Yes, the SCO Goofed Up – But Whose Red Fort Is It Really?
Row over Red Fort being shown as part of Pakistan reveals narrow-minded nationalism, writes Shuma Raha.
Last week, India and Pakistan became members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), taking their seat at the table along with six other countries – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The bloc, which is increasingly being seen as Asia’s answer to NATO, is a potentially powerful one. And India and Pakistan’s entry into it is significant in that sense.
Whose Red Fort Is It?
On Wednesday, there was an interesting sideshow to the reception to mark the entry of SCO’s two new members from the sub-continent. A tableau on Pakistan showed the Red Fort, with the Indian tricolour fluttering atop it, as Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. Both Indian and Pakistani officials pointed out the blooper, and needless to say, the organisers were quite embarrassed.
However, parts of India’s reflexively anti-Pakistan media jumped the gun and immediately blamed our neighbour for the mix-up, accusing them of deliberate falsification of facts. The Times of India headline went thus: “Pak boasts about its history, but with a photo of Red Fort”.
The question is, are nation states justified in treating their cultural property as entirely and absolutely their own? To the extent that the mere thought of someone else laying claim to it – by mistake or intentionally – gives rise to a burst of nationalist outcry?
Culture Transcends Nation State
To be sure, culture has been integral to the formation of the modern nation state. In 19th century Europe and 20th century post-colonial Asia or Africa, culture, as manifested in language, religion, literature, arts and architecture, provided the glue for people to come together and claim independent statehood.
But culture also transcends individual nation states — because it springs from a time that predates them. Cultural heritage is a distillation of diverse people and influences mingling throughout history. It has locational roots, yes, but it is also part of the wider cultural heritage of the world, as much a proud possession of the territory to which it belongs as it is a treasure belonging to the entire world community.
Cultural Heritage is an Amalgamation
Take the Harappan Civilisation, for instance. India has a fair number of archaeological sites belonging to that era, but a majority of the sites, including the stunning Mohenjo Daro, lie in Pakistan. Some are in Afghanistan, some as far away as in Turkmenistan. Can India or Pakistan then legitimately lay claim to the Indus Valley Civilisation as one that belongs solely to itself?
Pilgrim hotspots are another case in point. The Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, built around 1600 AD in the Punjab province of modern-day Pakistan (an Islamic state), draws thousands of Sikhs every year; Buddhists from all over the world come to India to pay homage at Bodh Gaya and Sarnath; Christians flock to Lourde in France or undertake the arduous trek (560 miles long) to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, dedicated to St James, in Spain; the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is a holy place for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, testament to the region’s rich – and tumultuous – religious and cultural history.
Similarly, architectural marvels around the world are a synthesis of a raft of cultural and religious influences that may not necessarily reflect the respective territories’ current dominant culture. The breathtaking 12th century Hindu temple complex in primarily Buddhist modern-day Cambodia resonates as much with Hindus as with any other visitor. Spain has countless monuments that are remnants from its Moorish Islamic past.
Istanbul’s imposing Hagia Sophia, a 6th century cathedral built by Byzantine emperor Justinian, was converted into a mosque when the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453 AD. Even today, standing under the vaulted dome of this magnificent structure, you can witness the amalgamation of Christian and Islamic art, the confluence of religious symbols and iconography that so many people around the world venerate and identify with.
That is why cultural heritage can never be the sole preserve of the country where it currently finds itself. (Even though they do bring in bushels of tourist dollars for that country.) That is why the UNESCO names "World Heritage Sites" – and not India Heritage Sites or Pakistan Heritage sites. That is why the whole world wept when the Taliban dynamited the monolithic Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.
And that is why we watched in horror when ISIS went on a savage spree of cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria, incinerating hundreds of thousands of books in Mosul’s central library in 2015 or blowing up the exquisite temple of Bel and other monuments in the ancient city of Palmyra the same year.
The UNESCO Declaration on Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage, which echoes the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, illustrates this point. It states: “… damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world”.
A country has every right to bask in its cultural heritage – flaunt the Taj Mahal or the mysterious rocks of Stonehenge. But it must always do so while being mindful of the fact that heritage is bigger than narrow notions of nationalism.
Be it the Red Fort or the Khajuraho temples, they belong as much to Indians as they do to the rest of the world.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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