table in the book depicting the difference between Hindus and Muslims, differences in their food and clothing, their temples and mosques, their landscapes and nature. When people go to this extent to create and emphasize differences between the two communities, it can prove to be very dangerous for the young students.
We are challenging the content of these textbooks, we are trying to correct and to reform. Of course we do not have the power and resources. A majority of Pakistanis do not live in a pluralistic society—there is a Muslim majority, so there is a tyranny of the majority. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to convince the public.
We have a lot of history teachers but we do not have researchers or historians. We are not producing any new research about the medieval, ancient or modern periods. My friends and I publish a journal to challenge these traditional thoughts and arguments. We organize seminars— but are not very successful.
I am sorry, but this is the state of history writing in Pakistan.
Dr Mubarak Ali is former Professor, Department of History, University of Sindh and Former Resident Director of the Goethe Institut, Lahore.