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February 27, 2005

ARTICLE: Pakistan Studies: the state of the craft

By Burzine K. Waghmar

EVER since the Ziaul Haq era, Pakistan Studies has come to exclusively connote the establishment’s sanitized version of the Pakistan movement. The textbooks published by the textbook boards follow the official line and depending on the creativity or sobriety of the writer the beginnings of the subject may be halcyon (AD 711 when Mohammad bin Qasim landed in Sindh) or historic (1906 when the All-India Muslim League was founded). A clumsy antithesis grafted from an Indian matrix is then trajected: Indus Valley, ‘Vedic’ culture, Gandharan glory, advent of Islam, Ghaznavids, Delhi dynasts, Mughal splendour, John Company Raj, Sikh interlude, Sir Syed’s stirrings, lacklustre League beginnings, ‘Ambassador’ Jinnah, Congress deception, Iqbal’s clarion call, Lahore resolution, Direct Action, Pakistan at last!

Yet prevarication, howsoever honed, designed to bolster the singularity of the Pakistani identity cannot overshadow the inextricable geographical, spiritual, literary, mercantile and political links this area conspicuous had with the Indian peninsula. The bonds with Inner Asia or the Near East were relatively less discernible. Hence the artless anchoring of the origins of Janjua Rajputs to a fifth-century Mongol-speaking Juan-juan confederacy by a leading Pakistani historian in one of the books makes little sense. History, as Badayuni recounts, ‘has many byways’. Propinquity matters.

It is neither feasible nor essential to reiterate here the current state of scholarship in Pakistan studies. Rather, these remarks propose a comprehensive re-defining and re-orientation of Pakistan studies. Suffice to note that the findings of the 2004 report announced by the Sustainable Policy Development Institute (SDPI), Islamabad is, in a word, disturbing. Although it constitutes the kernel of another discussion, it tellingly confutes why bored school-goers doodle ‘Hell Studies’ in their dull textbooks, or the unease of a civil service examinee when enumerating the causes of Mujib’s six-point formula lest he putatively offends a Punjabi examiner.

Oddly, Pakistan Studies is routinely fused with either Urdu or Islamic in the titular designation of varsity posts or centres. The latter two, a fortiori, allude to its inspiration and composition. That these beggars beliefs (and questions) are manifest. First, the nostrum among not a few Muslims is that the study of history, properly speaking, begins after the full light of Islam. The pagan past was a teleological aberration unworthy of focus let alone enquiry, they believe.

But it was thanks to the painstaking discoveries by orientalists like my teachers and their forebears in archaeology, philology and allied disciplines, however, which led to an awareness, acceptance, and, eventually appreciation by Pakistanis, Iranians, Egyptians and Iraqis of their pre-Islamic heritage. Although this consequently fostered Muslim scholarship, its achievements and enthusiasm remain modest in Pakistan and other Islamic countries where antiquity still conjures a foreign land.

Secondly, the privileging of Urdu to the detriment of approximately 70 regional languages and dialects surely exhibits an incomplete panorama of Pakistani diversity. I shall presently return to the linguistic component of Pakistan Studies.

And third, the congenital bias towards the social sciences affects the scope and methodology of Pakistan Studies. Scant attention is afforded towards funding and developing courses, colloquia or seminars in ancient and medieval history, historical geography, philology, dialectology, literature, folklore, comparative religions, archaeology, art history, numismatics, epigraphy and palaeography.

As a corollary, this is evident among the appointees of Pakistan chairs at Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley, Columbia, and Heidelberg, all of who invariably offer courses in political theory or international relations. Private or public endowments of professorial chairs in area studies are implicitly predicated on advancing teaching and research of a geographically or ethnically specific culture hitherto unavailable or under funded.

Sponsoring posts in amply funded, popularly patronised, irrelevant subjects, which do not publicize Pakistan’s unique contribution to the humanities, especially now when its image merits serious restitution, escapes me. With the exception of the Urdu and Islamic lectureships subvented at Ankara and Beijing universities, never have specialists been delegated by the federal government to offer instruction in Balochi, Kashmiri, Pushto or Sindhi, four languages seldom taught at western campuses. And this is to say nothing of specialization in lesser known Balti, Brahui, Hindko, Khowari, Siraiki or Shina among several semi-oral literatures; provincial, tribal and local histories; Indus Valley art; Graeco-Bactrian coinage; Karakorum archaeology; Mughal architecture; South Asian Islamic thought; or Sufism.

Globally, Pakistan Studies is identified with sonorous sessions on weapons control, civil unrest, bonded labour, gender inequality and the like. Small wonder so few takers exist for a depressing discipline fraught with dangerous fieldwork. A land of impressive material remains whose earliest farming settlements are traceable to the eighth millennium BC — older than India — surely deserves a better press. One hopes the envisaged Jinnah Centre in Washington DC will orchestrate a polyphonic performance of Pakistani cultures.

This chronologically selective pabulum ought to be replaced with a multidisciplinary curriculum reflecting an intra- and inter-regional interface, namely, micro-areal analyses of socio-economic, artistic, historic, linguistic and religious parameters. Subsequently compared and contrasted with those of the subcontinent and Perso-Turkic worlds, a deeper and subtler awareness will meaningfully reveal the past in order to realize the present. Shorn of its mirror image of Indian Studies, Pakistan Studies would assuredly appear less derivative and more distinct from its counterpart thus achieving its explicit rationale. That such an inclusive, pluralistic syllabus would also assuage domestic ethno-linguistic discontent cannot be gainsaid.

Pakistan and India among other oriental societies are plagued by visceral nationalism and post-imperial neurosis where state-sanctioned dogmas suppress eclectic historical readings. Vaunted as critical priorities, national integration and nativist revisionism can become disingenuous pretexts for bigotry and skewed scholarship. Such a citizenry remains perennially ignorant of its past, frustrated with its present, and, make no mistake, ill equipped to confront the future.

The writer is a PhD scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

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