Changing the past By Ghazi Salahuddin


Here’s a riddle for you. Why do I think of Milan Kundera when I drive past the Teen Talwar roundabout in Karachi and am in a pensive mood?

Naturally, when posed with such an outlandish linkage, you would expect some clues. So, I do have one for you. When I was driven from the old Islamabad airport to the city, there was this sight on a hillock on the main highway that excited the same thoughts.

Since the riddle has to be solved quickly, let me explain that the Teen Talwar monument is dedicated to that motto of the Quaid: Unity, Faith and Discipline. Three marble spires shaped like swords are joined together, marked by the three edicts.

What is exceptional is that the motto is in right order – first Unity, then Faith and after that Discipline. This is how the Quaid had put it. But the order in the slogan, as written in large letters on the slope of that hillock in Islamabad, is different. It is: Faith, Unity and Discipline. And that is how it is officially prescribed now.

Why would anyone mess around with a pronouncement of the Father of the Nation? Historical facts have to be accepted as they are. But during Ziaul Haq’s military rule, the order was changed.

But there is a catch in how Faith is translated. Readily, it is Eman, in the religious framework. However, it was initially also translated as Yaqeen – and I have the evidence that is, in a way, writ in stone at the Teen Talwar, which was designed and built before Zia’s time. Here, the Urdu inscriptions are: Ittehad, Yaqeen-e-Mohkam and Tanzeem.

Having come thus far, I have not yet clarified why this motto, in both orders, reminds me of Milan Kundera, the famed Czech novelist who became a citizen of France. The reason is a Kundera quote that I am frequently reminded of, in some specific situations. It is: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.

It is rather disturbing for me that they can so offhandedly tamper with a public utterance of the Quaid or, really, with a fact of history. The motive could be to further Islamise the Quaid’s vision. If this calls for a proper study of an issue of history, I am not going into that. Incidentally, there have already been some discussions on how the order in the motto is changed. Nadeem Farooq Paracha had delved into it in some detail in his column in ‘Dawn’ in October 2017.

Actually, while staying with the thought of how we deal with history and with our past, I want to move on to what is more topical. These days in the month of March bear memories that are unbearably hard to remember and to forget. In addition, powerful forces have been at work to, if I may borrow an expression from the digital world, ‘photoshop’ the images of our history.

This week, we celebrated Pakistan Day which falls on March 23. Then, it was March 25. And, yes, March 26. In addition to what happened on these dates in the past, we have developments that are taking place in the present. One example is the surreptitious notification of the PPP’s Yousaf Raza Gilani as leader of the opposition in the Senate on Friday and its likely impact on the opposition alliance.

In any case, the problem of coming to terms with this week’s dates of March is very much with us. In this respect, I have another, somewhat longish, quotation of Milan Kundera. This is it: “People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past”.

There is something here that we can easily understand. One power that autocratic leaders or regimes often desperately seek is to change the past and use it for strengthening and justifying their hold on power. That is why prescribed textbooks distort history and it becomes hazardous for historians and researchers to objectively explore the past and venture into forbidden territories.

This week, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of LUMS, in collaboration with the National Institute of Pakistan Studies of Quaid-e-Azam University had organised an online conference to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1971 war. It was to begin on March 23. But LUMS had to cancel the event, the heading of which was: ‘War, Violence and Memory’. As an aside, LUMS was forced to cancel a talk on missing persons in Balochistan in 2015.

When we celebrate the Pakistan Day on March 23, much of our focus stays on the Lahore resolution passed on this date in 1940. But March 23 became Pakistan Day when the 1956 constitution was promulgated on this date. The constitution was abrogated by Ayub Khan but Pakistan Day has survived. That is how BBC World’s This Week in History has identified March 23 in 1956 as the day when Pakistan became the first Islamic Republic in the world.

We do not seem to be much concerned about another anniversary that falls on March 23. On this date in 1931, Bhagat Singh, a socialist revolutionary, was executed – hanged – in Lahore. He was only 23 and is remembered as a folk hero in India’s freedom struggle.

History, to be sure, is not a simple tabulation of events and the past will always have its mysteries to carefully explore and examine. For that matter, why is it not possible for those who had organised the LUMS conference and those who got it cancelled to sit together within the precincts of an institution of higher learning and confront the truth of a past that exists in our consciousness and our conscience?

The writer is a senior journalist.