A history of the people

September 13, 2020

Dr Mubarak Ali is credited with popularizing subaltern history

Dr Mubarak Ali, a prolific and versatile historian, is credited with popularizing the history of the common people after he challenged the then prevalent approach to history writing (based on ideology and national identity) in South Asia.

Born on April 21, 1942, in a Tareen family (Pashtoon tribe) of Tonk, Mubarak Ali joined an elementary school, Darbar School, for formal education after completing his madrassa education at Darul Uloom Khalilia where he had studied Arabic, the Hadith and the Quran. However, the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 disrupted his education because his family left Tonk (India) for Hyderabad (Pakistan). After reaching Hyderabad, he got admission in Khalid Memorial School and started writing essays and short stories for the school magazine, Khalid. He used to spend most of his money and time in purchasing and reading books.

After completing his college education from the City College, Hyderabad, he started his professional life as a school teacher at Islamia Model High School, Hyderabad. However, he was fired from his job by the owner over controversy about distribution of dry milk packets sponsored by the American government for the school children. His suspension from another job, afforded him the opportunity to study general history at Sindh University, Jamshoro, from where he did his master’s in 1962, securing the first position. In 1963, he was selected for the post of junior lecturer in general history at the university.

In 1970, he joined the Queen Mary College, London, for a PhD but did not complete the doctoral programme. Later he joined Ruhr University in Germany where he completed his PhD in 1976, writing a thesis on Mughal history under the supervision of Professor Busse. In his PhD thesis, he focused on explaining the Mughal court culture and the society at that time. The thesis was, later on, published as a book under the title Mughal Darbar.

Returning home in 1977, he rejoined the Sindh University. However, the vice chancellor, Sheikh Ayaz, dismissed him from the service following an issue over the latter’s salary. The dispute was settled through Pir Aftab Jilani — the federal minister for education. Later on, he was promoted to the rank of associate professor and appointed as head of the department.

While serving at Sindh University he delivered a lecture on history and historiography in Lahore in 1985 that made him immensely popular. Due to his popularity in Lahore, clashes with the University of Sindh’s administration, and issues with political leaders due to their meddling in students’ affairs, he left Sindh University and joined the South Asia Area Study Center at University of the Punjab in 1989. However, tensions over ideological differences with the Jamaat-i-Islami forced him to return to Sindh University from where retired in 1989.

He had realized during his student days that only political history (accounts of the conquerors and their conquests) and nationalist history (patronised by the state) were taught in Pakistan, while social and cultural history, mainly accounts of the masses and working classes, were overlooked.

This remained a major concern for him and influenced and directed his approach towards understanding and writing history. He claims that there are three perspectives affecting history writing in Pakistan: first, that the history of Pakistan should not go beyond the partition of the subcontinent and subsequent creation of the country in 1947; second, that the history should begin with the Arab invasion of Sindh in 711 in order to give it an Islamic character; and third, that Pakistan’s history should date back to the ancient times (mainly of Harrapa and Mohenjodaro).

Out of these three, the second opinion has prevailed and dominated in reshaping the history of Pakistan. It is believed that the arrival of the British in the subcontinent and the antagonism between the Muslims and the Hindus influenced the Muslim historians to adopt a nationalistic approach to historiography. Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, and Khurshid Kamal Aziz wrote history to promote Muslim nationalism through description of events mainly concerned with communalism — Hindus and Muslims. Hence, they structured the paradigm of Pakistani history and propounded the separatist identity of Indian Muslims.

He claims that there are three perspectives affecting history writing in Pakistan: first, that the history of Pakistan should not go beyond the partition of the subcontinent and subsequent creation of the country in 1947; second, that the history should begin with the Arab invasion of Sindh in 711 in order to give it an Islamic character; and third, that Pakistan’s history should date back to the ancient times (mainly of Harrapa and Mohenjodaro).

Thus, it can be argued that the emphasis had been on elite and nationalist history. However, history from below or popular history has been ignored. Muhammad Ali Siddiqui — a noted scholar of Urdu literature and educationist — holds that historiography in Pakistan runs very much along the lines of Mughal historiography where the common man, his circumstances, his way of living and social life do not find any mention. In other words, peasants, artisans, workers, women, and other marginalised groups are missing.

These groups could not get their due place in history because the state and the ruling party, Muslim League, controlled history writing and preferred to present the point of view of the ruling elite in academic books as well as textbooks by patronising the professional historians. The League asserted that it was the sole political party that worked for the creation of Pakistan and discredited all other actors that contributed to the freedom struggle.

However, some developments in historical understanding — new methods, ideas, and approaches — have caused a number of changes in the historiography and challenged the nationalist and elite approaches of history writing. To an extent, these new methods of experiments in historical understanding and historiography have been necessitated by the intellectual interventions of post-modernism.

Post-modernism influenced historians across the globe, including Mubarak Ali. In addition, he was influenced by The Murder of History by KK Aziz. In this book, Aziz points out that the history texts taught in schools and colleges are quite selective, exclusive and riddled with biases of various types.

Aziz’s work paved the way, for instance, for a collective exercise by a group of scholars from the platform of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) to publish a report: Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, during the Musharraf era. The report, which suggested essential changes in the syllabi (mainly removing hate-material and including more objective and rational courses based on subaltern studies), met stiff resistance and criticism from the advocates of nationalist school.

Dr Mubarak Ali, an advocate of popularising ‘history from below’, backed both Aziz and the SDPI. He published research papers and books and regularly wrote in newspapers. At one stage, he used to present his essays at the Ilmi Club that he had started with the help of his friend Farid. When the number of his essays grew, he established his own publication centre, Agahi, to publish them in the form of a book—Tarikh Kya Hai. The feedback encouraged him to write more books and articles.

In addition to writing books, he was a regular contributor to The Frontier Post, Dawn’s Sunday Magazine, and Aaj Kal. The columns written for The Frontier Post have been published in two books: Historian Dispute and In the Shadow of History. He has also regularly published a magazine, Tarikh.

Dr Mubarik Ali is seen as founder of the subaltern studies in Pakistan. He has been a continuous advocate of peoples’ history that centres on and around the people, as people constitute the central theme of history. In order to popularise the history, he established the Centre of South Asian Cultural Studies because he believed that exclusion of the common people would not help in understanding the contemporary history.

His works cover a breath-taking range of themes and periods, from Mughal India to the nationalist movement in Sindh, and from the role of women in history to the history of food and culinary habits. Throughout this, his chief contribution has been the popularising of history and making it accessible to a non-academic audience. That is why most of his works are in Urdu.

Syed Jaffar Ahmad Ali, the author of Challenges of History Writing in South Asia, says: “Being a historian, the most significant thing about Dr Mubarak Ali is that he has written for the people and on the people, instead of just writing about kings and heroes.”


The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at [email protected] He tweets at @MazharGondal87

A history of the people