The India-Pakistan partition was bloody. Painful. Divisive. There was a mass exodus of people, crossing borders to find refuge.
The partition was also witness to a clinical division of relics and artefacts, ones found from the many sites belonging to the Indus Valley civilisation.
It was a few days ago that a Pakistani lawyer petitioned the Lahore high court to bring “back to Pakistan” one the most recognisable symbols of that time, the ‘Dancing Girl’, which presently resides in India.
This is not the first time this request has been made. It is also not the first time the two neighbours have fought over ‘common heritage’.
But can history and legacy be easily, rather clinically, divided?
Who Does the Dancing Girl Belong To?
A 10.5 centimetre high bronze statuette, sculpted using the cire perdu (lost wax method around 2500 BC) was excavated from Mohenjo-Daro, a site in present day Pakistan, in 1926.
National Museum in New Delhi likes to call the ‘Dancing Girl’ a “stylistically poised female figure performing a dance.” The figurine is also suggestive of two major breakthroughs: “that Indus artists knew metal blending and casting and that the well-developed Indus society had innovated dance and other performing arts.”
The artefact is representative of a common ancient legacy, one that had to be shared after partition. And it was done quite ‘objectively’ if records are to be believed.
After partition, the excavated antiquities and relics were sought to be equally divided between the two countries under an official agreement sometime in the 1950s, a noble attempt to divide history.
Of the two iconic artefacts, the dancing figure stayed India and the figurine of the Chief Priest was handed over to Pakistan.
“As it was an official treaty between two countries, there is no question of now demanding back a particular antiquity. The claim therefore has no standing at all,” says Vasant Shinde, archaeologist and Vice Chancellor of Deccan College, Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune.
Pakistan, however, differs on the stance.
In an interview with Dawn three days ago, Qasim Ali Qasim, director of the archaeology ministry, asserted that Pakistan is in a definite position to bring the celebrated artefact back.
“The Dancing Girl belongs to us. As this statuette was discovered at Mohenjodaro, the Sindh government is its owner. We have a realistic chance (of bringing it back), but for this we have to do our homework well and use our tools in an orderly manner. Thousands of our artefacts taken away by the British are now in London. Similarly, the Dancing Girl is among many artefacts which India should give us back.”
The Unending War Over Heritage
While Ali makes the point that the statue should be returned to Pakistan because it was excavated in a site that now belongs to the country, Shinde gives the counter-argument.
“When the artefacts were excavated there wasn’t any India-Pakistan. Therefore, technically, they cannot make that claim, because Pakistan as a country did not exist back then. 2/3rds of the sites of the civilisation are in present day India. Does that mean we claim that the entire civilisation belongs to us?”
He further argues that claims to ask Britain for artefacts are tenable because it was a separate country at the time of the partition. In the case of India and Pakistan, a clear agreement was made, which can’t be questioned now.
While two of the biggest sites, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, are now located in Pakistan, India is home to several other major sites like Rakhigarhi in Haryana and Dholavaria in Gujarat
“The Indus Valley civilisation is a common heritage of South Asia, with sites found in India, Pakistan, even Afghanistan. Tomorrow Afghanistan can also say we should get things back. We should not debate about this much till there is a government response,” he concludes.
The debate, however, has already begun.
Can Legacy be Divided?
A volunteer guide at the National Museum in Delhi tells us that there was a bracelet excavated from one of the sites which was broken into two pieces – one part was retained in India, the other went to Pakistan.
Laughing at the banality of it, she says, “it’s quite idiotic, of course.”
The division of the bracelet is also, of course, symbolic of what ensued after the partition: the sudden and absurd questions over sharing of waters and oceans, cultural motifs and relics, people and identities.
Allama Iqbal is considered a national poet in Pakistan. How does one, then, reconcile with his poem ‘Saare Jahan Se Achchha, Hindustan Hamaaraa’? Does the fact that he wrote the poem decades before the partition even happened, make him less worthy of appreciation? Bhagat Singh was born near Faisalabad, a place that has now come to become Pakistan. Is he then a Pakistani hero?
Can there be a way to move over the nomenclature, go past the symbolism and accept ‘common legacy’?
For writer Amitav Ghosh, as he writes in his novel Shadow Lines, borders are like shadow lines. Lying on each side of the border are two countries that belonged to the same subcontinent once, transcending all attempts of understanding them as tangible, physical divisions. It’s never really been about the material goods, the singers or the artefacts. It’s about a larger, symbolic idea of sharing cultural heritage.
How does one go about doing that?