History and our national imagination

That all nations imagine themselves to be exceptional is a fact, but how this exceptionalism is articulated, disseminated, and internalised is often not clearly understood. Most theorists of nationalism agree that official history and historiography plays an important role in crafting the national imagination. In the case of Pakistan, a certain specific articulation of history is privileged, and resultantly, a peculiar and exclusive form of national imagination becomes the norm. My purpose here is to discuss the nature of Pakistani historiography and to bring to fore the very constructed nature of our national narrative.

In our textbooks and general history books, an Islamised narrative of Pakistani history is often offered as natural and unmediated. In such explanations of the origins of Pakistan, a very idealised originary moment is offered both by our scholars and politicians. According to this privileged narrative some of the following things can be said with certitude. Pakistan came into being when the first Muslim landed on the Indian soil. Pakistan became a nation because of the irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims. Pakistan was created as an ideological Islamic state.

An effort has been made to rewrite the legacy of the Quaid

An effort has been made to rewrite the legacy of the Quaid

In Pakistani historiography, thus, especially in the field of Pakistan Studies, most scholarly works attempt to bolster these historical claims. As a result, these claims are almost naturalised and there is no tradition – except a few scholarly works –  in Pakistani historiography, of challenging or complicating these normalised historical narratives. Resultantly, in the political arena, because of this Islamised view of history, the religious parties have made Pakistan their exclusive domain and so-called secular parties can only be viable if they, at least, pay lip service to these narratives, or out-rightly align themselves with one or the other Islamist political party. Furthermore, this reliance on a religious national narrative grants the religiously affiliated groups disproportionate symbolic power in setting the national agenda.

Reliance on a religious national narrative grants the religiously affiliated groups disproportionate symbolic power in setting the national agenda

There is, of course, nothing natural about history: we know of history because someone recorded it. The recording of history itself is not an objective or unmotivated affair: after all, historians themselves are situated and must have had their own politics and their own agendas. Furthermore, when we mobilise history for the national cause, we interact with these texts: this means that we bring our own prejudices and preferences with us. Thus, a reading and retrieval of history is motivated at both ends: at the recording as well as the retrieval end. Eventually, one or more narratives are privileged, while so many minor narratives are silenced. For example, how many of us know that Jinnah’s original demands were not for a separate nation, but of a confederacy; and that he had not imagined the massive transmigration of minority populations after the partition? He had imagined a complex nation and state, in which the minorities were supposed to be fully protected and integrated in the national promise.

What happens when we think of Pakistan only as an Islamic State? All others, de facto (and in some cases de jure) become second-class citizens!  But if we think of Pakistan as the progressive state that Jinnah had imagined, then no matter who you are, you are likely to have equal rights as a Pakistani citizen, and at least be recognised as an equal citizen. That, sadly, is not the case. Some constituencies tend to be considered more Pakistani than the others. We belong to a country where minorities live in fear of violence, both legal and extra legal, where the public sphere is constantly being constricted for women, and where all those who oppose the normalised narrative can be threatened, criminalised, and even killed. How did we get here? Our distorted approach to our history is obviously one reason.

Mahmud of Ghazni

Mahmud of Ghazni

What we teach our children about our origins shapes their worldview: the latest research asserts that we all rely on certain self-serving narratives to stabilise our identities. If these narratives are built on an exclusionary reading of history—in which, for example, Muslims are essentially better than their non-Muslim counterparts, those narratives will form the core ingredients of our identity. As a result, given the right set of circumstances, these narratives could produce the kind of humans who would see difference as a threat to their own being and thus, in some cases, would try to literally remove those threats.

We need a strong academic and popular tradition of writing and recording counter-histories: India, our so-called archenemy, has a powerful group of scholars and critics who constantly challenge the normalised Indian national narratives. One such group, The Subaltern Studies Collective, led by Ranajit Guha, has published ten volumes of what they call Subaltern History. These are works of history that retrieve the narratives about the constituencies whose histories have either been erased or subsumed by the dominant national narratives. As a result, Indian politics, even in its most virulent nationalistic forms, cannot be simply reduced to the politics of the Hindu majority. And if a party like the BJP builds its politics on the basis of Hindu exceptionalism, then there are quite a few larger and powerful political parties that oppose their vision. At this point in Pakistani politics, there is not even a single mainstream party that offers a more inclusive and progressive Pakistan: all the leaders somehow imagine Pakistan as an exclusively Muslim state and their public statements are a testament to that.

Given the right set of circumstances, these narratives could produce the kind of humans who would see difference as a threat to their own being , and in some cases, would try to literally remove those threats

By way of example, I would like to point to a news clip of Imran Khan that I saw during the PTI dharna in Islamabad. In one of his speeches, Khan had suggested that he would bring in Professor Atif Mian (an Ahmadi) as his economic advisor. Of course, the religious TV networks immediately went after him for proposing such a thing, forcing him to go on the defensive.

Now, Imran Khan is a national leader. He has the power to reshape the national narrative. He can even force the march of history towards a more progressive future. So, ideally, his answer should have been simply this, “Dr Atif is a Pakistani! If he is qualified for the job, his religion should not make a difference.” To be fair, though, toward the end of this interview, he did say that all Pakistanis should have equal rights under the law. My point here is not to deride Khan, but to point out that the symbolic power of religious narratives is so great that even the leader of the most resurgent and powerful political party has to toe the line.

So, coming back to the questions of historiography: how do we accomplish some long-term change? I suggest that change would come by producing more enlightened and more complex national histories, and by offering the appropriate kind of humanistic education.

Going back to history, let us look at one chapter which is often written and spoken of: the invasion of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim. Our historians tell us that it was this invasion that brought Islam to the subcontinent. But that cannot be historically true, because after all, Qasim was sent to rescue some abducted Muslim traders, and if he did rescue them then the Muslims traders probably were the ones who entered this region first. We also know that none of the invaders were ever interested in spreading Islam in the subcontinent; most of them were either interested in loot or in acquiring territory. In fact, Islam was introduced to remote parts of India by the Sufi mystics and scholars who travelled and converted the local populations by offering their own conduct as an example. Thus, it would be safe to say that Islam was spread through love and not war. But by over-emphasizing the invaders and their role in the spread of Islam, we are not only distorting history but also sanctifying the claims of critics of Islam, who all argue that Islam was spread through the sword!

But do we see this nuanced history in our official historiography? One look at our history books is enough to know the answer. How many of these mystics and learned scholars are included in our textbooks? Are they given the same importance as the likes of Ghauri, Ghaznavi, Babar, Suri, and Abdali? If not, then what is at stake for us as we imagine ourselves as a nation? This is the question we must answer.

First published in The Friday Times.

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