Why You Should Read A Physicist's Book On Pakistani History

"His work covers a breathtakingly wide panorama of history starting from the Vedic age and ending in the 2020s"

Why You Should Read A Physicist's Book On Pakistani History

If you want to start with the following prejudices, please read this review even more carefully than if you, perchance, start with an open mind.

  1. That the author is a physicist. He has an electrical engineering degree and a doctoral degree in physics, ergo is obviously highly intelligent. However, that does not necessarily imply he also knows history.
  2. That the author is known to have written and said things which are considered anti-Pakistan, so how could he have written anything but a biased book.
  3. That the book does not start with a proper chapter or section entitled ‘review of literature’ which social scientists always have; ergo it cannot be a scholarly study.
  4. That certain social scientists who were the pioneers of a certain argument or theory or work have not been quoted as per proper priority while those who followed them have been.

Please set these objections aside and continue reading my review which, I hope, leads you to the book itself. So, let us see just what Dr Hoodbhoy has done in this book. If you read it up to the afterword and still hold on to your opinion, that is your affair. However, if evidence can convince you that it is one of the best histories of Pakistan ever written, then I will stand vindicated.

This book has five parts and each part is divided into chapters so that there are seventeen (17) chapters. This makes it quite a tome but, much to the reader’s relief, Hoodbhoy’s language is clear, concise and without the show-off jargon of certain theory-obsessed social scientists (hence pet terms like dialectical, anthropocene, ecumene and quotidian beingness are missing). I read the book from cover to cover and I am sure anyone who is looking for clarity will also do so.

Author: Pervez Hoodbhoy

Title: Pakistan: Origins, Identity and Future

Publishers: Originally published by Routledge, London; this edition by Folio Books, Lahore 

Year: 2023

Pages: 624

Price: PKR 2,495/--.

The first part is about identity formation in India from the dim dawn of Vedic India. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s main contention is that there were several competing identities in evidence and the religious monolithic identities (Muslim and Hindu) came to the fore during the colonial era. In this part, Hoodbhoy’s main contribution is to re-examine Sir Syed, Iqbal and Jinnah (he calls them founders) without fear or favour, or undue fawning or frowning. He is one of the few historians who is not afraid of giving them their due—Sir Syed’s modernist reinterpretation of Islam, Iqbal’s inspirational anti-colonial role and Jinnah’s idea of escaping from majority rule—without, however, deifying them like so many cult followers do. He has the courage to point out that Sir Syed was against female education, looked down upon Bengalis, the working classes and the peasantry be they Muslim or Hindu and was, in fact, only a crusader for the upper classes (the ashraf). Iqbal was an Islamic supremacist and by no stretch of the meaning of that term a philosopher. He also rejected egalitarianism, science, rationality and, most importantly, democracy itself. And Jinnah, though a liberal in his personal views and lifestyle, used the idiom of Islam for political gain. He wanted to create a Muslim state but used the idiom of an Islamic state time and again creating a controversy which continues till date.

Hoodbhoy continues the chapter on Jinnah by evoking Jinnah’s opponents whom, in his own words, he ‘trounced’ (pp. 220-250). These were the formidable Syed Abul Ala Maududi, Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Maududi, contends Pervez Hoodbhoy, might well have the last laugh, since his political party (the Jamat-i-Islami) and other Islamic movements inspired by him have caught the imagination of many among the youth. Azad, too, might turn out to be right, in so far that the Muslims left behind in India might be marginalized even further by Modi’s Hindutva on the ground that they belong to the ‘Other’ nation (here is a travesty of the ‘Two-nation theory’ now so useful for the Saffron brigade). And Khan Ghaffar might be the unacknowledged father of the PTM movement in Pakistan which, instead of being appeased and accommodated, is being suppressed by force. In short, while Jinnah may have defeated all his immediate opponents, they had important lessons to teach him and Pakistan which we have ignored at our peril.

So, navigating through the past, the reader comes to Pakistan itself on page 253. And what does one find in the author’s section on ‘postnatal blues’—issues which have plagued Pakistan since its birth? Ethnicity is one. He gives detailed case studies of Bangladesh and Balochistan, pointing out what only a few historians have had the courage to do: that in its quest for domination, the state of Pakistan has always ignored or suppressed differences (linguistic, ethnic, cultural and historical). He presents the use of force to suppress aspirations for equity, autonomy and getting respect and a fair deal by non-Punjabis – all without apologies and excuses. It becomes evident that there was never any just and well-thought-out plan to deal with these issues from the very beginning. In fact, that is why Hoodbhoy says that beyond driving the British out (Congress) and getting Pakistan (Muslim League), none of our South Asian leaders had any real vision of what to do with the countries which emerged on the map of the world in mid-August 1947.

And this vexed question (of not having a vision) is taken up in detail in a chapter which no official text book writer would dare take up even with a pair of tongs (though Ishtiaq Ahmed has mentioned the human cost of it in his Punjab Partitioned). It is: ‘Was Pakistan Worth the Price?’

The author’s answer is that the feudal families of present-day Pakistan did gain a lot, as did the elite service of the state (the military, bureaucracy, judiciary and the politicians). However, the minorities (religious or ethnic) lost out. Then comes another chapter—provocative for many I am afraid—entitled ‘What is the Ideology of Pakistan?’ The author contends that there is no agreed upon definition of this concept which is instilled in the minds of children in all their books and by the state media day in day out. In practice, however, it is equated with an Islamic state. However, what really is an Islamic state—whether one ruled by the Taliban or some other—is not clearly defined. In his candid chapter ‘Why Couldn’t Pakistan Become an Islamic State?,’ he mentions that this is because of the many mutually competing interpretations of what such a state will be. However, he actually warns against ‘political Islam’ saying that we should, instead, ‘respect all Muslim sects equally as well as other religions’ (p. 395). In other words, his own answer is that Pakistan should become a secular democracy (but ‘secular’ is used in a political sense and it emphatically does not mean not having any religion or showing disrespect to religion as such) in the true sense of the word.

Pervez Hoodbhoy’s chapter on ‘Why is Pakistan a Praetorian state?’ is certainly a brave attempt at describing the military’s dominant role in Pakistan. However, others such as Ayesha Jalal, Ayesha Siddiqa, Aqil Shah and many others have written about it so it is not an original contribution to knowledge nor does it provide any new insights into military interventions in politics. More to the point are the sections on the political experiments of the army such as the interludes of military rule themselves (Zia-ul-Haq or Musharraf) or the installation of the hybrid regime of Imran Khan. In each of them Islam was used for political purposes and each weakened the position of the marginalized sections of society (women, religious minorities and ethnic minorities). Zia-ul-Haq’s legal surgery made women legally subservient to men and made the minorities (and others) quake for fear of being branded as blasphemers. Musharraf, despite his mantra of ‘enlightened moderation’ actually never gave up strengthening sections of those who attacked India, or those who fought the state itself and killed religious minorities. And Imran Khan also promised everyone an Islamic state without, however, defining its parameters thus giving the militants a chance to define it in their own way. Moreover, Khan always praised the Taliban or, at least, refused to condemn them thus strengthening militancy in the name of religion.

In this context, Hoodbhoy’s section on Bhutto is refreshing reading. Generally, Pakistani liberals, being against both military rulers and the right-wing Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, veer politically towards the PPP (or the ANP and such other small parties). However, the author has the originality and integrity to point out that Bhutto had a very flawed personality. He could be vindictive, cruel and authoritarian and how he, after wooing the left when he was aspiring for power, actually ended up getting workers shot and dissidents disgraced (JA Rahim), incarcerated or eliminated. Incidentally, this is my own view of Bhutto also.

Pervez Hoodbhoy’s chapter on identity is both a product of critical thinking in the true sense of the term and also inspirational. Of course, the Pakistani state has been emphasizing our differences from Hindus and Sikhs so far (as the Hindutva brigade is doing now in India) but it is also true that differences can put colour in life. Wisely, the author, after debunking myths like Pakistan has existed for 5,000 years, concludes by observing that ‘one universal culture’ would be boring.

I end by saying that this book should be treated as a breath of fresh air in Pakistan’s historiography. We have had ideologically motivated books or well-researched but uncontroversial tomes on some very narrow academic issue. This book covers a breathtakingly wide panorama of history starting from the Vedic age and ending in the 2020s. It is also a book which is penned down by a scientist who thinks clearly and is armed with a lot of evidence. If you happen to be a social scientist and are not quoted by him, have the generosity to concede that he only quotes evidence which he thinks bears directly on his argument.

I, therefore, recommend this book to professional historians, journalists and, above all, to students who have been confused by the propagandist nonsense which has been doled out to them in the form of official history.