The legal writer, Paul Finkelman, in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times (December 1, 2012) discusses Thomas Jefferson’s deep commitment to slavery. Jefferson, the principal author of United States’ Declaration of Independence, who wrote statements about the “self evident truth” that “all men are created equal”, owned 175 slaves. Finkelman argues that perhaps inspired by the Declaration, George Washington sold all his slaves, but Jefferson did not (he did sell 85 slaves but to purchase wine, art and other luxury goods). The author provides archival evidence on how Jefferson considered blacks to be like children, incapable of taking care of themselves. He thought they lacked basic human emotions and had an inferior ability to reason. Hence, they should not be freed. Of course, in US history this is not the dominant representation of Jefferson, the master of Monticello and the third president of the United States. In recent years, his slave owning has become more common knowledge as has his siring of children with his slave, Sally Hemmings (whom he did not free). But all this is written off by contemporary historians as minimal in the context of his many accomplishments as a statesman and political visionary; his ‘failings’, they argue, need to be understood within the complexities of the times he lived in.
I mention the op-ed as it reminded me of a brilliant book published in the mid 1990s by the Haitian-American anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995), makes the cogent argument about how certain histories are silenced (as Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery and blacks) and others highlighted (as his writing of the Declaration of Independence) in the narration of national histories in various geographical contexts. Trouillot argues that as history is made by actors (those who live it) and narrators (those who recall and write about it), it remains in a tension between what happened and that which is said to have happened. Playing with this theme of representation of various historical moments and how we perceive them today, Trouillot shows how the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the first revolution led by black slaves against a colonial power, is never considered an important episode in the western historical tradition as compared to the French Revolution or the US War of Independence. This silencing of a major world event (what happened) in western historiography (which is said to have happened) depended on the power of those who produced the sources, the narratives and the archives for the event (the plantation slaves, being illiterate for the most part, could not write their own history). However, Trouillot goes on to argue that it was impossible for the colonial powers, plantation owners and even liberal French intellectuals to write a different history as the revolt by a colonised and enslaved black population in the island of Saint-Domingue during early 19th century was simply in the realm of the unthinkable. Although from 1790 onwards there were slave-led revolts leading to a general insurrection (1804), the dominant view in Europe, America and among plantation owners on the island was that the slaves were a tranquil lot for whom freedom was a chimera. The blacks were considered capable of individual violence or even instigating a minor riot, but no one imagined that the slaves could organise a successful revolutionary uprising leading to an independent state — a state that abolished slavery many years before emancipation came to the British colonies in the Caribbean (1833), the US (1865), and Brazil (1888).
Trouillot is not making the case that the elite in late 18th century should have thought about human equality as we do today, albeit they were products of the enlightenment and wrote treatises (as did Jefferson) on the inevitability of equal rights. Rather, he postulates that it was impossible for them to think in these terms of equality. The events of the Haitian Revolution, Trouillot argues, challenged the fundamental beliefs of even the extreme left in France and England as it was unthinkable in the framework of western thought that the emotionally inept, the tranquil, and the unreasonable black person could be capable of such deeds.
I draw on Trouillot’s important theorising on the silencing of histories to focus our attention on some of the events in Pakistan’s own past. I am writing this article in mid-December and every passing year there continues to be a silence around what happened when the country lost its Eastern Wing in the December of 1971. Of course, in the past few years there have been some editorial pieces and a few discussions on television, but the history of that period is neither in our text books nor has any official recognition. To recall briefly, in the December 1970 elections, the Awami League emerged as the largest party, and it should have been invited to form the government and initiate the process of constitution-making. Instead, between January and March of 1971, the ruling military junta twice postponed the dates for convening the National Assembly. It also started an incessant drive to portray the six points, the major demand by the Awami League, as a conspiracy to break up the country. It is ironic that the regime had earlier permitted the Awami League to conduct its campaign on these very points for an entire year. Somehow they became a problem after Awami League’s victory in the most fair and free elections held in the country.