Freedom Issue 2017: Essay

The Past is a Divided Country

Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor of History at Ashoka University. Her most recent book is Monuments Matter: India’s Archaeological Heritage Since Independence
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Is it possible for the Mohenjodaro necklace and girdle to be reunited?

‘It was five thousand years ago.
In Mohenjo-daro the morning opened like a sleepy lotus flower at the touch of the sun. And the cocks crowed shrill praise to the Giver of light. Men and Women and children stirred on their charpoys.’

These are the opening lines of Mulk Raj Anand’s A Day in the Life of Maya of Mohenjo-daro. Published in 1968, it is a wonderful tale around the life of a little girl who lived and went to school in Mohenjodaro, whose father was a potter and trader, someone who took his wares to Harappa on the one hand and to Ur in Mesopotamia on the other. I have begun with this for at least three reasons. First, my own curiosity about the Indus or Harappan Civilisation began when this book was presented to me. Second, in ‘the talking and the laughter and the haggling’ captured in this story at Mohenjodaro’s stalls that sold ribbons, brooches and hairpins, the memory of the cities of my childhood lingers. Third, Mulk Raj Anand’s beguiling deployment of Mohenjodaro as the quintessential Bronze Age city reveals that notwithstanding the division of a united India into the nation states of India and Pakistan, in the imagination of a litterateur, the historical roots of India’s most ancient civilisation are firmly located in the vision of an undivided India. It is not that there were no wide roads and noisy market places for locating such a story in the Indian cities of this civilisation. But the author of this story chose Mohenjodaro as the city where young Maya lived and schooled rather than the Indus cities of Kalibangan and Lothal in India.

Yet, what is remembered in Mulk Raj Anand’s story is very different from what scholars felt had been ‘lost’ of the Indus Civilisation by India. In 1947, as India and Pakistan came to be created along religious lines, an extraordinary irony stared them in the face. While India became the inheritor of a rich Islamic heritage, the boundaries had partitioned the archaeological map in such a way that, as Mortimer Wheeler, India’s director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1947, put it, Pakistan was ‘found to include almost the whole of the known extent of the earliest civilization of India, that of the Indus valley’. Since the major sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro were ‘lost’ to India, finding forgotten Indus sites in India became a priority area of research.

How the play of politics and scholarship in connection with the discovery of Indus sites in India unfolded after 1947 is among the least known set of events relating to independence and Partition. Surprisingly, it is one in which it was not scholars who pressured politicians but men in high political places who pushed for research on the Indus Civilisation.

It is a story that reminds us of Amalananda Ghosh. An officer of the ASI who went on to become its director-general, it was Ghosh who in 1950 began a systematic exploration of Bikaner along the dried-up bed of the Ghaggar river. Within two months, he found as many as seventy sites, fifteen of which yielded the same types of antiquities found at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. This is well known. But how did Ghosh’s survey take place?

In truth, along with Ghosh’s contribution, there is another claim to be staked to the uncovering of the Indus Civilisation in Rajasthan. That claim belongs not to an archaeologist, but to a scholar administrator: KM Panikkar. The remarkable career of this Kerala-born man mainly in north India began when he became professor of history at Aligarh in 1919 and went on to include a stint as founder editor of the Hindustan Times. At the time of Partition, Panikkar was the Diwan of Bikaner and soon after, he became India’s ambassador to China.

It was in March 1948, less than a month before he took over as ambassador to China, that Panikkar wrote to Prime Minister Nehru about the necessity of a survey in the desert area of Bikaner and Jaisalmer. As he put it:

‘With the separation of the Pakistan Provinces, the main sites of what was known as the Indus Valley Civilization has gone to Pakistan. It is clearly of the utmost importance that archaeological work in connection with this early period of Indian history must be continued in India. A preliminary examination has shown that the centre of the early civilization was not Sind or the Indus valley but the desert area in Bikaner and Jaisalmer through which the ancient river Saraswati flowed into the Gulf of Kutch at one time.’

Panikkar mentioned that he had met the famous archaeological explorer, Aurel Stein, who himself had undertaken field work in Rajasthan. Stein had told Panikkar that if his work was carried forward, it would show that the Indus Civilisation originated in that tract.

Nehru was very enthusiastic about the proposal. Within a day of receiving Panikkar’s Indus note, a letter from his principal private secretary HVR Iyengar enclosed a copy of the note to the Ministry of Education. The letter strongly underlined that ‘the PM entirely agrees with the suggestion contained in the note and hopes that the Archaeological Department will undertake the explorations suggested, in Jaisalmer and Bikaner’.

Discovering Indus cities in India is an accomplishment that is intricately tied with the perception that India ‘lost’ the major sites of the Indus Civilisation to Pakistan in 1947

The proposal was sent to the ASI, which suggested that roughly Rs 10,000 be allocated for it. However, the Finance Ministry, as it so often still does, decided to play spoiler, raising questions about why a Central department should spend in a ‘native’ state. It required many missives to make the reluctant mandarins eventually loosen their purse strings. This would have been unlikely if this proposal of Panikkar had not been supported by Nehru himself.

So, discovering Indus cities in India—which is seen as one of the major achievements of Indian archaeology in the last seventy years—is an accomplishment that is intricately tied with the perception that India ‘lost’ the major sites of the Indus Civilisation to Pakistan in 1947.

The ASI, soon afterwards, made the search of Harappan sites within the national borders of India a national project –to be carried forward by Indian archaeologists. The Swedish archaeologist Hanna Rydh, known for her excavations at the historical site of Rangmahal in Bikaner, had initially wanted to dig a Harappan site in that area but was told that Indian archaeologists who had made discoveries there ought to be the first to conduct such an excavation. This is no longer the case. Some years ago, a part of the excavations at Rakhigarhi, the largest Harappan city in India, was financed by the California-based Global Heritage Fund. This began before the ASI’s own excavator had submitted his report on the excavations that he had earlier conducted there.

If independence and Partition prompted proactive measures which made the Indus Civilisation one of the major areas of research in Independent India, it had more ambiguous consequences for the antiquities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. On the face of it, this could have been a fairly straightforward exercise since the division could be done either by sharing the antiquities or on the basis of where the sites were located. As things turned out, however, the negotiations were prolonged and convoluted.

The Partition Council in October 1947 had resolved that museums would be divided on a territorial basis. A subcommittee made up of officials from India and Pakistan was set up to recommend the procedure for the division of museum collections. It decided that when the territory of a province was partitioned, the museum exhibits of the provincial museums would also be physically divided. So, the exhibits in the Lahore Museum which belonged to the United Province of Punjab before Partition, were to be split between East Punjab (in India) and West Punjab (in Pakistan). This was straightforward enough.

More complicated was the fate of objects that had been sent on temporary loan to places which, on August 15th,1947, happened to be on the wrong side of the border, far away from the original museums to which they belonged. In its wisdom, therefore, the Partition Council ruled that all objects that had been removed for temporary display after January 1st, 1947, were to be returned to the original museums.

This created a real problem with regard to the antiquities of Mohenjodaro. This is because on the day of Partition, as many as 12,000 objects from there were in Delhi. Since Mohenjodaro fell within the territory of Pakistan, the objects should have fallen in its share. However, India’s negotiators maintained that these rightfully belonged to India because they had not been removed after January 1st from the original museum (which was at Mohenjodaro) but came from Lahore. They also argued that these had not been removed for the purposes of temporary display, but because, as early as 1944, the director general of the ASI, Mortimer Wheeler, had wanted to concentrate all the best Indus objects in a Central National Museum.

It was this—the question of the intention of the future disposal of the objects in a Central National Museum—that was central to the dispute around how the antiquities were to be divided. Several formulas were suggested and rejected, and pressure tactics were used by both parties. In order to make things difficult, the West Punjab government postponed the actual handing over of East Punjab’s share of the Lahore Museum holdings until such time that India handed over to Pakistan its share from the central museums. And a final decision on the central museums remained pending till the Mohenjodaro matter was sorted out.

THAT INDIA CONSIDERED Indus objects to be an integral part of its own heritage was equally an issue. NP Chakravarti, who had taken over from Wheeler as the director general of the ASI, said it in so many words when he declared that ‘The Indus Valley Civilization as such does not merely represent the civilization of Pakistan but has a direct bearing on the civilization of the whole of India and Pakistan and certainly the 300 million in India have quite a large interest in that civilization, particularly as India has no longer any jurisdiction over these sites’. By then, as I pointed out, finding forgotten Indus cities in India was being seen as a priority area of research.

Eventually, after many rounds of negotiations and a massive exchange of correspondence, the Museum Committee in 1949 agreed to a division down the middle. It was a solution that was arrived at on the basis of goodwill and compromise. There was a 50-50 division of the collections of Mohenjodaro and Harappa which is why the National Museum in New Delhi displays such a splendid collection from there. A visit to the Harappan gallery of the Museum, in fact, dramatically underlines that India had not ‘lost’ the Indus heritage from those ancient cities. In fact, it had retained a superb and rich collection of antiquities from there.

The suggestion to divide the Indus collections into two equal parts came from Mortimer Wheeler who, after he had completed his term as director general of the ASI in India, had become archaeological advisor to the government of Pakistan. Wheeler’s letter containing this suggestion also proposed a way of dealing with unique articles that could be divided as, for instance, jewellery made up of beads and spacers. Here, too, he suggested absolute equity.

That this suggestion was accepted (with the division being eventually done by Wheeler himself), looking back some seventy years later, was tragic. A magnificent Mohenjodaro necklace made of jade beads, gold discs and semi-precious stones and a carnelian and copper girdle of Mohenjodaro, were divided down the middle because a formula was foisted unthinkingly on them, that too by an archaeologist who above all should have known that he was severely compromising their integrity.

Oddly enough, nowhere in the correspondence relating to this is there a sense that the character of these objects was being permanently destroyed. There is, instead, an overriding anxiety about carefully adhering to the arithmetic of division.

Situations like this surely raise a larger issue about the desirability of equity as the overriding principle on which museum collections and antiquities are to be divided. Here, archaeologists and negotiators in their anxiety to adhere to what was politic failed to explore more ethical options. Now, some seventy years later, is there a way in which this can be undone?

Surely, India and Pakistan can take heed from the experience of the two pieces of sculpture one of which was in the National Gallery of Washington while the other was at the Louvre in Paris. When the two pieces were revealed to be parts of a single sculpture—St Christopher Carrying the Christ Child with the Globe of the World—the National Gallery gave its sculpture on permanent loan to the Louvre. Since 1973, the sculpture has been there on the principle that the aesthetic value of the reunited sculpture is greater than the value of dismembered parts. The Louvre, in turn, has, on occasion, loaned it to the National Gallery for display.

With some good faith on both sides, is it possible for the Mohenjodaro necklace and girdle to be reunited? If reunited, can we think of them being displayed for six months every year in both countries? While this would not change the principles on which the pasts of India and Pakistan were partitioned, it will certainly restore some integrity to those objects. Such an arrangement will also underline that these form part of the common heritage of both nation states.