The question is whether we are ready to face an authentic account of history distilled through archives?

Ignored archives mean historical dementias

Zafarullah Khan

We are not a society of record. Shockingly we don’t preserve our historical records prudently and make them easily accessible to the interested citizens. Maybe that’s why our collective memory is victim of many historical dementias and fiction prevails over facts. False myths now seem to be true because of the lack of or selective availability of authentic documents of historical events. The culture of writing institutional history is also very weak in Pakistan.

Whereas in living nations, we see their national archives functioning as a strong institution that preserves historical documents, which is a continuous process, and then historians use them to make authentic statements about their national history and narrative. What is the story of Pakistan? The story is, of course, connected to the history of the subcontinent, and we find people’s personal archives and libraries, as well as institutions set up for this purpose in the British era. At the time of independence of Pakistan, like other resources, we received very little of the Imperial Archives of India, although the Partition Council had decided that the Government of Pakistan would have the right to inspect these archives and obtain a record of its interest. Ironically, very little was done in this regards.

Three months after the creation of Pakistan, the first Pakistan History Conference was held in Karachi from November 27 to December 1, 1947. Dr. Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, President of the Conference, presented a resolution for establishment of Historical Records and Archives Commission which was passed. Later, in November 1951, in addition to this commission, the Directorate of Libraries and Archives was established. It is worth mentioning here that at that time at the provincial level there were archives departments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then NWFP) from 1923 and 1946 respectively, while such departments were established in Sindh and Balochistan in 1976. In the British Raj, there was a tradition of “District Gazette” at the district level and they captured the district’s history aptly. After years of inaction, we enacted the Archival Material (Preservation and Export Control) Act in 1975. In the same year, a law was passed to protect historical relics and antiques. In 1974, the National Documentation Center was established in the Cabinet Division. However, the National Archives Act was enacted in 1993 to preserve material of national and historical significance. How much of these laws have been implemented? If you visit the National Archives in Islamabad, you will find that owing to limited resources, this work still seems to be the last priority of the government.

If the National Archives Act 1993 had been followed in its spirit, all the documents of the events of the 20th century would have been “declassified” by now, as Article 8 of this law dictates. Whether the National Archives Board exists or not, according to this law, the institution’s annual report is submitted to the government, is still a top secret under the mindset of the Official Secrets Act.

If we take a brief look at the archival culture of the three pillars of the state, the story of Parliament is sad. The parliamentary proceedings in the House are preserved in the Hansard (verbatim of parliamentary proceedings), but there is no trace of the Roll of Members Register of the first Constituent cum Legislative Assembly signed by the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah on August 10, 1947. Even today there is no regular section of Parliamentary Archives in the Parliament of Pakistan. Today, however, the Senate of Pakistan has a museum and a Gali-e-Dastoor (street constitution) that tells the story of history. There is no culture of archives within the political parties as well. The Supreme Court has set up a museum in the Supreme Court where documents and antiquities of judicial history can be seen. With regard to the executive, the National Center for Documents has been set up in the Cabinet Division. A regular Army Institute of Military History has recently been established. Museums of the State Bank of Pakistan, the Armed Forces and other institutions have also been established. The Citizens Archives of Pakistan is a unique initiative to preserve people’s history in Pakistan. We also used to have ‘Biographical Encyclopedia of Pakistan’-the tradition that later died.

What is missing in this whole situation is an integrated national archives culture. Also, the availability of these historical resources for research and reference is difficult if not impossible. In the digital age, these tasks can easily be performed online. The question, however, is whether we are ready to face an authentic account of history distilled through archives? Are we ready to release documents of the past events? Are we capable of digesting research and teaching in their light? Perhaps these are the critical questions that frighten us so much that we pay little attention to “authentic archives culture.”

[Zafarullah Khan is Convener of Parliamentary Research Group]