Over the past six months, I have been exploring various archives in Pakistan. For those who have never visited an archive department, imagine it to be a mixture, both in appearance and function, of a library, storage room and a sarkari daftar.
Most archives in Pakistan are inheritances from the colonial regime. The colonial bureaucratic machinery functioned only when it was fed paper. Every memo, letter, report or draft, after completing its rounds, was filed and shelved for later referencing.
The idea was to not make the machine dependent on any particular set of operators so that the staff could be changed at will without much hindrance to operations. Through these recorded files and papers, each new officer could inherit the collective knowledge of all those before him.
Considering the amount of papers produced, the task of maintaining decades-old records could not be handled by individual departments. Hence, a centralised ‘archive’ under the control of a separate archive department was established. So, after a file had completed about half a century on a department shelf, it was transferred to the archive department.
The post-colonial state of Pakistan has not just inherited the archived files but also the bureaucratic structure of the archives. What it could not inherit though was the colonial logic behind maintaining an archive. For the British, the primary motive was to establish a reservoir of knowledge to rule over lands they were alien to. The nation-state, where the nation rules the state, could not legitimise archives as an encyclopedia on a foreign-to-be-ruled land.
More than six decades on, Pakistan has still not decided on its own driving imperatives for running an archive. Should they be a storage space for dumping files without a clear utilitarian end? Or, should they act as information house meant to aid bureaucracy and judiciary in historical fact finding? Or, are they more open-ended reservoirs of culture, to be mobilised by researchers for providing a narrative about past? The confusion is reflected in the fact that some archives fall under the ministry of information while others come under the ministry of culture.
Thus, the question stands: should an archive be a library, storage room or a sarkari daftar (government office)?
My first stop was the National Documentation Centre in Islamabad, which is said to hold the de-classified files from the post-colonial period. The visit lasted a total of five minutes spent on the slightly ajar door of the afsar (officer) in-charge of the archives. I had made the mistake of going to the archive unannounced. The afsar, clearly affronted by my visit, sternly warned me to not come again until I had in order the proper paperwork needed for accessing the collections — which included a letter from my advisor, a statement of institutional affiliation, copies of my identification card, detailed description of my project and some references that could attest to my character virtues. I was told archives are not a public library.
The National Archives, also in Islamabad, was my second stop. I was fortunately able to make my way through the afsar’s office to the library space but, unfortunately, not any further. The problem was not access but the limitation of content. I couldn’t explore the archives because there wasn’t much to explore.
The holdings at the National Archives are limited to national newspapers, the Muslim League papers and everything related to the Quaid-e-Azam and Pakistan Movement. All paths that don’t start with the Muslim League and end with Pakistan are, it seems, unworthy of historical investigation. Here, the archive is primarily a sarkari library, meant to serve a narrowly defined ideological agenda.
Disappointed with Islamabad, I shifted to provincial archives in Karachi and Quetta. Surprisingly, two provinces diagnosed with a failing bureaucratic structure had the two most well-organised and diverse archival collections. Both the Sindh and Balochistan archives have in the past few years gone through a major renovation project. And, it shows — catalogues have been digitised (the Balochistan archives even has an online searchable database), damaged files restored and previously uncategorised collections sorted out.
Only after a few visits, it became clear that the Sindh and Balochistan archives were functioning under a logic that is distinct from one operating in Islamabad. The overt insistence on bureaucratic procedures was watered down. Gaining access was a short and simple exercise. More importantly, the archival holdings were in excess of any direct utilitarian agenda. Both archives have even made concerted efforts at expanding their holdings beyond the ambits of state papers by acquiring private archives. They now boast a large collection of pre-colonial manuscripts, minor periodicals and magazines in local languages, rare books and newspapers.
Three private collections revolve around a broad spectrum of themes — linguistics, travel, sciences, astrology, tasawuf and literature. Numerous conversations with the staff, regarding my research, the archives holdings and history in general, confirmed that the provincial archives, unlike the Islamabad archives, were driven by an interest in promoting socio-political understandings of the past.
The difference in operating logics seems less surprising when seen in the context of the ongoing provincial-federal tensions. Sindh and Balochistan, in particular, have been notorious for resisting Islamabad’s effort at pushing forward a collective identity and political structure. Many present day tensions between the provinces and the centre are rooted in historical debates. The centre has often sought to plaster over these debates with the help of its own league of sarkari historians. For the centre, the goal has been to close doors that may lead to uncomfortable historical questions. For the sarkari history to have force and believability, other narratives have to be forgotten.
Thus, the archives in Islamabad are designed to make sure any history written from its sources will end up looking similar to the sarkari history.
Though, the Sindh and Balochistan archives are still very much part of a Pakistani state infrastructure, they are intersected by concerns other than those Islamabad faces. The upsurge in ethnic-nationalist movements has brought the historical debates over identity and political structures back to the forefront. Even in everyday conversations, history is constantly evoked and debated over. There has even emerged a corpus of local historians rethinking historical debates with the help of primary documents. Fortunately, these concerns have even managed to have an influence on the structuring of the Sindh and Balochistan archives.