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Opinion

August 2, 2018

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The history of documents

In history writing, documents are the basic source that provide material on the past and contribute in constructing political, social and economic history.

These historical documents used to be written on clay tablets, parchment and papyrus. The costliest item was parchment as it was prepared after tedious efforts, as it first had to be cleaned of all fats and polished to be able to be used. When the Byzantinian Emperor Justinian wanted to write down his quotes as well as other administrative orders, around 10,000 sheep were slaughtered in order to produce parchment.

The invention of paper brought a revolution because it provided cheap material for writing. The Turks brought it to India in the 13th century. This facilitated in maintaining administrative records of taxation, judicial judgments, certificates for properties and titles, royal commandments and literary and history writings. Historians believe that it was the invention of paper that expanded the different branches of knowledge.

It was mandatory for governments to keep official records in the custody of some important people. But the scholars and historians still found it difficult to access them. In case of Abul Fazal, he was allowed to consult the Mughal archives and official records when he was in the process of writing ‘Akbarnama’. That is why the book contained comprehensive and detailed accounts of Akbar’s reign, including his administrative and political achievements.

Besides official records, the nobility also kept royal documents regarding their property, titles and promotions from a lower to higher status. They also jealously preserved the shajra (a document establishing the lineage of a family) to display the privilege they had inherited from their ancestors. The trading community also preserved commercial contracts and details of the commodities they exported and imported, specifying the prices of the products.

Historical documents preserved in different archives were not accessible to historians. Modern historians generally used the Mughal historical record, but even then a large number of documents that are currently with the former states of Jaipur, Deccan, and Maratha, still remain unused. Moreover, historical documents that are a part of private collections are still beyond the reach of the scholars.

European states also kept official records secret and did not allow anyone to consult them. However, in the 19th century, the policy was changed and official records were made available to historians to consult and use in their research. This new policy brought about a radical change in history writing because the records brought to light secret treaties that were concluded between two states, and letters which were exchanged among diplomats on important political affairs.

Leopold Ranke, professor of history at the University of Berlin, wrote a diplomatic history of Prussia based on documents he was the first to consult. He brought to light some Prussian treaties that had remained a secret to the people of Europe until then. Ranke was so fascinated by the official documents’ composition and veracity that he announced that objective history could only be written based on official documents. However, this approach limited the scope of history writing because it focused only on diplomacy and political events and ignored the social, cultural and economic aspects of society.

As per the international law, every state is now obliged to make its official documents and correspondence public after a period of 50 years. This way, historians continuously get fresh material that had so far remained beyond their reach. For example, the interpretation of Partition continues to change till this day as new documents keep surfacing, altering perspectives. Besides official documents, the letters and diaries of bureaucrats provide additional material to understand the history of Partition. This new material has kept history moving and expanding its scope.

In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the two Germanys united, the secret records of the Stasi, the intelligence agency of East Germany, were passed on to the newly united country. The documents are a mine of information for historians about both diplomatic and internal affairs of the East German Society.

Realising the importance of historical records, all states have now established departments of archives to preserve them. In Pakistan, we have such departments in Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The oldest of them is the Punjab Archives Department, which possesses documents and records from the Mughal, Sikh and British periods.

There is a need to acquire the historical record scattered in different government departments such as the police, CID, revenue, prison, judiciary, education and health. This record will help historians write a comprehensive history of the Pakistani society. It will also help understand the gradual decline of different government departments, their moral values and lack of efficiency.

Historical documents are a hidden treasure and expose the lost and hidden history of society. It is the responsibility of historians to research and find out the truth that is preserved in the records that are now available to them.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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