Three Archives in Pakistan


A review of Three Archives in Pakistan

Pakistan is home to various provincial and national archives that are a treasure trove of information about different aspects of the regions that comprise its past & current territory and its history, politics, culture and economy. Yet, for various reasons, these are hardly known outside Pakistan. Because of the security situation, few scholars are adventurous enough to come to Pakistan for a long-term visit. More importantly, the current state of archives is hardly conducive for any serious academic work. The problems range from lack of accessibility, due to bureaucratic hurdles, to inefficiency and sheer negligence of the staff at the archives–among many other factors.

But the entire fault does not rest with the staff, who are mostly underpaid, untrained employees. To the best of my knowledge, no university in Pakistan offers any degree, or even diploma, in archival studies. Most of the officers hired in the archives have a degree either in History or Library Science. Since the retirement of Atique Zafar Sheikh, who served as director of the national archive of Pakistan during the 1980s, there has not been a single archivist in Pakistan with any formal training in archival studies. Sheikh’s descriptive account of Pakistan’s national, provincial and district archives should be the starting point for any scholar wanting to know about the archival material in Pakistan (Atique Zafar Sheikh, Guide to the Sources of Asian History: Pakistan. Islamabad: National Archives of Pakistan, 1990).

This lack of expertise has affected the level of record keeping and service provision in the archives in an adverse manner. There are no proper catalogues, staff does not know how to locate the required material, and the working conditions are uncomfortable. Various scholars who have worked in Pakistani archives have complained of this lack of provisions and bad working conditions. Writing about his experience of working in the Punjab Archives, Clive J. Dewey summed up the frustration of all scholars who have been to Pakistan for research: “I pity the historian who tries to use the record office’s holdings to supplement the BoR’s [Board of Revenue]. The archivists in charge of the most important archive in Pakistan have driven every visiting scholar out of their Aladdin’s Cave by the simple expedient of refusing to fetch them enough records to make it worth their while to stay. After a week or two of sitting round twiddling their thumbs, most readers get the message and give up.” (Clive J. Dewey, The Settlement Literature of the Greater Punjab. New Delhi: Manohar, 1991, p. 8)

But while carrying out archival research in Pakistan is an uphill task, there are certain advantages as well. Compared to India, the archival sources of Pakistan are largely untapped–both due to accessibility issues and because of the lack of scholarly expertise on the region. Scholars working on Pakistan, therefore, can end up frustrated that they cannot find relevant research material, but also overjoyed at hitting upon a cache of documents no one ever had thought existed!

In this short piece, I give basic information about three of the most important archives of Pakistan, which have excellent collections from Mughal, colonial and postcolonial period.

The Punjab Archives, Lahore

Lahore became a British possession upon Punjab’s annexation, in 1849. In doing so, the colonial government inherited the revenue and administrative records of their Mughal and Sikh predecessors. The Tomb of Anarkali, which served as a princely residence during the Sikh period before being converted into a Church with the arrival of the British, became the storage unit for these records. But it was during the first quarter of the twentieth century that attempts were made to organize this record in a professional manner. The services of Professor H. O. L. Graette of Government College Lahore were hired for the purpose. The archive, as it developed during the colonial period, served a dual function: it provided selective information about the past, accessible for both British and Indian historians for the writing of histories, and served as a repository of extensive collections on various administrative issues relating to India. This included revenue rolls, secret police abstracts, information about notable families, plans for irrigation and communication projects and so on.

A brief historical description of the Punjab Archives and their records has been given in Nazir Ahmad Chaudhry’s A Guide to the Punjab Secretariat Record Office, Lahore: “The records in the Punjab Record Office date back to the year 1809. The records of the Delhi Residency and Agency were also transferred to Lahore after the War of Independence in 1857. The North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) was a part of Punjab and all the records relating to the Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan Divisions and Tribal Agencies before the creation of a separate Province for this region were therefore preserved here. The Province of Sindh was annexed by Sir Charles Napier in 1843. All old papers relating to that Province until it became a part of the Bombay Presidency are also kept here. Besides we have all papers relating to the occupation of tribal area in the Baluchistan. The Lt.-Governors and Governors of the pre-partition Punjab were also used to be agents to the Governor-General who constructed Political relations with the Indian States in the Political Department. All records relating to Political relations of the Jammu and Kashmir State, Afghanistan and Persia especially commercial and certain Middle Eastern Principalities are also preserved here.”

This brief description reveals that the Punjab Archives are a goldmine of information about a wide range of subjects, such as the as Sikh Empire of Ranjit Singh, the Anglo-Afghan wars, the Revolt of 1857, and the British Crown’s relations with native states, Kashmir, Bahawalpur and Patiala, among many others.

Unfortunately, the bulk of this invaluable record is inaccessible. It comprises mainly of Persian records written in shakista script. Packed (or stuffed, in a more appropriate description) in gunnysacks, there is no catalogue available for these papers. Sita Ram Kohli’s meticulously compiled Catalogue of Khalsa Darbar Records, published during the colonial period, is no longer relevant as the original arrangement of these records is not intact anymore.

All records from 1849 to 1868 are press listed. From there onward, the record is classified into A, B and C categories. “A” files are printed files. In many cases, a duplicate copy was sent to London as well. It is, therefore, advisable for anyone working on colonial Punjab to look for “A” files in London rather than Lahore. It may not be cost effective, but will certainly be more time efficient. The real treasure of the Punjab Archives is their collection of “B files, which are handwritten notes. These are exclusive to the Punjab Archives, and no duplicate copies are to be found anywhere else.

Yet this record too is inaccessible. On a recent visit to the archive, I was reluctantly allowed by the staff to go and see the condition of the record myself. These are variously located in different rooms of the archive, but the one I was interested in were stored close to the high ceiling of an office accessible through a wooden staircase that was almost consumed by dust. The files are randomly placed. The almirah marked for sanitary department has files on jail and police. In one almirah marked with 1948, indicating that it had records from that particular year, I found a handwritten letter of Zinat Mehal (the wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar) to the British authorities! All the files I looked at were covered with a thick layer of dust. It was impossible to handle them without putting on a face-mask and hand gloves. It has to be said that the staff at the Punjab Archives cannot be blamed for any lack of cooperation. It is the current condition of the archive, the lack of suitable storage space, and the scarcity of funds that make this invaluable repository difficult to access and utilize.

The archive is located in the Punjab Civil Secretariat. All Pakistani citizens can enter the Civil Secretariat by simply showing their national identity card. Digital cameras are not allowed inside, but mobile phones with a camera can be used. Hardly anyone in the secretariat will be able to guide you towards the archive; you need to tell them that you are looking for Anarkali’s Tomb. It is difficult to miss the majestic dome of that tomb as soon as you get past the entry gate and its security check. Anarkali’s Tomb also has a small museum with an excellent collection of coins, paintings, arms and original treaty documents. On your first trip, you will have to go to the director of the Punjab Archives (Mr.Abbas Chughtai at present) who sits in a newly constructed block nearby. The staff at the tomb will help you locate his office. You will find hardly any researcher in the tomb; but you will certainly notice a number of people who come every day to pray at Anarkali’s cenotaph—which used to be in the middle of the tomb but has now been moved to the corner of the hall, next to the window, to make more room for the museum and the records.

The Punjab Archives, in collaboration with Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) and Information Technology University (ITU), have launched an ambitious digitization project. According to the information given on its website, about 2 million pages will be scanned in the first phase. This project will be similar to the one undertaken by the Balochistan Archive in Quetta. Hafeez Jamali, a career bureaucrat with a PhD in anthropology from Texas Austin, combined the scholarly expertise and the administrative authority to transform the Balochistan Archives into one of the best archives of South Asia. Those interested in the Balochistan Archives and its rich collections–much of which is being catalogued and digitized for online access–are strongly advised to visit its website:

Useful finding aids for the Punjab Archives (available on site):
Catalogue of Pictures, Documents and Other Objects of Historical Interest. Lahore: Superintendent, Government Printing, Punjab, 1971.
A Catalogue of Publications of the West Pakistan Government Record Office, Lahore. Lahore: Superintendent, Government Printing, West Pakistan, 1965.
• For information about access to the archive and the required forms and documents, visit the Punjab Archives’ newly designed website

The National Archives of Pakistan, Islamabad

At the time of partition, a special committee was set up to divide Delhi’s archival holdings between India and Pakistan. But the transfer of material, as agreed upon between the two dominions at that time, could not take place because of prevailing violence and hostility. At the time, the Punjab Archive in Lahore’s Civil Secretariat was the only repository of important colonial records and pre-colonial documents. There was no “national archive” as such. It was only in 1951 that a Directorate of Archives and Libraries came into being and started functioning in Karachi, on the recommendations of the Pakistan Historical Records and Archives Commission established in 1948 (Zafar Sheikh, Guide to the Sources of Asian History, p.2). This directorate was bifurcated into two different departments in 1973–namely, the National Archives of Pakistan and the National Library of Pakistan. The construction of the present building was completed in 1988, with extensions in 1995.

Despite the personal interest that Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi–a reputed professional historian with considerable political leverage–and others took in the archives, the exchange of historical material between India and Pakistan could not take place. Still worse, the collections in the different archival repositories of Pakistan remained in a dilapidated condition. It was only during the 1960s that some attention was given to the purchasing of machinery for archival preservation, the training of personnel and the allocation of funds to undertake the task of developing the archive. This urgency was due to the discovery that the records of the All India Muslim League were rotting in the cellar of the Special Branch after they had been confiscated from the League’s office, following the coup of 1958. Due to Qureshi’s efforts, it was possible to get permission to transfer this material from the Special Branch to the University of Karachi, where an archive for the freedom movement was established. They were brought to Karachi University in 1966 in an extremely bad shape, in 123 gunnysacks and 46 steel trunks. The inventory included 100,000 documents, including over 25,000 of the Pakistan Muslim League (M. H. Siddiqi, A Handbook of Archives and Material on Pakistan Freedom Struggle. Karachi: University of Karachi, 1988, p. xxiv).

Much of the material preserved by the Freedom Movement’s Archive has been transferred to the National Archives. It is in extremely good shape, properly catalogued and easily accessible. In addition, the National Archives has recently received the Shamsul Hasan Collection as well. Shamsul Hasan was an important member of All India Muslim League and was, under personal instruction from Muhammad Ali Jinnah, responsible for collecting and preserving Muslim League records. He did so at considerable peril, travelling to Delhi during the height of partition violence just to retrieve these important records. The National Archives also hold the Jinnah papers and the Fatima Jinnah papers. They have also identified, and made available, the office files personally seen by Jinnah as the Governor-General of Pakistan. All this material has open shelf access in the reading room, which makes it extremely convenient for anyone interested in the history of Muslim League, Jinnah and Pakistan movement.

The National Archives hold numerous other private collections. They have also microfilmed collections of various Urdu and English newspapers published during the colonial period. These newspapers –such as Zamindar and Paisa Akhbar–are now difficult to find in any library. Unfortunately, the quality of microfilming is rather poor.

Beyond its collection on the freedom movement, the National Archives are also the repository of departmental records. Every department or ministry in Pakistan is legally bound to send its records to the archive after a specific time period (if memory serves, the standard is thirty years). Yet, while the National Archives have records from various ministries (such as education, home etc) and claims to have detailed catalogued listings, it is difficult to convince them to share this material with scholars. Even the catalogue is not available in the reading room. One may have to wait for hours just to get the catalogue for one department/ministry.

The National Archives can be found in the N block of the Pakistan Secretariat, a location that is not very convenient. There is no nearby stop for public transport. Once you reach the archive however, getting access is not very difficult. It usually requires the standard procedure of filling out a form, attaching photographs, letter from a supervisor/university and a copy of passport and visa.

Useful finding aids for the National Archives (available on site):
Descriptive catalogue of Quaid-i-Azam Papers (5 volumes)
Accession List of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah Papers
Microfilm Holdings of the National Archives of Pakistan (3 volumes)
• For more details and complete list of publications, visit their website:

The National Documentation Centre, Islamabad

A milestone in the development of archives in Pakistan was achieved in 1974 when the National Documentation Centre (NDC) began functioning. The Centre stemmed from the vision of a bureaucrat, Hasan Zaheer, who was concerned about the unavailability in Pakistan of important historical material relating to the colonial period. To fill this gap he helped establish the NDC, which signed an exchange agreement with the India Office Library in 1975 to ensure necessary supply of microfilms of records, official publications, private collections, departmental papers, press materials, maps, etc. The government of Pakistan was to pay for the setting up of a camera unit in IOL to facilitate the supply of copied documents. Later, a more extensive exchange program was signed with the British library to broaden the scope of collaboration. Finally, the NDC has recently started declassifying material from the Cabinet and Prime Minister’s Office.

At present, the NDC is the most efficient archive in Pakistan. Because it directly falls under the Cabinet, it does not lack official funds and has high-resolution scanners, microfilm readers, and a proper storage facility for microfilms. Further, its staff is friendly. The only problem is to get into the premises, as it is located within the Cabinet Division. Given current security concerns, not even Pakistani citizens have free access to the area called the red zone, which houses buildings like the National Assembly, President House, Prime Minister House, the Supreme Court, the Pakistan Secretariat and the Cabinet Division. Even public transport is not available. Due to the recent opening of Metro Bus Service with an end stop near Pakistan Secretariat, some improvement in transportation might have taken place. But to get inside the cabinet division, it is compulsory to have an entry card. Alternatively, the visitor needs to contact the director (Mr. Qamar-uz-Zaman) of the NDC in advance, so that he can call up the security gate to register the name of the visitor.

The working conditions at the NDC are some of the best in Pakistan. The cabinet record for various departments (Home/Interior, Culture, Finance, etc.) has been properly catalogued with a brief description of each file. This material has been scanned using high-resolution scanners. One can simply take note of file numbers and request their digital copies, or simply consult the material in the reading room. The NDC also has microfilms of materials collected from various local archives – especially from the NWFP archive (present day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and its tribal cell. In addition, there are microfilms of various newspapers, assembly proceedings and material obtained from the British Library. In all these cases, both a manual and computer catalogue is available.

Although Cabinet Division records are considered sensitive, foreign scholars can access them provided they get “security clearance” from “competent authorities”. Accessing the premises of the Cabinet Division for the first time is the most difficult step in this entire process. Foreign scholars are advised to get in touch with local researchers to help with this. Once inside, the entire staff at the NDC (especially its director) is welcoming and helpful.

Useful finding aids for the National Documentation Centre (available on site):
Photocopy Holdings From IOR&R and Other Sources Abroad (Series 1.1). Lahore: Government of Pakistan, Cabinet Division, National Documentation Centre, 1988.
Microfilm Holdings From IOR&R and Other Sources Abroad (Series 1.1). Lahore: Government of Pakistan, Cabinet Division, National Documentation Centre, 1988.
Microfilm Holdings From OIOC and Other Sources Abroad (Series 2.1). Islamabad: Government of Pakistan, Cabinet Division, National Documentation Centre, 1987.
Microfilm Holdings Primary Records (MH Series 2.1). Lahore: Government of Pakistan, Cabinet Division, National Documentation Centre, 1988.
NDC Guide to Selections from NWFP Records. Islamabad: National Documentation Centre, Cabinet Block, 1993.

A brief note on visas

Observing the formal procedures to carry out archival research in Pakistan as a foreign scholar can be a Kafkaesque experience. To give you a flavour of this, I have attached a scanned copy of the rules for accessing Punjab Archive, which were printed in 1966. The new rules–or at least the form given on the archive’s website–do not mention these details, but the old rules could still be unofficially applied.

In my interactions with different archives, I have come to know that foreign scholars should have a research visa. Yet the websites of Pakistan’s foreign missions do not mention any “research visa” category. The director of an archive can also ask a foreign scholar to get clearance from the Ministry of Interior. This requires an authorization from the scholar’s university as well as confirmation from his/her embassy that he/she is a bona fide researcher. These documents then have to be submitted to a special desk in the Ministry of Interior in Islamabad. It can take months to process such an application, and delays can form a “polite” way to refuse access to a foreign scholar. In a majority of cases, however, I have seen the staff at the archives to be cooperative and accommodating. This is even more so if local contacts are used to gain access. Moreover, in a majority of cases, access is granted on conference or visit visas as well.

Ali Usman Qasmi
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

Image: Records of Lahore Residency, Punjab Archives, Lahore.

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