A forgetful state

Hurmat Ali Shah reflects on how the memory of trauma played a central role in defining Pashtun political identity

A forgetful state
Yeats lamented, “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” But does too long a sacrifice make you forget too? And moreover, is forgetting desirable or does the memory of the sacrifices and oppression of the past have some normative value? Is it not inevitable, then, that the very nature of memory will be questioned and the purposes it serves today will be put in the dock and judged?

But given all the complications that go with historical remembrance and the invocation of memory in the present, there is a very real fear that forgetting is almost always synonymous with oblivion. You may not be interested in the geological record but the geological record is interested in you!

The memory of the past may not always be organic or always desirable. The construction of a past for serving a present order of chauvinism, domination and fascism has been the obvious tool of authoritarian regimes and empires, from Hitler and Mussolini to the British Empire’s desperate attempts at locating its roots in the Roman Empire.

The revisionism that today’s ultra-nationalist and revivalist movements are engaged in is not
only a disservice to historiography and hence reprehensible on that count alone. It also works to hold the future hostage to a past that never was

The current memory wars in France over its colonial past, the attempts to gloss over slavery in the US and the invocation of a glorious Hindu past in India are all instructive. Constructing the past in each of these examples involves elements of fantasy – and thus is partly about disfiguring the past. But quite often, it also works in tandem with exclusionist and reactionary (or conservative) politics.

The revisionism that today’s ultra-nationalist and revivalist movements are engaged in is not only a disservice to historiography and hence reprehensible on that count alone. It also works to hold the future hostage to a past that never was.

The invocation of memory for revisionism is declared futile by Adorno, the German philosopher, when he declares, “Just as voluntary memory and utter oblivion always belonged together, organised fame and remembrance lead ineluctably to nothingness.” This may very well be true of employing memory for a resistance – be it political, cultural or otherwise – against a totalitarian force of oppression.

Chowk Yadgar, Peshawar

But there can be some kind of resistance when a collective consciousness works on memory to create a collective memory – to crystallise the collective consciousness into a concrete form of political identity. That is desirable only if history is not reduced to instances of ‘glory’ to serve the present but to rescue the past in order to wake-up from it, as Walter Benjamin would formulate. According to Benjamin, each epoch has something of a dream-like feature which is never fulfilled and the recalling of memory today is the “awakening of a not-yet conscious knowledge of what has been.”

So, in a desirable framework of memory, the past becomes a precursor to what is today. And thus, knowing the past is finding the lost promises which were part of a political struggle to inform the political and cultural debate of today.

A soldier of the British Indian Army during the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre, 1930

In any process of remembering, there can be only an approximation of the past, at best. And that approximation, too, may not always be possible. But here again, Walter Benjamin comes to the rescue. He reminds us of how memory can inform our present in a consistent way by discovering “in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the whole event.”

And this brings us to the remembrance of our own past, which rests on one crucial dynamic: that of the centre and the federation.

In Pakistan, the relationship of the federation/centre has always been one of antagonism towards the ethnic minorities and smaller federating units. That is the result of the very basic founding principle of the state here. That is, in order to create the nation for the ‘nation-state’ of Pakistan, the plurality of other nations contained by the ‘nation-state’ has to be either minimised or downright neutralised.
Pir-e-Rokhan’s struggle had assumed poetic dimensions when it inspired the rebellion of Khushal Khan Khattak against the Mughals. The tradition of Pashtun nationalistic resistance in British India saw itself as a continuation of that struggle

There has been consistent resistance to that onslaught. The centralising mode of state- and nation-building has always faced resistance from ethnic and linguistic minorities of the country. If we consider pluralism and diversity to be desirable values, then the resistance against a Unitarian conception of the Pakistani polity (one that excludes multiple identities as the condition of inclusion) is a memory which has to be kept alive. The political struggle today for a diverse Pakistan where all the ethno-linguistic collectives are able to enter into the fold of the ‘nation’ with their basic identities intact is kept alive and informed by the memory of a continuity of this struggle.

A case in point is the narrative of Pashtun political forces and their struggle in Pakistan.

Two events stand out and in their uniqueness they contain the crystal of the epoch of oppression that so many Pashtuns have lived through. Both events, unfortunately, are massacres.

One is the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre carried out by the British Empire on the 23rd of April, 1923 and the other is the Babarra massacre carried out in newly independent Pakistan on the 12th of August 1948. The first massacre defines how Pashtun political identity sees its relationship with the British Empire and the other informs Pashtun consciousness viz-a-viz the early Pakistani state.

Qissa Khwani Bazaar just before the 1930 massacre

The Qissa Khwani massacre happened when the British opened fire on a procession of anti-colonial protesters in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar, Peshawar. In that moment of violence against unarmed protesters, they may have killed, by some estimates, around 400 people. The historiography of the new state of Pakistan – and of the whole Subcontinent under British rule – either pays lip service to remembering this event or totally ignores it. But it became the rallying cry for Pashtun nationalism in the coming years and decades to follow.

In British-ruled India, this event soon came to take the same sort of place as the memory of the struggle of Pir-e-Rokhan –who led a rebellion against the Mughals. These were the defining metaphors in political resistance to the British Empire. Pir-e-Rokhan’s struggle had assumed poetic dimensions when it inspired the rebellion of Khushal Khan Khattak against the Mughals. The tradition of Pashtun nationalistic resistance in British India saw itself as a continuation of struggle against oppressive steamrolling by the centripetal forces of Delhi-based empires.

Then on the 12th of August, 1948, the day when the Babarra massacre happened, a new phase of carving a political identity on the basis of the worst of trauma began. It was now in the new state of Pakistan that authorities opened fire once again on protesters. They carried out a massacre in broad daylight, consuming some 630 lives. Remembering that day lies at the core of Pashtun political consciousness and informs what they could expect in a newly independent state.

There was a peaceful march but an argument with authorities soon descended into bloodshed and the machine guns roared till they were out of ammunition. The injured were not taken to hospitals because they would have been arrested. This could happen even when Mr. Jinnah was alive.

Since Babarra, there is amnesia – ruthlessly enforced. But for Walter Benjamin, revolution in its highest form was the liberation of the past. And the political consciousness of ethnic and linguistic ‘outsiders’ in Pakistan has kept alive an image of popular rebellions against empires – and of massacres. If memory is a dialectical process and if history contains images, moments or events which capture the Now, then that Now is captured by that day in Babarra. Our Today can be recognised in that one moment and from the workings of memory it will seem that the present is just a continuum from that fateful day. History from that day onwards is not just empty time. The people of that land have been visited by atrocities which were variations of that defining day.

Under the alluvium of the recent past, in the wake of the War on Terror and the perennial operations, Pashtuns are adding a new set of memories to the already-handed-down memory of resistance. The new memories are traumatic in the modern sense. They come on the top of constitutional and legal protections.

But the nature of the trauma from the memories formed under the state’s high-handedness remains the same. For all Pakistanis who dare to remember, this memory highlights the principle of exclusion of diverse ethnic and linguistic minorities. The past refuses to die down and keeps on shaping the present.

To counter the oppression faced by people today, perceiving the similarities with the past is a mechanism giving temporal breadth to the struggle. Waking up the memory of the past and fulfilling the unfulfilled promises of an inclusive future is an act of defiance against forces of exclusion. Again, as the great Walter Benjamin noted, “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears an end within itself.”

The Now, today, has the seeds to germinate into an inclusive, equal future for all Pakistanis. But first we have to dream well and speed up the end of this epoch.

Hurmat Ali Shah is interested in the intersection of politics, society and culture