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Past in the present

The disconnect with history and intellectual heritage

Past in the present

The real dilemma the post-colonial societies are caught up with is their elusive relationship with the past.

The colonial interlude brought about hermeneutic changes for the subjugated populations in the understanding of the collective as well as the individual ‘self’ by re-orientating their views about their own past. The thought processes on which the whole social edifice rests must be embedded in the history of the people.

The ways in which the past was constructed during the time spent under colonial rule reflect profoundly on our present. Therefore, to change our present, the past will have to be assessed from a new perspective.

In order to accentuate his views on the primacy of thought and ideas over a more traditional event-based history, German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), argued that all history is the history of thought, of which events are an outward expression.

Hegel, one of the principal exponents of euro-centricism, is brought in here to fully appreciate the dichotomy between the history of thought and the sequence of events. The process of history, according to Hegel, unfolds itself through a dialectical process or, in simpler terms, it is the clash of the opposites, which is the mechanism through which history charts its onward course.

This formulation can help us make sense of the epistemic convolution that the post-colonial ‘self’ has been entangled with. In Pakistan’s case, like any other social formations, the history of events has been detached from the history of thought.

One may argue that the sequence of historical events passed on to us in schools is completely devoid of any epistemic underpinning. Ever since the days of Lord Macaulay, or as Prof. Christopher Bayly argues, since the days of Ram Mohan Roy, the renowned early 19th century reformer from Bengal, the thought processes which have been cultivated in the subcontinent had their roots in the West.

So, the thinking that steadily pervaded the local social ethos was cast in a Western mould. From the early 19th century onwards, the thought in which the Indian ‘self’ was squarely embedded had its antecedents in what Bernard Cohen calls the Western ‘System of Knowledge’.

By the same analogy, one may aver that the history constituting our collective ‘self’ does not belong to us, simply because for the last 200 years, the thought we have been continually fed on had its origins in the West. We have been seeing this World through the prism set for us by Bentham, Mill or Henry Maine.

The irony is that the same prism, steeped in Orientalist epistemology, is employed for interpreting our past and intellectual heritage — and it paints a skewed picture.

Orientalists, mostly working for the colonial regimes, first translated the classical texts on history and other branches of knowledge. Through those translations, our history and intellect were given a villainous slant. They mainly highlighted negative aspects. History of India as Told by its Own Historians by Elliot and Dowson is a case in point. Succeeding scholarly ventures and even textbooks like those by Stanley Lane Poole and Percival Spear mostly drew on such texts. Subsequent translations of Persian classical literature and historical accounts were rendered into local languages from these English texts.

Thus, it was obvious that the mindset that emerged ignored intellectual heritage.

Perhaps, people in such societies are living in a moral void and concurrently in an intellectual stasis. The ‘self’ emanating from such a history, with its intellectual orientation sprouting from Western epistemology, falls prey to an intractable problem of identity.

Another fallout of such a situation is a fractured collective self. It has no common sense of purpose or long-lasting mutual camaraderie, which for the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim is ‘social density’. Thus a bid to ‘go back to the basics’, as many religious reformers zealously advocate, goes awry simply because the post-colonial ‘self’ is equipped only with a set of tools incapable of dealing with social norms reflecting pre-modern human conditions.

The end result of this dichotomy is violence, employed with impunity. The phenomenon currently manifests itself in ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram or Hindutva, that represent the disconnect between, what Hegel says is the essence of history, ‘thought’ and its ‘outward expression’.

By the same analogy we can draw on Partha Chatterji’s explanation of nationalistic impulses amongst Indians through the theory of inner domain/outer domain. The inner (spiritual) domain comprising family, language and religion remained immutable and became the foundation stone on which Indian nationalism was founded, and subsequently, it kept evolving. The outer domain, manifesting in politics and economy, according to Chatterji, was redefined and reconfigured.

Thus the colonial subject was not at all passive and managed to prevent colonial influence from the most vital part of its ‘being’.

One may, however, contest Chatterji’s assertion by saying that in parts of the subcontinent which constituted Pakistan in 1947, the inner domain also felt the colonialists’ influence. Religion and language as well as family traditions and values were markedly re-orientated. The outer domain and its components were not entirely impervious to the inner domain. The changing pattern of economy and the nature of politics does reflect on human perception, on religion and family too.

Another extremely important point is the de novo construction of our inner domain after the emergence of reform movements during the last three and a half decades of the 19th century.

In a bid to reform their belief system, North Indian Muslims in particular embarked on an exclusionary path. They shunned customs, conventions and cultural norms that had an intrinsic bond with the soil. Strangely enough, they readily embraced Western modernity and abandoned their own socio-cultural norms and patterns.

Our indigenous culture and the means of its articulation were drastically revised and, to a great extent, substituted with Arabian culture and traditions. Not only Sufi Islam was reconfigured, if not completely shunned and condemned, but local dialects and languages were relegated into insignificance. Scriptural Islam was preached and professed with the result that sectarianism became pronounced with takfir as the prevalent course of action for ulema.

For the last 150 years, the discourse on Islam has essentially been sectarian and exclusionary. Since Pakistan’s creation, exclusionary and takfiri trends have solidified beyond the limits of rationality. Religious discourse has increasingly metamorphosed into a creed professing violence. The call for jihad is invoked not only against the West but against Muslim sects adhering to different versions of the same religion.

What is needed the most is reason. The onus is on the university academia.

Tahir Kamran

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

One comment

  • Thank you Tahir, for putting it so simply. Tragedy is that Pakistanis have abandoned their roots. Even Punjabis gave up Punjabi for Urdu. You identify with Arabs, they do not accept you or others as equals. In 1947 (I was 8 years old) when Pakistan came into being in Punjab, now east Punjab, if a Muslim passed by a group of Hindus, he would wish ‘Ram Ram’ and response would be ‘Walekum Salam’ and vice versa. After ‘Angrez/gora sahib’ left, most educated/rich middle classes assumed the role of brown ‘sahibs’, accepting he superiority of the White men. Even now, when we have established that we have better brains as top Western companies are being led by Indians. You had another disadvantage of continued feudalism. In India, within a few years, lands were taken and distributed among tillers.
    Please remember that you Pakistanis are far superior than Arabs. Wake up before it is too late. Pakistan has potential of being a great nation provided it values its independence and sovereignty. You have advantage of having a big tolerant nation of Hindus who have no designs on you.

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