On Disowning Bhagat Singh
and Other Vagaries
By Ali Hasan Cemendtaur
you move very far away in time from Ahmad Salim you may see
his archive amalgamating with Dead Sea Scrolls, with hieroglyphic
genealogical record of kings of Copan, with ancient Egyptian
writing on steles, and with the wealth of information present
on a disk aboard Voyager spacecraft presently drifting away
from our solar system. And archives preserved by Ahmad Salim
would blend in with others described above because all of
them have one thing in common: they share information about
people and events; they are the stories of time.
I met Ahmad Salim at Berkeley where he was giving a talk at
the Center for South Asian Studies. Invited to the US by the
American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS), Ahmad Salim
was on a tour of South Asian Studies Centers at three universities,
that of University of Wisconsin, Madison; of UC Berkeley;
and of University of Texas at Austin.
Ahmad Salim is working on preservation of historical record
in Pakistan. He is not making history, well at least not directly.
He has declared himself its guardian. He is making history
by insisting on preserving history, no matter how much his
countrymen dislike certain elements of their past.
Muhammad Salim Khawaja, now popularly known as Ahmad Salim,
was born two years before the birth of Pakistan; selling clothes
was the family business, a trade Salim’s brothers still
earn their bread from. But an early exposure to writers and
poets, while studying in Peshawar, got Ahmad Salim hooked
on the written word. From journalism to translation to collecting
information for the sole purpose of writing a political history
of Pakistan Ahmad Salim slowly drifted into the field of archiving.
South Asian Research and Resource Center, a private archive
that Salim started in 2001, has earned him international repute.
His archive constantly acquires material of historical significance
and makes it available to researchers.
In his talk on "Preservation and Promotion of Archives
in Pakistan" at Berkeley Ahmad Salim started off with
describing the difficulties researchers face in obtaining
information from governmental institutions in Pakistan. Researches
are often told the material they are seeking is classified.
And this happens because when the Pakistani bill to make all
government documents 25 years and older available to the public
was passed, a clause was added stating, "Provided it
is not harmful to the integrity of the state of Pakistan."
Record officers often use this part of the bill as an excuse
to not produce sought information to the public.
“Material from 1860, 1870 is still classified. Material
on Bhagat Singh’s trial is still classified,”
Ahmad Salim in an exasperated tone told his audience.
Ahmad Salim described his experience in trying to obtain letters
written by Guru Ram Singh, from a national archive in Peshawar.
The director of the archive asked Salim how much money he
had received from India to get those letters.
“What India has to do with it? I don’t take Guru
Ram Singh as a religious figure, I consider him a freedom
Ahmad Salim described how Pakistan wants to disown Bhagat
Singh, a young revolutionary hanged by the British in 1931.
“Bhagat Singh was son of the soil. He was born in Banga,
Tahseel Jaranwala (in present-day Pakistan). All papers on
the Bhagat Singh case are there in Lahore High Court.”
But Ahmad Salim was denied access to them because, he was
told, revealing the papers “might affect the integrity
It is not hard to understand why the Pakistani establishment
wants to forget about the non-Muslim freedom fighters of that
part of South Asia. After all Pakistan was created for the
Muslims of the Subcontinent. ‘For them, of them' byword
is logically extended to include ‘by them.’ Such
are the hazards of creating a country in the name of religion.
Ahmad Salim also described the fate of old books present in
a Lahore library named after a famous son of that city, Dyal
“Zia Ul Haq ordered to destroy all Hindi and Gurmukhi
books of the library. The books were thrown in a nala (sewage
channel) that ran by the library.”
Ahmad Salim told the small crowd how a social attitude of
apathy towards the past also results in loss of precious historical
“Mian Iftikharuddin was a Congress leader and then a
Muslim League leader. He was the owner of Pakistan Times newspaper
and hosted Premier Chou En-Lai in 1955.”
Ahmad Salim described how from an old bookshop he once bought
a photo album that had pictures of and related to Mian Iftikharuddin,
including that of Chou En-Lai and of Tariq Ali (UK-based writer)
as a small boy. Later, Ahmad Salim learned that many years
after the death of Mian Iftikharuddin when the family moved
to a new house it threw away all old documents, and they included
the precious photo album that Ahmad Salim bought for merely
Rs.200 (less than $4).
Similarly when communist leader Sardar Shaukat Ali died his
family asked a junk dealer to take away all old papers, and
they included the manuscript of Sardar Shaukat Ali's autobiography
which was still being printed in installments in PreetLari
magazine out of Chandigarh.
When Ahmad Salim asked the widow of Shaukat Ali about their
throwing away of historical documents, she expressed ignorance
and said Shaukat Ali never discussed his political life with
the family, so they had no idea of what he was up to.
“It is typical of political leaders of our region who
talk about changing the world but never get their families
involved in their dreams.”
Though Ahmad Salim’s talk mainly comprised of horrid
stories of criminal neglect of archives in Pakistan, he did
end his speech on a positive note. He talked about his ambitious
plan to build a War of Liberation Archives and Museum. He
also described how the refugee family that presently occupies
Bhagat Singh's house has agreed to vacate it in order for
the property to be converted into a Bhagat Singh Memorial
Returning from Ahmad Salim’s talk my mind wondered to
recent and past events when people, driven by their biases,
tried to rewrite histories. Only the truly enlightened who
are neutral towards bygone religious and political forces
can become honest custodians of the past. Ahmad Salim is free
of those chains that make people ashamed of the history of
the land they live in. He is putting up his best fight to
save the future of the past in Pakistan.