How will historians see May 12?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AS PAKISTAN goes through a grave political and constitutional crisis, it increasingly becomes clear that we have learnt nothing from history, to borrow the title of Air Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan’s book. But how can we, when students are no longer taught history as a subject in our schools? You do not learn a lesson from something you are not even aware of.

Talking to a young and intelligent young lady, I was shocked when she said she did not know very much about what happened under Ziaul Haq because she was a child then. Later, she had not been required to study the history of that period.

When seen against this backdrop, it was a pleasure to see and read Dr Mubarak Ali’s recently published book (in three volumes) Tehzeeb ki Kahani (The Story of Civilisation) which so lucidly brings out the importance of recording and reading history.

Dr Mubarak Ali, who taught history for 26 years at the University of Sindh and is the author of countless history books in Urdu and English, has waged a tireless lifelong battle in support of historiography – not just any history but an authentic and impartial version of history that focuses on the people and not the rulers/decision makers. This school of historiography known as subaltern studies was launched in India in the eighties and, in the words of a researcher, sought to rewrite history “outside the historically dominant frameworks, first of colonialism and, later, of élite nationalism”.

Tehzeeb ki Kahani is significant from two points of view. First, the author explains the implications of writing history, how and why it is given a twist and why the focus of history varies in keeping with the conditions in which it is written. Secondly, the book has been written in simple Urdu for young readers. Its readership is expected to be from the masses who speak and understand Urdu better than English, which has emerged as the language of the elite.

Although many of our writers consider it to be below their dignity to write for children, it is commendable that one of the leading historians of the country should have thought it worth his salt to write for young readers to communicate to them eruditely his knowledge of history.

It hardly needs to be emphasised that what is taught to children when they are at an impressionable age creates a greater impact. The lessons they learn then stay with them for life. Older readers would also benefit from these three volumes, which might appear to be too simple to them but on deeper consideration would provide them food for serious thought.

In a few short paragraphs, Dr Mubarak Ali sums up the benefits a nation derives from a study of history. According to him, history makes people aware of the process of change, helps them understand the constant struggle between the old and the new and facilitates the acceptance of change which is essential for progress. If they have rejected change, history gives them a realisation of their backwardness. It gives people a sense of identity and pride in their legacy.

Conversely, we can deduce that people who have no knowledge of their history resist change, do not make progress and do not realise how backward they are and have no sense of identity or belonging especially vis-à-vis their culture and social values. That speaks volumes about what has gone wrong in Pakistan.

Admittedly, Pakistan’s history is not missing altogether from the archives and textbooks, even though it is not taken seriously. As Dr Mubarak Ali points out, sometimes history is selectively written to please the masters who order its compilation. At this point of time, one wonders how the history of the events of today will be portrayed.

As Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian, observes that “one can write (and must) write about a period known only from outside, at second- or third-hand, from sources of the period and the works of later historians.” He emphasises that the historian should not have accumulated views and prejudices about events as a contemporary rather than a scholar. Hence what we write today will become the source material for the historian of tomorrow.

Will the historian of tomorrow discover in the sensationally loud and exciting reports on the confrontation triggered by the judicial crisis the quiet steps that have been taken towards peace? His will not be an easy task because the mass of matter generated by new communication technologies of today have contributed to the information explosion. I wonder how he will view the Women’s Peace Initiative that was launched on June 2 to begin the process of the healing of the wounds of May 12 when catastrophe engulfed Karachi. Coming from women, will he dismiss it as a matter of insignificance?

Will the historian write about the 48 people who were killed in cold blood on the three fateful days of May 2007 when hell broke loose in the city or will he focus on the judicial crisis, the president and his allies, and those who are challenging his power?

Our historian will have to belong to the subaltern school of studies to write about Saeeda, the veiled woman, who came to the peace initiative to recall in tearful tones the sad tale of her brother, Sakhi Rahman, who was returning home from work when a gang of youth surrounded him and shot him in cold blood. Later, she identified her dead brother in the hospital morgue.

Will the historian of tomorrow write about the boys whose lives were cut short in their prime when they innocently walked into the valley of death unaware of the danger that lurked on Sharea Faisal where they ventured out unarmed to join the rally to greet the chief justice at the airport?

Will history record the burning of Karachi on May 12? The emotions of Karachiites were captured at the peace initiative by Sheema Kermani, whose choreography and recitations never fail to enthrall. She recited Pablo Neruda’s poem on the Spanish civil war, translated into Urdu by Fehmida Riaz. Will these words go down in the history books as a description of Karachi, the city we love?

(And one morning all that was burning

One morning the bonfires

Leapt out of the earth

Devouring human beings.

And from then on fire,

Gunpowder from then on

And from then on blood.)