Neglected Narratives: An Interview with Dr. Layli Uddin

Dr. Layli Uddin is a historian of modern South Asia and is currently working on a book on the making and unmaking of Pakistan and Bangladesh. She is also the curator of the ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ project at the British Library.

Layli Uddin picture

In November, she presented a paper titled ‘1969: Marxists, Murids and the Maulana in the Unmaking of Pakistan’ at the 100 Years of Soviet Revolution conference at LUMS.

I thought we could begin with you telling us a little about your work as a historian in general, and perhaps a little about the paper you presented.

A lot of my work on Bangladesh and how it comes about, the ‘making and unmaking of Pakistan’ if you will, functions as a counter-narrative to existing historiographies. Especially in the sense in which they attribute 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh to the events of high politics and big political figures. What gets ignored is the role of the peasants, the landless laborers, the students. This is where Maulana Bhashani becomes important, because in a lot of ways he was speaking for these constituencies. His leadership and charisma were important factors, and in the absence of understanding that connection, and the radical imaginaries that fueled those peoples, often the ways in which workers and peasants did politics is not understood.

What about your work at the British Library? How does that that feed into your research?

 The ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ project looks at publications, printers and authors of the early colonial period, The eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. I do draw on the collection for my research—it’s especially helpful in establishing a longer trajectory and filling in the gaps since so much of what I’m looking at and the figures I’m concerned with do not exist in conventional archives. One of the key concerns of my work is to bring in the silences that exist in the archives, and question things like the grounds on which workers mobilized, their conception of and faith in Bhashani as a leader and how this alliance between the marxist and his murids functioned on the ground. Another question is what socialism might have looked like then, and how were these constituencies being empowered. If Bhashani was a leader who appeared to his murids in their dreams, do I invalidate that entirely because of modern ideas of rationality? It’s important to open these histories and navigate neglected narratives with caution and respect, because otherwise you risk ignoring how people conceptualized events that we are trying to understand as history.

I was going to ask you how your experience of the conference was. Given that there was a variety of talks and papers, what were your thoughts about the other panels given what we just discussed about alternative ways of looking at history?

It’s been a tremendously productive experience here. LUMS has a great faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I’ve gotten to meet some great colleagues who share similar ways of thinking about history or doing history. There are some really impressive historians and academics here. The conference was wonderful because there was a mixed bunch of academics and activists and it’s really good getting that idea of what was happening on the ground. And it was looking at the whole of the 20th century, looking at the history of the October Revolution, but also its impact in South Asia. Not just its immediate aftermath, but also at its long term implications up to the present. So there were a number of diverse papers ranging from the October revolution, to the Progressive Writers’ Association, to thinking about what was happening in East Bengal. And also bringing in stalwarts like Ahmad Salim, and people who were involved in these movements. It was great just hearing all these voices and I think it really is quite promising, the work that LUMS is doing.

What about Lahore in general? Is this your first time here, and did you get to see any of the city?

I did, actually! And yes it’s my first time in Pakistan. I’m going shopping again today, actually. But Ali Usman Qasmi took me around yesterday, and he’s Lahori who also reads anything and everything about the city. So we had a great sort of talk. We went to the Badshahi Mosque, the Lahore Fort, the Wazir Khan Mosque, the Anarkali Bazaar, and I think we saw Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak’s mazaar. And we saw from the mazaar this Hindu temple, which is no longer in use, but is now a residence. And since then I’ve just been resting. I still feel like there’s so much more to see, because as we were coming back he pointed out Neela Gumbat and all these little mazaars. And I feel like there’s also so many conversations to be had about the city. I’m going to a remembrance today at the Women’s Action forum, and I met with the Feminist Collective at a dhaaba. We had tea and a lot of conversation. In general it’s been really great, I’ve met a lot of people and had a lot of food. But I imagine there’s plenty more to be done here, whether at LUMS or outside..


Sara Saleem Khan, Research Fellow, conducted this interview.

Photo courtesy The British Library website.

This article was first published in the MGSHSS newsletter, 'Guftugu'.





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The Mushtaq Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS

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