In 1996, Aitzaz Ahsan, the celebrated lawyer and politician, who was also served as the interior minister of Pakistan under Benazir Bhutto from 1993 to 1996, and is currently a member of the Senate, wrote a fascinating book called Indus Saga and the making of Pakistan that provided a new framework to the Pakistani identity.

Pakistani identity has always had a complicated relationship with its past, a status that continues to endure. Premised upon its opposition to Hindu India, the Pakistani historiography has had a tough time dealing with the Indus valley civilisation, the cradle of the Indian civilisation.

The Aryan invasion theory was convenient as it implied that the present day Indian culture is a product of the invading Aryan forces, who destroyed the cities of Indus valley civilisation and gave birth to a new civilisation which came to be known as the Ganges Civilisation.

Whereas earlier only the Muslims were seen as invaders, and hence outsiders, this theory also described the Aryans as colonisers damaging their claim that they are the original inhabitants of this land. However recent studies have raised serious doubts about the Aryan Invasion theory and seem to indicate that the Ganges Civilisation was in many ways a continuation of the Indus valley civilisation.

The arbitrariness of the Radcliffe award placed major Indus valley sites such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in Pakistan. Paradoxically, thus, Pakistan found itself in control of archaeological ruins that many believe to be the origin of the Indian civilisation, a civilisation that the country wanted to dissociate from to carve its own separate Islamic history.

Even today if one visits these sites one would find that local guides interpret the history of these cities in an Islamic framework describing their downfall as evidence of the wrath of God, and the tyranny and cruelty of their rulers, an attribute which is associated with most of the pre-Islamic rulers.

Religious parties such as Jamaat-i-Islami have in the past claimed that these archaeological sites have nothing to do with the Pakistani civilisation, terming them as belonging to the zamana-e-jahalliya, a time period before the advent of Islam when human civilisation was lost in the ignoble state of ignorance and darkness. It has been suggested that instead of unearthing the secrets of these cities, we should rather fill them up again as humanity has nothing to learn from that ignoble time period.

It is in this context that Aitzaz Ahsan’s book provides a new modus operandi of interpreting the Indus Valley civilisation. Building upon the now untenable assumption that Indus valley civilisation and Ganges civilisation were separate, Ahsan linked back the Pakistani identity to the Indus Valley civilisation, saying that the identity of the people occupying this land was always different from those living in the plains of Ganges.

While the book might contain historical inaccuracies, it is remarkable for its attempt to inherit the Indus Valley civilisation as part of Pakistan’s legacy. Rooted in this endeavour is the perennial quest to differentiate the Pakistani identity from its Indian counterpart.

Historians and archaeologists much more knowledgeable than me will be able to demonstrate the continuation of tradition between Indus Valley civilisation and Ganges civilisation, to the contemporary Indian civilisation, a term that I use broadly to include Pakistani civilisation as well, much to chagrin of identity purists.

I have tried tracing a few of these traditions that are alive and thriving in the country in my book In Search of Shiva, pointing to the links between fertility cults developed around Sufi shrines and fertility cults back in the Indus Valley civilisation. Tree worship and offerings of mud toys to a shrine were practiced in the Indus valley and are still practiced both in India and Pakistan – in a new garb. It is however recent history of the subcontinent that becomes much more tenuous in the context of India and Pakistan.

Indian – or Pakistani?

Having defined itself in opposition to India what is Pakistan supposed to do with its recent history which stands undifferentiated from its hated twin?

For example, Allama Iqbal is regarded as a national poet and every year his death anniversary is commemorated in the country as a national holiday. Iqbal’s vision is proclaimed as the destiny for Pakistan by political leaders who for the most part are illiterate of his philosophical works. However what is one to do with his poem Saare Jahan Se Achchha, Hindustan Hamaaraa? Do we as Pakistanis embrace this poem of Iqbal’s as we celebrate his other poetic master pieces? Of course, the argument is that there was no Pakistan at that time and neither was there a vision of a separate country that Iqbal is believed to have dreamed of and Jinnah achieved.

This poem was written in 1904 when Iqbal was only 27 years old. Are we today in Pakistan expected to shed away this name of Hindustan which was the country of Iqbal when he lived and died, because the hated twin continues using that nomenclature, thus appropriating all the symbolism associated with it.

Another thing that baffles me is that Iqbal died in 1938, years before Pakistan came into existence. He was an Indian when he died. But did he become Pakistani after 1947, having been one of the most prominent proponents of the movement? Or is he to be regarded as the "hated Indian", we no longer associate with?

The story of Bhagat Singh is also similar. He was born near Faisalabad and died in Lahore. How are we to recognise him now that the land of his birth has become Pakistan? Is he an Indian hero or Pakistani? Or is he a hero for both India and Pakistan?

But, then, wouldn’t sharing a common hero with India dilute the Pakistani identity nestled in its separation from the other? What then is to become of Guru Nanak, the first Guru of Sikhism who spent his entire life preaching moderation and the removal of divisions between Hindus and Muslims? He lived and died in the land that later became Pakistan. Was he then a great Pakistani or a great Indian sage?

This perhaps has been one of the most ignored aspects of creation of new states in South Asia. As India kept its name it became the natural successor to “Indian heritage”, removing from this circle other smaller countries that too drive its history from this common heritage.

Buddha is yet another example who has now been appropriated as a great Indian sage, even though he was born in a city that now falls in Nepal. Doesn’t that make him a great Nepali sage? Increasingly as national fervour takes grip over hostile countries, it has become difficult to ask such questions without the fear of being labeled as anti-national.

Even the term Indian heritage cannot be used without qualification for Pakistani heritage, given the present day animosity.

In this environment, what then are we to do about the Indian heritage of Pakistan?

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities