By Zubeida Mustafa
PEARL S. Buck, the American author who rose to fame because of her graphic and insightful novels on pre-revolutionary China, once remarked, “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” But can you understand yesterday if what you learn about it is warped and one-sided?
That is inevitable when information of the past comes in the form of history written with a colonial construction. It portrays events through the prism of the powerful classes who owe their power to the colonial rulers of yesteryear. It was in this context that I found the film titled A People’s Untold History by Deneb Sumbul so remarkable.
It tells a story that has not been told before and coming from a young film-maker who was until recently enmeshed in the corporate world, one is struck by the depth of her understanding and analysis of the present day socio-economic and political scene in Pakistan. The film was not scripted. The producer moves from one scene to the other as she interviews various people and draws from their founts of knowledge. It is this off-the-cuff style that makes the film so striking.
Screened by Shirkatgah, the film spontaneously reminded me of an African proverb: ‘Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.’ Now the people of Pakistan have their own historian film-maker to give their point of view. One hopes that more of them will get the opportunity to see the film so that they understand the underlying factors that have led to their oppression.
In a nutshell, the film tells us how those who wielded power — be they the landowners, the big industrialists or others who owned the means of production — also came to occupy the corridors of power. They could use their clout to exercise control over the lives of the people, manipulate the economy and make laws that benefited their own powerful class while denying the people a decent life under the rule of law.
This is something that has been meticulously concealed from the people. We do have historians such as Dr Mubarak Ali, who has written prolifically about the historical developments in Pakistan from the people’s point of view. But how many people get to read his books? Since he is not popular with the establishment his books and the opinions he expounds are not taught in the universities. In a country where only 57 per cent of the people are supposed to be literate (the government’s figure) and a very small fraction of this number is educated, one can hardly expect his books to reach many people.
So how should the message be brought across to the people? The electronic media and film offer the most popular channel for disseminating a message. Yet, there are too many vested interests that control television. That leaves only film to educate people on important issues. The reach of the cinema is, however, not as extensive as it was before television entered the scene and captured popular imagination. In the days when cinema was thriving in Pakistan, people who went to cinema houses also saw documentaries that had the potential of educating them. In this context, Deneb Sumbul’s film is a laudable effort that should come as a learning experience for many, provided it is screened widely.
The question that will be asked is, how could a coterie of power-hungry leaders — be they politicians or military chiefs — control the government and lawmaking to ensure that only their points of view got across in school textbooks, the media and in public discourse. The fact is that Pakistan has never had democracy in the true sense of the word, even when the forms and structures have been democratic. Our system of government has always operated like an oligarchy.
In other words, a small group has wielded power, ensuring all the while that the flow of information is controlled strictly. Until recently, the press was gagged, television was government-owned and education policies did not encourage free thought or the exchange of ideas. As a result, the people on the other side of the fence could never understand the forces that suppressed them. Additionally, they lacked the organisation and resources to challenge official policies that militated against the common interests.
Those who usurped political power employed it to institutionalise and legitimise their privileges. And such laws, once in place — even when imposed by a dictator — became difficult to change or repeal. Thus the privileged ones got entrenched in a position of power.
Times have changed. The opening up of communication, thanks to developments in technology, has made it difficult to hide even the most well-concealed secrets. Two decades ago it would not have been possible to screen Untold History and disseminate the candid expression of truth it contains.
But while the media is now using its newly found freedom to inform people and make them ponder serious issues, there is also a flip side to this freedom. There is a section of the media that is behaving irresponsibly by becoming a willing partner in the religious extremists’ campaign to promote their agenda of hate and violence. We do not know what prompts this approach — monetary gains or cheap popularity? But it is most evident today in the aftermath of Salman Taseer’s assassination when the murderer is being eulogised as a hero. A law that cannot ensure justice for all and is open to abuse is being glorified in the name of religion.
If some analysts see Pakistan as a tinderbox waiting for the proverbial spark, it is perturbing to watch the media fanning the fires that will provide this spark.