By Ayesha Siddiqa/ Published: October 31, 2012

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

The writing of history is indeed an essential art which is critical to any nation’s emotional, psychological and eventually material development. But it is also an art that is lost easily, especially when states begin to treat history writing as a process of jotting down events and doing linear interpretations. The writing of history or historiography is certainly lost in authoritarian systems where there is much emphasis on distorting reporting and on the interpretation of events and historical eras to meet political prerequisites of the dominant ruling groups. We, in Pakistan, are certainly familiar with this problem as histories have been distorted to shape a certain nationalist or authoritarian narrative. Some people such as KK Aziz did point out this problem.

But why should we be surprised at the nature of Pakistan’s history writing, since it is merely a representation of the level of our emotional maturity and inability to accommodate alternative perspectives. In fact, it has been ages that we delved in the business of knowledge creation. The discourse of knowledge is not just about learning a particular perspective but about knowing how to engage with multiple perspectives.

Therefore, it is not surprising to hear private universities such as Lums not having the patience for a renowned Pakistani physicist and activist Pervez Hoodbhoy. The non-extension of his contract at the management university is being treated as a normal administrative affair that does not reflect intolerance within the institution. Claims are being made that Dr Hoodbhoy is expensive, not being sufficiently engaged in campus activities, or simply that longer contracts are not offered to faculty that are over 60 years old. However, the other side of the picture is that the good doctor took more classes, gave more seminars, supervised more students than many others on the faculty at a rate which is normally paid to others at Lums. Moreover, there are about 20 people including former diplomats of ages 60 plus whose contracts were renewed.

Of course, what kind of faculty does the management of a university want to keep is eventually their decision. But it does reflect a deeper malaise of blocking of all views that the establishment or the power circles in the country do not want to hear. It is also worth reminding that every organisation (certainly educational institutions) has its own establishment which has a certain ideological bias. For instance, in the UK, there are some universities and schools that are more liberal than others. So, it is totally acceptable to see little room for Hoodbhoy at Lums. However, it is the pretension of being a liberal and progressive institution that is open to a range of ideas which is highly problematic. Pervez Hoodbhoy was probably hired to make use of his capacity to teach physics. The Lums management probably did not realise that he would also give seminars to students about issues like Islam and science or make them think about matters differently than the dominant right-wing-conservative thinking prevalent within the school on a number of issues. Hoodbhoy may not have right over extension of contract but he is within his rights to protest the curbing of views through strategic use of administrative powers by the management.

What has happened in this case is symptomatic of the gradual shift within the academy at large in Pakistan, which, especially when it comes to issues of politics and society (or even economy), is dominated by conservative perspectives. While this was generally accepted for most public sector universities, there was, perhaps, an unreasonable and romantic expectation of something different at a university like Lums.

And it is not as if one agrees with everything that Pervez Hoodbhoy says. Nevertheless, he is an important voice with strong views on certain issues that need to be debated. He is also one of the few brave men or women in today’s Pakistani academia that have the courage to risk their neck for their views. Perhaps, this also makes him a misfit in an academic environment ridden with ‘safe scholars’. We are happier with academics who hold two sets of perspectives: one for private conversation and other for their official assignments.

It was equally amazing to read one Lt Col (retd) Ghulam Jillani’s article in the army’s monthly journal Hilal titled “Corporal Hitler”. Written in Urdu, which is a language of greater public outreach, the article gently makes a hero out of Hitler. There were a couple of places in this rendition of history meant for ordinary Pakistani military personnel that we were reminded of how the German military dictator realised that the problems faced by his nation were caused by the Jews. Reading the article was a fascinating experience as it showed how the colonel historian had engaged in ‘cherry-picking’, which means selecting incidents and events in a manner that at the end of the reading, we would look at Hitler as a hero rather than a man who butchered and tortured thousands of innocent people. The article even mentions how the German general heard the voice of the heavens above, as he lay recovering in a hospital after a British/French attack during the First World War, ordering him to save his nation. There is no mention at all about his genocide and other acts of brutality. It is difficult not to notice the building of a nascent anti-West argument in the article in which Hitler is presented as a hero and the ‘allies’ as villains.

We may try to justify such sympathy for Hitler on the basis of our anger for how the Israeli treat innocent Palestinians. However, an act of brutality does not justify brutality at another place or point in time and vice versa. But more important, both Dr Hoodhboy’s real story and Jillani’s imagined history depict two parts of an intense process of determining a society’s emotional capacity to tolerate multiple views. The colonel’s article, in fact, is a product of an academic process that is highly skewed in favour of a selective narrative or narratives. If we continue to fire academics from our educational institutions that tend to challenge the ordinary, as has happened in Dr Hoodhboy’s case, then all we will only remain capable of producing narratives and histories written by Naseem Hijazi or Lt Col (retd) Jillani.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2012.