On Disowning Bhagat Singh and Other Vagaries
By Ali Hasan Cemendtaur


Ahmad Salim

If 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 fighter.”
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 of Pakistan.”
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 Singh.
“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 documents.
“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 Museum.
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.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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