Dr A. H. Dani – History in the remaking

Dawn Tuesday Review, 2-8 January 1996

Professor A. H. Dani is a challenger. He revels in attacking the boundaries of knowledge and, quite often, he succeeds in stretching them beyond their existing domains. Not far from the beginnings of his career in archaeological research he questioned the long accepted notion of the historians of Alexander the Great invading India through the celebrated Khyber Pass. Prof. Dani established the fact that the great demigod never set his eyes on the Khyber Pass, crossing the Hindustan through the Nawa Pass instead. Since then, every considerable work on Alexander has incorporated this discovery and the old works revised so as to be brought in line with it.

Presently, Prof. Dani is associated with the Centre for the Study of Central Asian Civilisation at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. And this is a statement which honours the university as much as the internationally well-known Professor.

During our meeting Prof. Dani spoke about the new barriers he is going to strike down.

So far we have been thinking in terms of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) because it is a continuation of the old economic system of the (colonial) time. But if we consider it historically – and traditionally – you’ll find that what is today called Pakistan has relations with both India as well as the Central Asian region – historically and culturally ….

The Islam which came to Pakistan: certainly the first Islam came by sea, but that affected mostly the coastal region. But the greater part of Pakistan was Islamised only after the people from Central Asia brought Islam into this region after the time of Sultan Mahmood of Ghazni … they conquered Punjab, the Northern area, the Frontier Province, and part of Sindh. It is this Central Asian Islam which is spread throughout Pakistan and also Northern India …. Now this type of Islam is slightly different from the Arab Islam. I am trying to make a distinction between the two because this (the Central Asian) Islam is a more sufistic Islam. Most of our sufi saints came from Central Asia. You will find this right from Sindh (from Sehwan Shareef) up to Bannu …. It is their influence which is the greatest and the longest on the people of Pakistan, so we should not forget this cultural link. And this history is known to the people of Central Asia, very well. On the other hand, what about our rulers? Leaving aside the Arabs, (and) beginning from the time of Sultan Mahmood of Ghazni right to the end of the Mughal period all our rulers came from Central Asia: either the Turks or the Afghans. It is not just the rulers. Along with them came the warriors and the people. And they brought customs. They brought various types of dress. Food habits, ornaments, literature, languages. The Persian language which we used to speak here did not come from Iran, it came from Central Asia, from Samarkand and Bukhara. It is the language of that part. And it influenced all our writers: Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Bhitai. I once calculated, out of the present population of Pakistan 62 per cent I think has got the blood of Central Asia. Such a close link! It is only for the last 70 years that it was closed. Before that there were businessmen in Peshawar, in Lahore, in Multan, in Shikarpur (who traded with the Central Asia). We have Sirai Multan in the city of Baku, Sirai Hindi in Bukhara – even now it is there. So trade was going on right up to 1920, until the Soviets stopped (it). Such a great link is now getting clearer to our people, and to people over there. I have got here a plan which a professor from Tajikistan gave to me who said if you revive the Persian language then not only Central Asia but the entire area – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran will be linked by this literary and cultural heritage of Persian, our Islamic religion. Certainly there will be trade relations between these people.”

The old genius is talking about changing geography. Or is he speaking about a kind of Muslim revival?

See: unfortunately or fortunately, whenever we think of the future, we think of Islamic or Muslim revival. We don’t think in terms of humanity. Whether you are a Muslim or a non-Muslim, you are first a human being. And as a human being you have got certain needs – both secular as well as spiritual – and these needs have to be met. So when we go and meet the people of Central Asia, the first thought is what do they need from us and what do we need from them? So, it is not a question of Islamic revival, it is a question of reviving something which has been closed for the last seventy years: a genuine relationship – cultural, historical, commercial, trade, economical, as well as religious. There will be a number of prospects. At the same time why not call it Islamic revival? Certainly there will be an Islamic revival because we are all Muslim. And not only just Muslim, we are all Sunni Muslims. And then we are those Muslims who have been following the Sufistic type of Islam. A different type of practice (then) the Arab practices. (This door was closed) and this door has opened now.

“Don’t you think it is closing down again because of the worsening situation in Afghanistan?”

Due to the difficulties in Afghanistan we will not be able to take advantage of the shortest route – from Peshawar to Kabul to Tirmiz to Central Asia. Longer routes, of course, are available to us. One longer route available to us is the Karakoram Highway. The government of Pakistan, along with the government of China and the governments of Kirghistan and Kazakhistan has already entered into an agreement for a trade along this route. Roads are there on both sides except between China and Kirghistan where there is a pass and I am told that the road there is still a kuchcha road, not a pucca one. Jeeps can travel on that road. With a little help we can go along this route. The advantage is this: Kazakhistan is a republic which is very rich in raw materials. Wheat is surplus, They have got oil and gas as well as many other major necessities. And if you start from the capital of Kazakhistan, Alma-ata, you could be here in Islamabad on the fifth day or the sixth at the most. (At present we bring wheat and other things from Canada, America, Australia which takes three, four, five months.) The other routes which our government is thinking is via Quetta, Qandhar, Heart, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and that could lead you also to the Caspian Sea. We want to send our cotton and raw materials to other countries. So these are the two alternative routes outside Afghanistan.

Earlier, Prof. Dani had mentioned the conquerors and the Sufis, both coming from the Central Asia. But was Islam spread by the conquerors or by the Sufis?

Whether in Central Asia or Pakistan, in each town you will find a dargah or a Sufi shrine. Altogether the conquerors did come and they played their imperial role but it is these Sufis who spread Islam in the villages, in the rural areas. This is common in both the areas. And although the Soviet system was very harsh – they did not allow any religion, they destroyed many mosques, they uprooted many madrassahs but they could not destroy this Islamic feeling from the people.

“Then why do we divide our history according to dynasties?”

The dynastic history was given to us by the British. Before that we did not use the dynastic names at all. It is the British books who closed the barrier. They called ‘Mediaeval history of South Asia’. Yet, can you understand the conquests of Shahabuddin Ghouri without reading the history of Afghanistan? It is not possible. Now we read, for example, Ameer Taimur like this: “Oh! He was a great destroyer. He was a man who built minarets of skulls”, that is all nonsense. We don’t remember that he built such a great empire. And the civilization he gave us is the greatest that the world has produced so far. But we do not consider that. We just look at the destruction of the cities. But he was building a big state. And when you are building a big state, naturally your rivals either accept you or you say ‘all right go away.

What Professor Dani was saying, made very good sense to me. In the study of history there is such a thing as “area of study” which means the period of time and the region of land which should be looked upon as one single chunk by the student. So far, most of our courses in schools as well as in the universities have been presenting South Asia usually dynasty-wise, as an area of study. Professor Dani seemed to be suggesting a thrashing of all history syllabi across the country. “Are you suggesting a re-structuring of the areas of study?”

Even before I could finish my question, Prof. Dani started with a pitch that was probably the nearest to shouting that his exceptionally soft-volume voice could reach.

Certainly! I am. I am suggesting that, for example, if you write the history of Pakistan, what sense does it make – say – the Battle of Plassey, which was fought in Bengal. Certainly it did affect Bengal. It did affect India. But you ask any man in Pakistan today how did the Battle of Plassey affect him? It did not. At all. In the history of the region which we call today Pakistan – this Indus land – it was the Battle of Mirani fought in 1843 in which the British defeated the Talpur which affected us. It is the Battle of Malakand where the Pashtoons were defeated in 1897 that affected us. There is a battle fought in Multan between the Muslims and the Sikhs that affected us. But do any of our history books tell us about this? No. Not at all.

Prof. Dani also listed the Battle of Panipat in the list of events which affected Delhi but not the regions now called Pakistan,“So you have to restructure your history.”

In his opinion it is possible to separate the history of Pakistan, since there is no example when the people of Pakistan were defeated by the people of India. This claim makes us think upside down. Most of our authors have told us about the regions of Pakistan having been ruled by the crown of Delhi. Professor Dani invites us to look beyond this thin veneer of colonial historiography: it has always been the people setting out from Pakistan towards India who have been victorious and never the other way round.

“But what about Chandragupta Maurya, who founded an Indian empire in the fourth century B. C. and annexed Punjab?”

Yes, certainly the Mauryan Empire included the whole of India but where was Chandragupta Maurya? He was being schooled, trained, educated in the city of Taxila – by his own teacher Kautilya, who was a teacher there. And he did not conquer Taxila, he was a student here. He met Alexander the Great. Then he recruited forces here in Punjab and the Frontier, and conquered India. And built the Mauryan Empire.

Ranjit Singh did not come from India. He was a man from Lahore, he was a man from Amritsar. Never in history have we been defeated by India.”

“Don’t you see there was an opportunity of bringing out something like this in A Short History of Pakistan?”

The book I mentioned was a series of four volumes edited by the late I. H. Qureshi in the days of Ayub Khan. Prof. Dani wrote the first volume, dealing with the pre-Muslim period. Ever since I saw the four volumes it had been intriguing me that the book, especially in the last three volumes, gives every justification for being called a short history of Indo-Pakistan, or, simply, India. Why doesn’t it include anything about the regional history of Pakistan?

As I asked my question, the Professor’s face grew extremely serious, his heavy eyelids sliding down over the corners of his eyes. “You are certainly right,” he began:

This question was raised by me in the meeting which was presided over by General Ayub Khan. I asked the General : “Do you want us to write the history of Pakistan or do you want us to write the history of India. I can write both. You decide.” The answer was given by Dr I. H. Qureshi: “Oh! No, we can’t separate our history from India.” I then said to General Ayub Khan: “General Sahib! I also come from Delhi as Dr Qureshi also comes from Delhi. The only difference is, I came as a young man … Dr Qureshi came when he was an old man. It is difficult for him to forget the history he has read of that land. But I want to write the history of Pakistan.” And Dr Qureshi left the meeting and went away. In the first volume, which I have written, there is a difference between his foreword  and my writing.

These days, when the history of Pakistan is once again to be written (this time under the National Institute of History), Dr Dani has submitted his plan to the government. If that is refused he will not write the history but will go ahead with the publication of the plan in a small volume telling people how they should read their history.

The Ottomans built a great empire covering a vast area of Europe. But modern Turkey is just a small part of it. So it you want to write a history of Turkey, you can’t (obviously) write the history of the whole of Europe (likewise) if we have made Pakistan as a country we must have our own history. It can’t be just a history of Delhi.

While we wait for his history of Pakistan, (or just an outline if we are less fortunate), Prof. Dani will be working on a few current projects. One of them is the establishing of a tourist-rest-cum-sightseeing-cum-archaeological-interest complex at Hund (rhymes with fund), a relatively lesser known place some fifteen miles north of Attock. Hund was the place where Alexander, and all coming after him, crossed the Indus until the times of Akbar who changed the crossing to Attock for political reasons in 1585. The city of Hund shows evidence of ancient fortification wall and promises unearthing of many more interesting sites including temples and palaces of the old city (visited by Alexander himself), which lie buried under the mud. According to the new tourist package, a motor boat passage will be provided from Attock to Hund, which could be visited like any other picnic spot. On their return the tourists can by the way, cast wishful eyes on the Attock Fort which is still occupied by the military who bar the entry of the civilians into this historical structure.

Prof. Dani is also trying to retrieve from the army at least half of this legacy for the common folk of Pakistan. But he is also toying with another interesting option. Near Attock is a caravan sirai, popularly known as “Begum ki Sirai”. This was built by the famous Mughal Queen Nurjahan. “My plan which I have given to the government is to turn that into a hotel. And one of our leading hoteliers is very much inspired by the idea.” So the sirai can be turned into a hotel “without disturbing its archaeological features.” Will it be a very expensive hotel?

To this Prof. Dani began with an instinctive ‘no’ but revised his answer on the way, “It depends upon the hotelier who wants to turn it into a five-star hotel …. It all depends upon how he builds … So far we have not given it to him on rent because according to the government rules it has to be advertised; competition and all that takes place …” So, let us wait for the rediscovery of Hund, or Udhbhandpur, as it was called in the past. And let us hope that the genius of Prof. Dani continues to help his people gain a better understanding of their past while he moves on to tackle with more frontiers of the established system.

This interview was conducted in 1995. Ahmad Hasan Dani passed away at the age of 88 in Islamabad on 26 January 2009.

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