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Pakistan and the colonial moment

We don’t have our colonial moment despite 72 years of our existence as an independent nation

Pakistan and the colonial moment

When I gave unwarranted advice to Ali Usman Qasmi to instruct students of his university to read historians, such as AJP Taylor and GM Trevelyan so that they can acquire good writing skill, he did not seem forthcoming. He rather quipped, “if your suggestion is acceded to, how will we decolonise the minds of the youth?”

Qasmi’s response triggered in my head an unending train of thoughts; do we have the realisation that we had ever been colonised, was the most niggling one.  Gyan Prakash retorted, implying the same after listening to Qasmi’s presentation entitled, A Master Narrative for the History of Pakistan: Tracing the Origins of an Ideological Agenda, at the University of Princeton, did Pakistan at all have a colonial moment? Of course, a very apt question worth our consideration.

Put in simple terms, colonialism hardly figures in the mainstream discourse constituting Pakistani nationalism. The epistemic category of colonialism made belated headway into Pakistani academia when some scholars got their instruction in anthropology and literary theory from top institutions of the world. It was in fact borrowed from the Western (French and American) theorists and it had minimal circulation in the 1990s. Colonial/postcolonial theory, particularly at its outset, had clear Marxist inflection. Later, after coming of age, post-colonial theory took a different trajectory by embracing Freudian psycho-analysis or adopting Edward Said’s discourse on Orientalism.

Marxist theory was added on by the likes of Althusser, György Lukács, Frantz Fanon, Jean Paul Sartre, Theodor W Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. The list of names is endless. One must not forget Foucault and Derrida and their tremendous impact. Thus, Marxism acquired an orientation, which had tremendous reflection on the discourses of post-modern and post-colonial theories.

The transformation that European (particularly French) universities underwent in 1968 brought about radical changes in contemporary scholarship. In Pakistani universities the social sciences and humanities steered clear of such theoretical engagements, which accounted for the underdevelopment of these disciplines. Ever since the late 1970s even a critical reference from Karl Marx’s works (or his socialist theory) was treated with utmost disdain.

Thus, if colonial discourse could at all sustain itself, it did on the margins of Pakistan’s academic milieu. More importantly, any incisive study on colonialism conducted by Pakistani academics does not exist, except for Hamza Alvi, Hassan Gardezi and Feroze Ahmad who spent better part of their careers abroad.

A few writers pushed their pens to expound Marxism in Urdu but most of them were non-academics like Sibte Hassan, Bari Alig and Ali Abbas Jalalpuri (who dealt mostly in literature and remained associated with Oriental College). While looking at the works of academic stalwarts like Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi or Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, one does not find even the word ‘colonialism’.

Concepts like two-nation theory did not allow a colonialism discourse to evolve in Pakistani mainstream academia. Thus, Pakistan did not come into existence as a result of any anti-colonial struggle. The Muslim political leaders espousing anti-colonial struggle could not lend support to Muslim League, hence, after Pakistan came into being, they had peripheral existence; Ghaffar Khan being a case in point. Similarly, communists despite working in tandem with Muslim League in the run up to the establishment of Pakistan, were chased away and their party was banned.

The defining trait of the communists was their firm belief in anti-colonialism. This made them into an eyesore for the followers of the establishment and the religious right. But then Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy founded Awami Muslim League in June 1949, which later became Awami League, a party that was a precursor to the NAP. The emergence of National Awami Party (NAP), consisting of politicians imbued with anti-colonial inclinations, was the most important development.

On the eve of partition in I947, an organisation by the name of Democratic Youth League existed in East Pakistan which also evidently had a leftist programme. It was anti-colonial in its political orientation. Subsequently, workers of this organisation identified themselves with the Awami Muslim League. The Azad Pakistan Party in West Pakistan led by Mian Iftikharuddin was also known as a leftist party. In 1957, it merged with the NAP, which was conjured up into existence by Abdul Hamid Bhashani and Yar Muhammad Khan the same year in Dhakka.

A lot of progressive and principled Pakistani politicians like Qaswar Gardezi, Khan Ghaffar Khan, Haider Bakhsh Jatoi, Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, Abdul Wali Khan, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo and Mahmud Ali Kasuri also joined the party. The NAP had to make several compromises in its chequered history, particularly when it went on to forge alliance with rightwing parties in its bid to restore democracy.

However, with its emergence on the political landscape Pakistani politics came very close to having its colonial moment, which essentially means the realisation of our post-colonial collective being was about to dawn on us. With the advent of the NAP, the secular elements having been consigned to the political periphery could move to the centre stage of Pakistani politics. More significantly, had it been allowed to function even in its role of an opposition, it would have kept religious parties at bay. Intellectually, it could have a positive rub on our intelligentsia particularly when the NAP leadership highlighted the travesties of colonialism and imperialist machinations against the colonised.

We could discover our colonised self, which would have offered us a new vantage point to assess ourselves and our responses vis a vis Western academia in general. Ironically, the NAP was banned first by Ayub Khan, a ‘modernist’ and reputed as secular in his approach to governance and then by Z A Bhutto who, despite his mercurial and fidgety temperament, had progressive proclivities to politics and governance. The exclusion, one sadly concludes, was not confined to religious people (Ulema and maulvis). Pakistani political culture has always been plagued with exclusionary tendencies. Dr Qasmi, we indeed have not had our colonial moment despite 72 years of our existence as an independent nation; Gyan Prakash is not all that wrong.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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