Recording history to build a nation


How can we expect to progress as a nation when there is no solid foundation to inspire us?



Mankind has to thank historians for its intellectual development from one generation to the other. Without this recording of history knowledge of one generation would die with it rather than being transmitted to the next which then builds on it to reach new heights. This historical recording is not limited to just social, cultural and political aspects of our existence but also covers science and arts. When an artist paints scene of a street, it transmits a lot of historical information about the times during which it was painted.

It is next to impossible to exactly record history of a moment, event and era without distortions being introduced to it. These distortions are introduced because of imperfection of our environment. First, a moment of history is a collective essence of every single human being that has lived through that moment. Let me try to give an example. Let’s suppose two Prime Ministers are meeting for an important summit meeting. At the entrance are two soldiers standing on guard duty. These soldiers will not be participating in the summit discussions but we can’t say they are not affecting the history of that moment or outcome of the event. We can’t exactly predict how actions of insignificant actors of a historical event will have an impact on the overall outcome of the event. Since it is impossible for a historian to be familiar with all these marginal impacts, this introduces a distortion in reporting of the whole event.

Second hurdle in the recording of history is to know the exact motive of actors when they make certain decisions. A historian can only make a calculated judgement based on the outward expressions available in the form of speech, written statements, and subjective impressions of those that are present at the time. But this still cannot be considered the exact motive behind a historical event. Take, for example, the August 11th speech of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. We can’t say with certainty what was on his mind when he wrote that speech and because of that difficulty there are various interpretations of it.

Third hurdle in the recording of history is using language both as a transmitter and communication medium. Language is not a static enterprise. It evolves over a period of time. Meaning of a word or a term changes with time and does not remain static. Similarly new words and expressions are added to the language while some words become extinct as they are not used any longer. To understand the full meaning of a significant speech or a statement, a historian has to ensure that he has knowledge of how words or terms were used at that particular time when that speech or statement was made. This requires research in development of language and the cultural influence on it.

To overcome these three hurdles philosophers and historians evolved methods that have to be employed to ascertain authenticity of a historical account. One thing is common in all these methodologies: events are recorded or presented in a chronologically straight line which is starting from oldest and moving towards the current. In this approach events are narrated in a sequence with the recording of dates, hierarchies and relations. Despite this an event is usually narrated from different perspectives by many historians before the hurdles mentioned above can be mitigated to some extent.

Quran, through numerous verses, validates recording of history as an important learning tool for communities to progress and evolve. It narrates stories of many past generations and experiences of prophets. But there are certain salient features in the way Quran shares these histories. First, that these events are not presented in chronological order. Sura Baqara (Chapter 2) talks about Prophet Issa (AS) who was the last prophet before Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) while other prophets appear much later. Second observation is that these stories do not shed any light on the cultural aspect of the times but remain focused on higher social and spiritual values presented by the events. Third observation is that there is hardly any genealogical information provided about the prophets and other people mentioned in these stories. There is mention of father and son or husband and wife. This is different from Bible or Ramayana that provides sometimes genealogical reference up to 10 generations. This could mean that Quran suggests that although there is progress in scientific knowledge of mankind, the higher intellectual and spiritual condition has remained the same throughout the history. Another suggestion that Quran makes is that despite repeated warnings and evidence that certain social conditions could be detrimental to human society, the mankind continues repeating these mistakes.

One impediment in the progress of Pakistan is our inability to record history with truthfulness and facts. We are still confused whether we belong to South Asia which is predominantly Hindu in culture though not religiously, or Central Asia/Middle East which is religiously similar to us but culturally much different. Quran validates diversity of cultures but we refuse to accept this allowance to our benefit and want to distort our cultural affiliation with South Asia to satisfy our religious zeal. This is achieved by distorting our history to create perception of our alignment with Central Asia and Middle East. Historians call such conditions as torn countries. We are also torn geographically where Punjab and Sindh are firmly culturally anchored with South Asia while KP and Balochistan find affinity towards Central Asia. A torn country cannot find stable ground to stand on and progress. It is about time we find our cultural identity and put our unique stamp on it.

Most of our contemporary historical events are shrouded in mystery with fiction distorting the facts. From assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan to Benazir Bhutto, we have not been able to unearth the masterminds behind these events and their real motives to commit it. Separation of East Pakistan, first Afghan war against Soviet occupation of that country, Kargil, and Abbottabad are other such events that are still unresolved historically. Our history syllabi are riddled with misleading information about events. We project false heroes while real heroes are still looking for recognition. In such state of affairs, how can we expect to progress as a nation when there is no solid foundation to inspire us?

History is the trust we can leave for our next generation to build on. And it seems all we are leaving for them is a trust deficit.