Identity Crisis and the Responsibilities of the Present Pakistani Historians: Professor Dr. Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah

Dr Wiqal Ali Shah[Following is the keynote address by Professor Dr. Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah. The address was delivered by the professor last month in Khairpur University, Sindh, on 25th November, which ultimately led to his removal from the post of the director of the National Institute of Historical and Culture Research (NIHCR), Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Professor Dr. Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah is an ethnic Pashtun and a renowned writer and historian in Pakistan]

Identity Crisis and the Responsibilities of the Present Pakistani Historians

Professor Dr. Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah

Respected Chief Guest Honourable Syed Qaim Ali Shah, Dr. Javed Ashraf, Vice Chancellor Quaid-i-Azam University, Professor Dr. Parveen Shah, Vice Chancellor Khairpur University, Sindh and distinguished scholars, colleagues and participants of the Sindh Conference Assalamo Alaikum.

It is a great honour for me to share my views as a Key Note Speaker of the present Conference on Sindh: History and Culture. The National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research, Centre of Excellence, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad is organising this Conference in collaboration with the Khairpur University Sindh and Higher Education Commission, Islamabad. I would like to say few words on the National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research and then will come to some important issues which needs the attention of scholars working on the area and will be thoroughly analysed in the present Conference.

The National Commission on Historical and Cultural Research (now the National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research) has been established in December 1973. It is an autonomous organisation for research and is administered and controlled by a Board of Governors, headed by the Vice Chancellor, Quaid-i-Azam University. The other members of the Board are prominent social scientists and scholars from different parts of Pakistan. The Institute has conducted research and also publishes books on various subjects which are relevant to the history and culture of South Asian Muslims. Other topics covered are Freedom Movement, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Allama Mohammad Iqbal and Pakistan. The Institute well-stocked library contains huge collection on the above mentioned subjects and is attracting a large number of students and scholars belonging to different fields of social sciences. Till date the NIHCR has published more than one hundred and sixty books in English, Urdu and Persian. Besides this the Institute is also bringing out two bi-annual journals, namely Pakistan Journal of History and Culture (English) and the Majallah e Tarikh au Saqafat (Urdu).

Some of the Objectives of the Institute includes:

  • To assess and examine the needs and requirements of research in the history and culture of the Muslims of South Asia, Muslim Freedom Movement and the Islamic State of Pakistan;
  • To identify areas or aspects in these fields and conduct research thereon;
  • To devise and adopt ways and means to further the objectives of the Institute as a body responsible for research in history and culture of Pakistan.

Keeping in view the above mentioned objects in mind, the Institute undertook a series of the Conferences on the four major provinces which formed the present day Pakistan. The first one was organised 27-29th November 2012 at Peshawar University. The Balochistan Conference was held on 28-30 April 2014 at Islamabad. The Conference on Sindh is the third in the series and the fourth and final one on the history and culture of the Punjab has been planned for the next year i.e. 2016.

The Objectives of the present Conference has been termed as:

  • To explore the rich historical and cultural landscapes of the province of Sindh.
  • To integrate various regions and provinces of Pakistan through research and dialogue.
  • To establish strong linkages and collaboration between various institutions and universities in Pakistan.
  • To encourage positive research, rational thinking and scientific approach in the field of history and culture.
  • To show to the world that how our rich historical and cultural traditions contributed in the onward march of human civilizations.

When I have been given the task to prepare the key note address for the present Conference I thought that it will be much easier task keeping in view the rich heritage of Sindh history and culture, I immediately accepted the assignment. But later on when I started thinking on the selection of topic, of course, keeping in view the above mentioned objectives, I was confronted with lot of difficulties and problems. Being an Oxford Graduate (I did my D. Phil in Modern South Asia many years back from the Oxford University. My focus was regional politics and I worked on the Muslim Politics in the North-West Frontier Province, renamed in 2010 as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and worked on the Khudai Khidmatgar Movement led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan also known as Bacha Khan) I felt it as an incumbent duty and obligation upon myself to work on a useful topic but at the same time was also aware of the fact that since the research culture in our region is very different it might create acrimony and bitterness against me. At the same time I did not want to repeat the stereo types written in our historiography. Yesterday morning i.e. Saturday 21 November 2015 I decided to share my views with you in this august gathering and will leave it to your judgement either to agree or disagree with me. I am not a puritan neither would like to enter into adulation for something which is polemic but simply will put my arguments before you and then as pointed out earlier will leave it to you to support or simply demure my ideas.

  1. E. M. Wheeler in the introduction of his famous book entitled Five Thousand Years of Pakistan: An Archaeological Outline (London, Royal India & Pakistan Society, 1950) has remarked that ‘The title of this little book is a wilful paradox but contains a fundamental truth. Pakistan is a new Islamic state but is, nevertheless, like its older neighbour, a product of historical processes of which Islam itself is only the most recent and emphatic. In reviewing those processes, the modern historian and archaeologist turns first to geography and geology. How far did nature anticipate and control the activities of man which have culminated in the new Dominion?

‘In West Pakistan the answer is not difficult. The natural boundaries are the Arabian Sea in the south-west, the Baluchistan and Himalayan mountains in the west and north, and the Thar or desert in the south-east. Only towards the east, between the desert and the Himalayas, is there an open fertile tract, upwards of two hundred miles wide, where the great plains of northern India continue unbroken into the West Punjab. There alone are boundaries indeterminate in a geographical sense, and there alone is man completely arbiter of his destiny. Otherwise, West Pakistan is marked out as an integral unit no less by nature than by man.

‘Its backbone is the river-system of the Indus, which, aided by artifice, is capable of fertilizing vast tracts of good alluvial soil. The flanking hills rise sharply from the river-plain to the Irano-Afghan plateau, and their outline still delimits, as for many centuries it has delimited, two essentially different social systems: the semi-mobile people of the heights from the settled population of the vale. The two societies, however, are not without common interests. Seasonal movement from the upland to the lowland is still a factor in the social structure of the region, as when the Baluch hill-folk come down with their tents and camels and flocks in the winter to trade their labour with the plainsmen. And more than 4,000 years ago there is already evidence for the intrusion of a variety little hill-communities into a strikingly uniform lowland civilization.

‘But apart from this local interaction there has been at all times a considerable long-distance traffic, whether peaceful or warlike, between the lowland of what is now Pakistan and the hinterland of Asia. In the north, caravans or invaders have converged on the vale of Peshawar from three directions: from the Indus valley, from the North Indian plains, and from Central or Western Asia. Nor is that all. Supplementary routes approach the Indus via Quetta and Kalat and along the coastal tracts beside the Arabian sea; whilst a considerable and important maritime trade with the West has debouched upon the Indus delta and there fed, and been fed by, the Indus valley route’… (P. 11).

Many years later Aitzaz Ahsan in his book entitled ‘The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan’ (Lahore, Nehr Ghar Publications, 2001) raised some important questions linking it with the above mentioned views expressed by Mr. Wheeler five decades ago. In his Introduction while discussing the identity issue in the sub title ‘Search for the Pakistani Identity’, he commented:

‘Is the Pakistani an Arab? Or an Indian? Or something of both? Or neither? Are his origins entirely Central Asian? What influences has he imbibed from Persia? How is he different from the Europeans who ruled him for almost one hundred years? Does he have a distinct personality or culture of his own? If so, for how long has he had this distinctiveness? Was it first created by the Partition of the sub-continent in August 1947, or did it pre-exist the Partition of 1947? Was the divide first created in 1940 when the Lahore Resolution was adopted, or did the roots of the division exist before that? Was the divide created by the War of Independence, which the British call the ‘Great Mutiny’, or did it emerge with the advent of the first Muslim rulers, or saints, upon the areas now forming Pakistan? Or are the roots of the divide lodged even deeper and in the inner recesses of prehistory? Has the Indus region, which comprises Pakistan, not had a natural and inherent urge towards separatism, and its own separate identity? Is the Indo-Pak divide not of primordial origin?’. (p. 3).

He continues

‘This question still confounds the minds of many who take an interest in the state of Pakistan as it exists today, as an important member of the comity of nations. This book endeavours to discover some aspects of the answers to this question. It attempts, therefore, to address itself to the controversy concerning the Pakistani’s identity. It is about what many have called the Pakistani ‘identity crisis’.

‘If the answers that this book hopes to provide are not the final truth, it may not be a great misfortune. The real tragedy is that seldom has anyone with unclouded and unbiased perceptions even dared to raise the question. And fewer still have even attempted to look for the answers. Pakistanis have spent almost half a century of their present existence without asking any questions. Indeed, questions are anathema. Theirs not to question why.

‘By prohibiting questions, arbitrary authority has been usurped by pretenders and impostors. Those who challenge the pretenders are punished with imprisonment, even death. This is a jeopardy that continues to stalk all sensitive minds that choose to ask questions in such an imposed cultural environment. Yet the questions remain. Just as glacial ice melts only when it is exposed to the right amount of heat and sunlight, answers come to the fore when are bold, courageous, and informed questions are asked…’ (p. 4).

Now the basic question is are we ready to accept this challenge? Are we prepared for resurrection? As pointed out by the learned author, this path is very difficult to follow. One might not receive recompense for the great job and recreant elements and the hostile regimes might try to use all kind of trepidation and atrocities against him then what to do? Should we follow the old path of writing the history of the region in the traditional way and join the group of many other ‘court historians’ or express our views, of course with authentic evidence, without any fear or prejudice. In the case of the Arab invasion of Sindh (711-712 AD), there is no dearth of original sources written in Arabic and Persian including some monumental works like Futuhul Buldan of Ahmad Ibn Yahya Ibn Jabir Al Biladuri, ChachNama or Tarikh i Hind wa Sind, translated from the Arabic by Muhammad Ali Kufi in Nasiruddin Kubacha’s time, Tarikhus Sind by Mir Muhammad Masum of Bhakkar, Tarikhi Tahiri by Mir Tahir Muhammad Nasyani of Thatta, Tarkhan Nama or Arghun Nama of Saiyid Jamal Shirazi and Tuhfatul Kiram of Ali Sher Kani. It is much easier for the researchers to work on a non-controversial historical topic and consult the above mentioned and many other similar sources. As pointed, it is also not that difficult to work on specific topics like the Sufis of Sindh, on the many dynasties that ruled Sindh from time to time including the Kalhoras, Talpurs and many other dynasties during the last hundreds of years. About the middle of the Nineteenth Century, Sindh was occupied by the British Raj. A new chapter started in the history of Sindh and the focus was shifted to Mumbai (previously called Bombay) which soon became a hub of the commercial activities. However, the Muslims who were in majority in Sindh started focusing on their separate identity. They felt alienated and soon demanded the separation of Sindh from Bombay Presidency. The status of Sindh was finally changed and it became a full-fledged Governor Province in April 1936. Sindh’s role in the freedom struggle of Pakistan is much greater than the other Muslim majority provinces of the then India. It has the distinction of becoming the first Muslim majority province which passed the Pakistan Resolution in its Provincial Assembly in March 1943. In August 1947 like many other Muslim majority provinces of British India, it became the part of Pakistan with another distinction that its port city Karachi became the first capital of the nascent country.

Coming back to the earlier argument, the then history writings wilfully ignored many important events and occurrences in Sindh history. For example the history books then printed and circulated on national level, did not mention the sacrifices of the Pir Sibghatullah Shah, also known as the Sooria Badshah, who valiantly fought against the British Imperialism. This was quite disturbing that a very senior Professor once entered into a heated argument with me by insisting that Pir Sibghatullah Shah was executed in 1946 while the actual year of his Shahadat is 1942. Till date not many historians/scholars know the authentic details that why the same group under the leadership of G. M. Syed, who remained the moving spirit of the Pakistan Resolution in the Sindh Assembly in 1943, became villains to the Muslim League leadership to the extent that they were ousted from the party by Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah and they contested the provincial elections of 1946 on a different platform. In May 1948, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, G. M. Syed and the like-minded from the Punjab met at Karachi and formed the ‘first constitutional opposition party’ under the name of Pakistan People’s Party. The party was not allowed to function properly. It was disbanded, the reason still unknown. In 1955, ‘One Unit’ was imposed upon Sindh. Unfortunately this is another neglected chapter in Sindh’s history. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the first elected Prime Minister of Pakistan and the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party gave political awareness to the general masses in Pakistan. On 5th July he was ousted from power by a military dictator having no roots in the masses. The democracy-loving people of Pakistan gathered and launched the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). It is pity that no proper research has been undertaken on this important topic. The Left Movement remained active in Sindh. Jam Saqi, one of the very prominent Communists is still alive but how many people know about this stalwart of the Sindhi politics?

I am aware of the time limit and will end my words with a general request to the honourable participants of the Conference to focus more on the neglected areas and topics thus not only fulfilling the responsibilities upon our shoulders but to leave a rich heritage of leaving an objective record of the great achievements rendered by the sons of soil. This is incumbent upon the historians not to distort history and present it in a fair way. If we fail in our duty to leave behind a genuine and real record of our times then I am sure our coming generations will not spare us and this will be our forlorn hope to expect that we will be remembered in good words.

At the end, once again let me thank the Chief Guest who despite his hectic routine spared his precious time and graced the occasion by his presence. I am grateful to the scholars for contributing to the success of the Conference and who took great pains in reaching Khairpur from the far flung areas of Pakistan. I am also extremely grateful to the University of Khairpur for extending help and support beyond our imagination and hope that we will keep the links for many more collaborations in future. The End

Writer: Dr. Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah
D. Phil (Oxon)
Department of History
Quaid-i-Azam University
Islamabad – Pakistan
Phone: 00-92-51-9064-3106


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