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February 11, 2020

A ‘people’s history’ and its sources: Part - II


February 11, 2020

In the first part of this series yesterday we discussed the basics of a people’s history and its sources. The Institute of Historical and Social Research (IHSR) led by Dr Jaffar Ahmed and Dr Tariq Sohail is doing some valuable work in this regard. Dr Tariq has established Sohail University named after his father, S M Sohail, who was the first secretary of the Pakistan Bar Council and a committed educationist.

As mentioned earlier, the sources of a people’s history should be diverse depending on your own scope of study and research. In India, there have been quite a few academics who have written history with people’s perspective such as Harbans Mukhia, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, Ranajit Guha, and many others. It must be kept in mind that ‘people’s history’ and ‘history with people’s perspective’ have many features in common but are not necessarily the same. Sometimes people’s history means history of mass movements only, or ‘history from below’ as opposed to the history of great people.

In Pakistan, Dr Mubarak Ali is perhaps the only professional historian who has written extensively on people’s history in Urdu. Dr Anwar Shaheen, Dr Huma Ghaffar, and Dr Tahir Kamran have also written on historiography or history itself with a people’s perspective. By professional historian we mean someone who has specialized in historiography and history as an academic discipline and has a terminal degree in history such as a doctorate. Then there are other academics with doctoral qualifications in subjects other than history but who have contributed in our understanding of society with a people’s perspective:

These include doctors Afiya Zia, Akbar Zaidi, Fauzia Saeed, Feroz Ahmed, Ghafir Shahzad, Hamza Alvi, Jaffar Ahmed, Kamran Asdar Ali, Muhammad Waseem, Nadeem Omar Tarar, Taimur Rehman, Tariq Rehman, and others. Then, there are some others who are not professional historians but have done pretty valuable work by either raising questions about – or writing on – history with a people’s perspective, such as Ahmed Saleem, Prof Aijaz Qureshi, Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, Ashfaque Saleem Mirza, and Sibte Hasan.

If you want to read and understand Pakistan’s history with a people’s perspective you may find some articles, biographies, and columns enlightening and useful. They may have been written by activists, bureaucrats and civil servants with a people’s perspective; journalists, or poets and public intellectuals – though the good ones are few and far between in Pakistan. One such example is Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui who holds Master’s degrees in political science and English literature, with an MPA from Harvard; but his claim to fame was the work he did in the civil service of Pakistan since 1965.

Tasneem Siddiqui worked for the government in various capacities both at the secretariat and at field levels. He was also chief secretary in Sindh but the outstanding work he did with the Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority (SKAA) remains his legacy. Though not a historian, he has written about his experiences and observations with a people’s perspective. Unlike most other bureaucrat writers who try to defend themselves or pin the blame on feudal lords, judiciary, or military, Tasneem Siddiqui is scathing in his writing about civil servants too. Siddiqui’s flagship project was his innovative housing project known as ‘Khuda ki Basti’ for which he also received Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1999.

His three books deserve a mention here: ‘Towards good governance’ (2000) published by the OUP; ‘The Dynamics of social change’ (2005), and ‘Pakistan: time for change’ (2011) published by Pakistan Study Centre when Dr Jaffar Ahmed was its director. In ‘Towards good governance’, he wrote on the governance issues Pakistan was facing at the turn of the century. After 20 years the issues appear to remain nearly the same. In the book he shared his experience of the grassroots level and provided a people’s view for social change. Unlike most other bureaucrats, Tasneem Siddiqui always believed in the resourcefulness of the people.

The workable solutions he offered in the book should have been taken seriously but sadly the first decade of the 21st century in Pakistan was marred by the military dictatorship of General Musharraf, and then the next ten years the political governments hardly had energy left after trying to just keep floating in the face of regular onslaughts on democracy in the country. In the book, Tasneem Siddiqui is critical of the Harvard Advisory Group (HAG) that developed a highly flawed strategy with a pro-industry bias at the cost of agriculture. The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand a critical perspective of Pakistan stinted development.

But perhaps his best book is his collection of articles, ‘Pakistan: time for change’. In this volume he writes about corruption and democracy, disparities and governance, mafias and middle-class urban planning an many other topics of interest to a general reader who wants get a people’s perspective that comes from a civil servant. His approach is objective and practical, which he puts in a wider context so essential to get it right. He premise is that the challenges we face in a changing society cannot be addressed with the so-called established norms.

For example, his article titled ‘The dynamics of bureaucratic rule in Pakistan’ gives a candid view of the bureaucracy in the country. He writes, “To understand the nature of our crisis, it is necessary to understand how the state has evolved in Pakistan; what does it mean to the common man (sic); how are [sic] citizens in their everyday life affected by public policies? Do they view the state as a supportive impartial entity or a holistic institution?” This precisely the people’s perspective we are talking about, that is so rare in writings from bureaucrats.

Since no understanding of Pakistan can be complete unless we grasp the initial politics of Pakistan, Tasneem Siddiqui starts from there:

“Except East Bengal, most of the political support which the Muslim League enjoyed came from areas which now form parts of India. Mr Jinnah won over the leadership of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP, and Balochistan largely through diplomatic mechanizations and promises regarding the role of the landed elite in the new state. Within the party, the irony was that the province in which the Muslim League had the most support – East Bengal – was the one most poorly represented in the leadership of the Muslim League and in what came to be seen as the ‘establishment.” (Page 12)

He goes on to discuss the formative phase of the country, presenting four major aspects of the state. One, Pakistan was conceived as a loose federation; two, different people had different perceptions about Pakistan; three, very quickly Pakistan became a ‘national security state’ aligned with the US-UK nexus against the Soviet Union; and fourth, questions of democratic decentralization involving the federating units and the people themselves in the decision-making process were never touched. “The bureaucracy – largely representing Punjabi or Urdu-speaking interests – worked in tandem with the support of the military.” (Page 14)

This in a nutshell is the primary dilemma of Pakistan. As we have seen, Pakistan never became a loose federation, and the last attempt to make it flexible through the 18th Constitutional Amendment is being thwarted either in the name of a ‘uniform curriculum’ or by trying to snatch away the revised financial award through the National Finance Commission (NFC). The diversity amongst the peoples of Pakistan has not been accepted under the hammer of uniformity. The mantra of national security is ever-present; and, whether you like it or not, you have to have a security state rather than a welfare state.

In other articles such as ‘The enigma of dark prognosis’, ‘The power paradox’, and ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’, Tasneem Siddiqui’s writing are a valuable source if you want to have a people’s perspective of Pakistan’s history.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]