History never dies; it just goes into hibernation to come to fore with the discovery of new historical evidence or different perspective. The 24th International History Conference organized by the History Department of the Punjab University in collaboration with the sister Political Science department and the Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi provided an opportunity to historians from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to present new perspectives. The book under review “Re-theorising the history and historiography of South Asia” edited by Professor Dr Mohammad Iqbal Chawla, the Chairman of the Department of History and Pakistan Studies at the Punjab University contains the researched papers contributed to this conference. Although the title of the conference included “South Asia”; almost all the papers in this volume focus on the Subcontinent.
Partition has been a defining moment in our history and a ‘star actor’ in its execution was Lord Mountbatten. For Pakistanis, he remains a villain due to his partial actions; however, Professor Dr Iqbal Chawla does not fully agree with this ‘Traditional’ assertion and in a ‘Revisionist’ shift contends that some actions of the last Viceroy actually benefitted Pakistan. Another significant player in Partition was the Muslim League. Dr Riaz Ahmed’s research on this Party shows that all the histories on the League written by Pakistani or foreign historians have been deficient in an important aspect i.e these were penned down without consulting the secret intelligence reports of the British government on the Party, still awaiting an historian to unearth them in the four provincial archives of Pakistan. Generally, the League is credited as the Party that fought the case of Pakistan before Partition, Dr Kishwar Sultana avers that Maulana Zafar Ali Khan and his “Majlis-e-Ittehad-e-Millat” also struggled for the same cause yet the two organisations never merged together for the greater good. So much for the “Ittehad-e-Millat” (unity of the nation)!
The roots of Partition are usually traced in the “Two Nation Theory” of Syed Ahmed Khan. Dr M Waseem Raja of the Aligarh University, India compares Sir Syed’s political strategy with other pan-Islamic reformers of the 19th century such as “Hakeem-e-Sharq” Jamal-ud-Din Afghani, Saad Zaghlol (Egypt), Muhammad Abduhu (Arabia), Ahmed Bey (Tunis) and Zia Gokalp (Ottoman Turkey) and concludes that Syed Ahmed’s strategy of ‘conciliation’ with the colonial power proved successful than the ‘confrontationist’ stance of the pan-Islamists. ‘Revisionism’ about Sir Syed is noticeable in the research of Dr Naiyer Azam of Bharti College, New Delhi, who has challenged the ‘Traditionalist’ contention that labels Syed Ahmed as a “qadamat parast” (traditionalist) and “rivaj parast” (adherent of customs) for opposing women’s liberation by arguing that it was indeed Syed’s discourse on women that contributed to their subsequent improved status. While Sir Syed advocated cooperation with the British colonists, the latter’s racial arrogance in the 19th century India in the backdrop of the “colonial theories of empire” has been well-investigated by Firoj High Sarwar of the Aligarh University. The colonists deliberately constructed certain premises such as “ethical duty,” “moral obligation” and “civilizing mission” to “ethicize” and justify the subjugation of foreign lands and peoples. To establish their hold over the natives of Asia and Africa, they conjured pseudo-scientific theories such as “survival of the fittest,” “Social Darwinism,” “the inequality of human race,” etc. Moreover, through systematic efforts, British colonialism in India and elsewhere was presented as benign and benevolent as people were made to believe that “The British state and its expansion throughout the globe was a benign or even positive phenomenon. With Britain came progress, civilization….” The author exposes the ulterior motives behind these false colonial premises.
Ramesh Kumar Sarine, a scholar from Satya College, India, explores the cultural impact of the colonisers during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in the Subcontinent. The foreign rulers can be classified into two categories: those who came for loot and plunder and those that made this land as their permanent abode. A ‘Traditional’ argument is that as a result of settlement of a wide variety of foreigners, a “syncretic culture” of co-existence, tolerance and mutual accommodation developed due to the interaction between the locals and the outsiders. The author argues that the strength and profoundness of this “syncretic culture” is “over-glorified” because it could not withstand the strains of modern nationalism. The various communities lived as a compound retaining their communal characteristics and did not merge into one whole as a solution of sugar and water whereby the ingredients lose their individual selves to form a new identity.
The conclusions drawn about the fragility of “syncretic culture” in India are indirectly supported by Dr Mahfuz Pervez of the Chittagong University, Bangladesh in his study on “Shiv Sena.” Had the talk of the “syncretic Indian culture” been true as the “pseudo-secular” Indians of all hues claim then there would have been no Hindu or Muslim nationalism? I am not denying the existence of the “syncretic Indian culture” but disagree with the claim that it formed the common Indian identity for all communities of India. Had the “syncretic culture” matured into one national identity, there would have been no demand of ‘Pakistan,’ ‘Khalistan,’ etc notwithstanding the colonial machinations like the “divide and rule.” Moreover, had the “syncretic culture” been well-embedded, there would have been no need of radical Hindu organisations such as Shiv Sena, the RSS, etc because their dream of a Hindu Hindustan coupled with threats, coercion and violence against the non-Hindus, compelling them to renounce their identities, not only directly validates the “Two Nation Theory” but also refutes the idea of “syncretic existence.”
In retrospect, it can be said that it was a groundbreaking History conference because it moved the historical discourse on the subcontinental history a step forward from ‘Traditionalist’ to ‘Revisionist’ interpretation. Judging the way, the history of the “Cold War” developed, one should not be surprised if the subcontinental history also advances from ‘Revisionism’ to ‘Post-Revisionism’ and ‘Post-Post-Revisionism.’
(The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected])