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Thursday May 30, 2024

Who distorts history?

By Mubarak Ali
December 28, 2017

People generally believe in the reliability of historical accounts based on facts. In reality, though, historians manipulate and misinterpret the events according to their political or social leanings or their affiliation with sectarian, ethnic and ruling classes.

Court historians are blamed for distorting history to please whichever reigning monarch patronised and employed them to record the achievements of his rule. To please the ruler they play up his/her acts and edicts by playing down misdeeds and misrule. They portray the ruler as just and generous.

However, there are some historians who in the garb of ornate and beautiful language indicate the corruption of the ruler between the lines. One of them is Shams Siraj Afeef, author of Tarikh-e-Feroz Shahi, in which he quotes an incident of Feroz Shah Tughlaq (R1351-1388). According to Afeef, one day when Tughlaq was going to his palace, he met a soldier who was coming along with his horse, looking disappointed and sad. The king stopped him and inquired whether he had registered his horse with the army office or not. The soldier replied that the officer in charge at the office had demanded two ashrafees (coins) as a bribe for the registration and that, as he did not have the amount, he could get his horse registered. The king was moved and immediately gave him the coins and asked him to go back and register his horse. Shams Siraj Afeef comments how generous and kind-hearted the sultan was to help the poor soldier accomplish his task. In reality, the incident shows the weakness of the king in controlling the corruption that was prevalent in his administration. That is why it is important to read the text of basic historical sources carefully and find out if there is some hidden meaning in them.

History is distorted not only by an individual and institution but by political and religious parties, and nationalist and ethnic groups which use history as a tool to further their interests. As far as the historical narratives of the Pakistani state are concerned, they are distorted in order to glorify the ruling classes and project them as heroes. These classes are shown as sacred in order not to criticise and challenge their historical role. In the case of war, defeats are turned into victory and heroes are presented as defenders of the country.

State-written history dominates society because of the state’s resources which it can use in textbooks, newspapers and TV channels. The state does not provide any space to alternative narratives. Consequently, people strictly believe what state history tells us about the past. In case of Pakistan, history-writing is strictly in the grip of ideology and any deviation is tantamount to treason.

Pakistan’s regional history is written on the basis of nationalism. Historians search heroes from the past and highlight their achievements in order to inspire the younger generation to emulate them. It is usual practice that each nationality of the country exaggerates its characteristics and values such as bravery, generosity and sense of honour. For example, it is said rather proudly that weapons are the ornaments of Pakhtuns. In the history of Balochistan, the whole narrative is based on the role of the tribal chiefs while common tribesmen are completely absent from it. In Sindh, the Sufis and the successors of saints (sajada nasheen) are promoted as leaders. The result of such history writing is that marginalised people and their roles are completely ignored from historical accounts, which lead to the domination of the elite classes in the name of regional nationalism.

Political parties are also responsible for changing and reshaping past events according to their political agenda. For example, the Muslim League credited the creation of Pakistan purely on its efforts, not recognising the share of other political parties that struggled against colonialism (parties such as the Ahrar, the Khaksaar, Ghadarites and Communist parties). Interestingly, the Jamaat-e-Islami – which had opposed the Pakistan movement – changed its stance after Partition, moved its headquarter to Lahore and readjusted its opposition. Maulana Maudoodi’s book, ‘Musalmanon ki Siasi Kashmakash’ (The Political Struggle of the Muslims), was published before Partition.The anti-Pakistan views in it are deleted in the new edition, published in Pakistan.

Some historians are making efforts to convert Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah into a traditional and orthodox Muslim. It is propagated that Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi contributed to his religious training, hiding his personal qualities and political ideas. Consequently, the ulema launched a campaign to make Pakistan an Islamic State ruled by religious-oriented leaders.

Common citizens are also responsible for recreating history, based on rumours and gossips. One example of that is Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci (d1717), who visited India during emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb’s reigns. He mentions bazaar gossip in his book ‘Storia do Mogor’, and brings down the Mughal ruling family from its high pedestal to the ground. His book reflects the people’s perspectives that the ruler and the nobility were living a luxurious and immoral life.

When history is so distorted, it becomes impossible for any historian to sift the facts and bring to light the historical truth. Distorted history pollutes people’s minds, and creates false historical consciousness which misleads them. Therefore, the belief that the truth always dominates is not wholly correct; lies also have powerful resources to establish their hegemony which are then believed by the people as a strong proof of past events.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.