The Tribune - Spectrum


October 12, 2003

Off the shelf
A no-frill history of Pakistan
V. N. Datta

Historical Dictionary of PakistanTHE idea of producing and publishing a National Dictionary of Biography was first conceived and implemented by Leslie Stephen, a prominent literary figure of the 19th century Victorian England. By virtue of maintaining high standards of scholarship and objectivity, to which outstanding scholars continue to contribute, the Dictionary of National Biography has become a vade macum, for the researcher and intelligentsia.

After Indiaís independence, Dr S. P. Sen of Calcutta University took the initiative of bringing out the first four volumes of the Discovery of Indian Biography, which gave a reliable account of the life and works of prominent public men in India during the modern period of Indian history. Senís bold and valuable venture has stood the test of time. Some provinces too have brought out dictionaries of regional biographies, which are of uneven quality.

The work under review is Historical Dictionary of Pakistan, edited by Shahid Javed Burki (Vision Books, New Delhi, 2003, pages iii+ 402). The book is a revised and extended edition of the original published in 1999. Pakistanís importance in South Asia and the Islamic world is unquestioned. Shahid Javed Burki, educated in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, has held high administrative positions in the Pakistan Government. He was economic adviser to the Ministry of Commerce, and then joined the World Bank in 1974. On return to Pakistan, he was Minister-in-Charge of Finance in Pakistan.


Unsupported by any institution, Historical Dictionary of Pakistan is Burkiís own initiative and single-handed achievement. The book opens with a chronological statement of 35 pages listing important events that have occurred from Muhammad Ibn Qasimís invasion of Sind in 712, to Prime Minster Nawaz Sharifís meeting with Soviet President Boris Yeltsin for the establishment of desirable peace and security in the region. In his introduction of twenty-eight pages, Burki focuses on the circumstances leading to the creation of Pakistan, the mode of governance in Pakistan, the rise of regionalism and other critical problems that the country has faced.

Of special interest is a section relating to the military regimes and their impact on the public. The rest of the book includes the alphabetical dictionary, bibliography and a list of Pakistanís Governors-General, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chiefs of the Army Staff. There was no Prime Minister in Pakistan from May 1988 to December 1988.

A random selection of entries from the dictionary portion would show that the editorís aim was to give short and straightforward accounts of the notable personalities and events without frills. On some of the leading political figures, the information provided is sketchy. Sir Mian Fazli Hasan and Sikandar Hyat Kbanís antipathy to Jinnah and the Muslim League is ignored. Sir Muhammad Iqbal is presented as a herald and father of Pakistan, but his love for a united India in the early part of his poetry is omitted. The information on the demolition of the Babri mosque in December in 1998 is trite. On the Kashmir dispute, the focus is on the Indo-Pak wars, but the constitutional aspects of the contentious issues are ignored. However, the account of the Unionist Party (334- 335) is candid and lucid.

There are significant omissions of certain significant features of the personalities and events covered in this volume. On Faiz Ahmed Faiz the main emphasis is on his involvement in the Rawalpindi case. Burki does not mention that some of Faizís poems, remarkable for their poetic quality and eloquence, had become very popular in Pakistan because he had debunked in a subtle manner the authoritarian regime of Zia-ul- Haq. To save himself from the wrath of the Pakistani dictator, Faiz had left Pakistan. His receiving the prestigious Lenin award had also become suspect in the eyes of the conservative government.

There is an interesting account on the Habib family, which had won the confidence of Jinnah because of financial aid the family gave to the Muslim League during its struggle for the attainment of Pakistan. After the Partition the family was generously rewarded and became one of the 22 richest and politically most influential in Pakistan. What are these 22 families? This expression of 22 families was first used by Mahbubul Haq, Chief Economist of the Planning Commission, on April 21, 1968. Haq maintained that just 22 families in Pakistan owned 66 per cent of the industrial wealth and controlled 87 per cent of the assets of the banking and insurance industries. Haqís findings had a profound political impact on Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto used these findings to discredit Ayub Khanís regime and built his political career to seize power. His government later nationalised 31 large industries and took control of all the private banks and insurance companies.

Anyone reading this volume would be interested in looking for the entry on Jinnah. The entry gives only a bare outline of his political ideas. Nor is there any reference to the external influences on his political thinking.

The main difficulty in the work lies in its structure. Mixing personalities and events is bound to disturb the structured unity of the book. But the criticism does not detract the singular achievement of Burki. The scheme of such a work has to be prepared on a big scale and financially supported by some generous agency in a cooperative and not individualistic manner.