By Iftikhar H. Malik
Carved out of the South Asian subcontinent with a predominant Muslim population sharing
common features with neighbouring Western Asia, Pakistan remained outside a distinct,
country-specific institutional focus for quite some time. It was either in reference to Western
Asia in a historical context, or juxtaposed with India in both an historical and comparative
perspective that Pakistan would be the recipient of an indirect scholarly attention. Such a
peripheralization -- also witnessed in the cases of Afghanistan and five other South Asian
states (Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan) -- is understandably linked
to the very Indo-centric nature of the region itself and, of course, did not reflect any rooted
aversion to these non-Indian states. However, given the due academic and nationalist
sensitivities of these regional actors, exacerbated by an otherwise complex and often
conflictive relationship with the larger and more powerful partner/neighbour in an
atmosphere of multiple contestation, such academic imbalances have reared their heads
occasionally in informal academic meetings. The newness of Pakistan contrasted with the
historicity of the region; its rather insignificant role in the global economy in contrast to its
prominent career in transregional global politics ranging from the Cold War to Near Eastern
and South Asian geo-politics, have underlined how imperative it is to understand Pakistan
objectively, dispassionately, and steadily within its own regional/national and trans-regional
Over the years, many social scientists and individuals sharing a non-professional interest in issues related to Islam, archaeology, the natural sciences, society, ethnicity, gender, economy, philosophy, law, languages, education, literature and the arts have urged the necessity to award these a higher status, quite on a par with that enjoyed by historical and political studies. This germinated the idea of forming an informal and co-optive forum devoted to research and studies of varied subjects of interest to academics and other professionals. Seen against the backdrop of the vital global and regional developments, especially those of the late 1980s, including a pervasive democratization, a vigourous interest in the issues of the civil society, stimulated by a greater mobility, this fuelled a pervasive desire to establish a voluntary body of which the task would be to spearhead debates on such themes. The emergence of the independent Central Asian Republics, the civil war in Afghanistan, the defiance in Indian Kashmir, the ethnic activism in Sindh, the rise of fundamentalist politics in India, and the sectarian violence in Pakistan itself have all added a sense of urgency to such a thinking. The evolution of a Pakistani diaspora in Britain, the significance of Muslim communities across Western Europe and North America, the consolidation of the new Asian Century sans South Asia have naturally given priority to efforts to establish such a forum in Britain.
A forum for unbiased debate
Since its foundation in London in late 1989, the British Association for Pakistan Studies (BAPS) has sponsored a number of special seminars and lectures on areas of academic and contemporary interest and has provided a forum for unbiased debate and discussions on Pakistan, the states and societies of Southern and Central Asia, and similar topics of a scholarly and general nature. Without being either complementary or supplementary to existing academic bodies like the British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS), it has attempted to bridge the intra-regional and interdisciplinary gaps in South Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, and the international relations of Southern and Southwestern Asia. It has provided a forum for meaningful debates on diasporic communities in Britain and has tried to reach diverse groups of academics, diplomats, retired civil servants, journalists, politicians, and interested citizens. The BAPS has a steady paid membership of over 70 individuals from different disciplines and national backgrounds. In addition to these regular members, its meetings, usually held on Friday evenings at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), have been steadily attracting an ever-increasing number of students as well as some interested citizens. Its sessions are appropriately advertised and are free to the public making it an open body devoted to a balanced and rigorous understanding of the issues.
The BAPS has made it a tradition to hold 4 to 5 meetings per academic year along with co- sponsoring special conferences or workshops. Managed by a committee, the BAPS invites specialists to present their views in the form of open lectures followed by the comments by discussants before opening the session to general discussion. The committee is headed by Sir Oliver Forster, former British Ambassador to Pakistan, and Dr David Taylor of SOAS, holds the office of vice-president. Professor Saeed Durrani of the University of Birmingham and myself respectively hold the offices of secretary and treasurer.
A multiplicity of themes plus support from subject specialists allowing ample opportunity for exhaustive discussions have already assured the BAPS of an eminent position as a serious academic forum, catering to the needs of both specialists and generalists. The very first session of the BAPS was addressed by Professor Allchin, an archaeologist from the University of Cambridge, who highlighted the significant new finds from the Indus Valley Civilization -- and it would have been hard to find a more appropriate beginning for the association! A special meeting heard Mr Shahryar M. Khan, a senior Pakistani diplomat, on the foreign policy of Pakistan. Dr. Sultana Saeed, an active member of the BAPS and an associate member of University College, London, presented a paper on "Women in Muslim Society", which generated a very useful debate. The Pakistani Nobel laureate, Dr Abdus Salam, addressing a very well-attended meeting in 1991, analysed the deplorable state of the natural sciences in the Muslim world and suggested measures to remedy the malady. His lecture, duly assisted by Professor Akhtar of the University of Southampton, was a major event in the early career of the BAPS and proved to be a landmark. In a seminar on partition in 1992, Dr Alistair Lamb, the author of Kashmir: a disputed legacy, discussed his findings on the controversy surrounding the Radcliffe Award of 1947. His research linked the anomalous nature of the Award to the contentious issue of Kashmir. In another seminar on post-Soviet Central Asia entitled "Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the New World Order", Anthony Hyman of the Central Asian Survey analysed the internal and regional developments of this newly independent area which has shared a common history and culture with the neighbouring South Asia. The second speaker on the subject, Colonel (retd.) Ghaffar Mehdi, dwelt on the possibilities for and difficulties confronting a new strategic consensus in the region. In a similar seminar on the North-West Frontier Province under the Raj, Mr Roderick Goldsworthy, a retired British officer with long service in the region, shared his personal experiences among the Pushtuns. For the last 52 years, he has been visiting his Pushtun friends in Mardan to celebrate Christmas. A special meeting held under the auspices of the BAPS in 1993 heard the views of Ms Fatima Gailani, an Afghan political activist, who suggested a cogent strategy to achieve peace in her native country in her presentation "The Present Situation in Afghanistan". During the political deadlock between Ghulam Ishaque Khan and Mian Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan in early 1993, the BAPS organized a special meeting to discuss the constitutional anomalies in Pakistan, including the controversial Eighth Amendment. The meeting heard two presentations on this topical subject from Mr Martin Lau, a SOAS-based scholar, and myself. On 23 March 1993, the BAPS organized a special multi-dimensional meeting at Birmingham, attended by about 200 individuals. Dr Sarah Bundey, the main speaker of the evening, presented her research findings on the first-cousin marriages among Pakistanis in Britain, followed by a short lecture by myself on the Pakistan Movement. After a typical Pakistani dinner, the participants were entertained by a show which included Urdu classical and popular music.
In March 1994, the BAPS in association with the Quaid-i-Azam Chair at Oxford and Queen Elizabeth House organized a two-Day international conference on Pakistan, inaugurated by the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, which was addressed by Sardar Assef Ali, the foreign minster of Pakistan. A number of delegates from Pakistan, Britain, the USA, and Switzerland heard papers on the politics, the economy and the foreign relations of Pakistan. A special art exhibition featuring the paintings of three British Pakistani women artists was part of the programme. In the evening, Ms Naheed Siddiqui, the well-known classical dancer, performed a special selection of classical South Asian dances at Keble College.
Topics at recent meetings of BAPS
Some of the more recent special meetings have addressed subjects like sectarianism and the politics of patronage. In a workshop on the political dilemmas of Pakistan, Dr Ian Talbot of Coventry University, while suggesting a model of consociational politics for the country, tried to draw parallels with the pre-1947 Unionist patterns of politicking in the British Punjab. Dr Saifur Rahman Sherani, a sociologist from the University of Balochistan, shared his research on the Zikri Baloch tribes and their interaction with the other communities in the province. He sees the process of dwindling tribal loyalties already causing serious problems of identity and leadership in Balochistan. Professor William Baker, an American academic with special academic interest in Kashmir, gave an impassioned presentation on human rights violations in the Valley. In a special meeting devoted to the poetry and philosophy of Dr Mohammad Iqbal in early November 1995, chaired by Dr David Taylor, Dr Saeed Durrani elaborated the major philosophical thoughts of Iqbal with reference to mysticism, nationalism, and militarism. His paper was discussed by Dr Leonard Lewisohn, an expert on Persian mysticism, and by Dr Javed Majeed of SOAS, a specialist on Urdu literature. A selection of Mohammad Iqbal's Urdu and Persian poetry was rendered in a moving recital by Ms Pakiza Baig, a London-based artist. The most recent meeting organized by the BAPS on 1 December 1995 was devoted to investigating the ethnic volatility in Karachi. Chaired by Sir Oliver Forster, a packed hall at SOAS heard the main paper by the author on the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), its ideology and leadership in the context of the conflictive pluralism in the city, characterized by frequent shoot-outs between the security forces and MQM militants. "Karachi: A Systemic Mismanagement or Social Banditry?" was illustrated with visual and statistical material on the largest city in the country. In his comments on the paper, Dr David Taylor underlined the need for an immediate and holistic recovery initiative both at the macro and micro levels.
The BAPS is planning to hold special seminars on varied subjects like minorities in Pakistan, district administration, Islam in the West, and the Pakistani diaspora in Britain in addition to co-sponsoring a special conference in 1997 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of South Asian independence. By virtue of holding so many well-attended meetings on vital subjects, the BAPS, in its own modest way, has assumed the role of a flagship in institutionalizing scholarly interest and activities on Pakistan. Rather than only academics talking to academics, the BAPS has been attempting to bridge the gap between specialists and generalists.
For further information:
Dr Iftikhar H. Malik
School of History
Bath College of Higher Education,
Bath, BA2 9BN