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Joining a civilisation

Some 60 years after those turbulent years, is it possible for our nations to be self-reflexive? Can these beads and terminals be brought together again? Nayanjot Lahiri asks.

india Updated: Jan 04, 2008 19:52 IST

New Delhi’s National Museum houses an outstanding Harappan gallery, one that unfailingly attracts visitors. Not many, though, stop to wonder about the objects from Mohenjodaro and Harappa displayed there. If India — as we have been told — had lost her Indus heritage because most Indus sites in 1947 fell within the national boundaries of Pakistan, how has she retained such a superb collection of Indus artefacts from those ‘lost’ cities?

An answer to this can be excavated out of the treasure trove of files in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). This is because the ASI was centrally involved in tortuous negotiations through which undivided India’s past was partitioned.

Why, though, were these negotiations so twisted and prolonged? The Partition Council itself, in October 1947, had resolved that museums would be divided on a territorial basis. This Council had been set up to deal with the administrative consequences of Partition, and decided on a wide range of issues, from revenue and domicile to records and museums. In addition to its decision concerning a territorial division of museums, the council also stipulated that when the territory of a province was partitioned, the museum exhibits of the provincial museums would also be physically divided. On this basis, the exhibits in the Lahore Museum which belonged to the united Province of Punjab before Partition, were to be split between East Punjab and West Punjab. This was straightforward enough.

More complicated though was the fate of objects that had been sent on temporary loan to places which, on August 15, 1947, happened to be on the wrong side of the border, far away from the original museums to which they belonged. On that date, we know that there were objects from Harappa, Taxila and Mohenjodaro in India, and in London as well. These were on loan to the Royal Academy of Arts. In its wisdom, therefore, the Partition Council ruled that all objects that had been removed for temporary display after January 1, 1947, were to be returned to the original museums.

For Pakistan, this did not pose any problems in relation to most museums, since nothing had been removed from their precincts after January 1. At Harappa, some antiquities had been taken out of its site museum in July and September 1946, and these they were willing to treat as belonging to India. The real problem, though, revolved around the antiquities of Mohenjodaro.

This is because, on the day of Partition, as many as 12,000 objects from Mohenjodaro were in Delhi. Since Mohenjodaro fell within the territory of Pakistan, the objects should have fallen in their share. However, India’s negotiators maintained that these rightfully belonged to India because they had not been removed for after January 1, 1947 from the original museum (which was at Mohenjodaro) but came from Lahore. Similarly, they had not been removed for the purposes of temporary display but because, as early as 1944, the Director General of Archaeology, Mortimer Wheeler, had wanted to concentrate all the best Indus objects in a Central National Museum. It was in the absence of such a museum that it had been decided that Lahore Museum would act as a substitute, pending the establishment of a Central National Museum. Wheeler had continued to reiterate that “all objects from Mohenjodaro now on exhibition at Lahore are deposited by the Central Government on loan, and the Punjab Government has no lien upon them.”

It was this — the question of intention about the future disposal of the objects in a Central National Museum — that was central to the contentious dispute around how the antiquities were to be divided. Several formulae were suggested and rejected, 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 till such time that India had handed over to Pakistan their 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. N.P. Chakravarti, who succeeded Wheeler as Director General in 1948, said it in so many words when he declared that “The Indus Valley Civilisation as such does not merely represent the civilisation of Pakistan but has a direct bearing on the civilisation of the whole of India and Pakistan and certainly the 300 million in India have quite a large interest in that civilisation, particularly as India has no longer any jurisdiction over these sites.” As it turned out, Chakravarti was prescient — over the past five decades hundreds of Indus civilisation sites have been discovered and several excavated across the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. When Chakravarti wrote though, such sites could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Gujarat has more than a hundred Harappan sites today; around 1947, Rangpur was perhaps the only site which had been reported and studied.

In any case, eventually, after many rounds of negotiations and a massive exchange of correspondence, the Indian representatives on the Museum Committee in 1949 agreed to a division down the middle. As they put it, in order to “provide a firm foundation for future good-will and collaboration”, they were willing to oversee the division of antiquities from Mohenjodaro, and two other Indus civilisation sites (Jhukar and Chanhudaro), between India and Pakistan on a 50:50 basis. This physical division, as it came to be implemented, covered all kinds of Indus objects ranging from seals and statuary to ordinary artefacts of stone, clay and metal. Even potsherds were equally apportioned, although Pakistan waived all claims to any share in the skeletal material from Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Pakistan was also expected to give India as comprehensive a duplicate collection as possible from Taxila.

Tragic, however, was the fate of four articles whose form was fragmented because this formula was foisted unthinkingly on everything that could be divided in this way. These were two gold necklaces from Taxila, a carnelian and copper girdle of Mohenjodaro, and a magnificent Mohenjodaro necklace made up of jade beads, gold discs and semi-precious stones. They were broken up and divided down the middle. So, for example, India and Pakistan agreed to break up the Mohenjodaro girdle, each receiving one terminal, 42 elongated carnelian beads, 72 small globular beads and 6 spacers. Oddly enough, nowhere in the correspondence is there a sense that the character of these objects was being destroyed forever. There is only anxiety about carefully adhering to the arithmetic of division.

Some 60 years after those turbulent years, is it possible for our nations to be self-reflexive? Can these beads and terminals be brought together again? Can we create a unified Indus exposition and exhibition which will travel to and give the younger generation of both nations a fuller sense of its shared heritage? While this cannot change the principles on which our pasts were partitioned, it will certainly restore — if only temporarily — some integrity to those sundered objects and collections.

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology at the University of Delhi