In many ways, the Indus Valley Civilisation transformed urban living. Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, two of the most popularly recognised cities from this ancient civilisation that sprang up around the rivers of Punjab and the Indus, were the first cities in the world to have a sophisticated sewage system. According to the standards of the ancient world, they were multi-cultural societies where traders from Afghanistan, Persia (now Iran), Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria) and even Egypt brought their wares and goods. The mighty Indus became their highway, opening up the world to these cities.

But sewage is not the only way these cities were unique. In all of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation, of which Mohenjo-Daro is assumed to be the largest, there are no remains of a grand palace or a special temple. Rather, it is conjectured that these cities had community centres, including a community pool. This has led several archaeologists and historians to hypothesise that these societies were in a way much more “democratic” than some of the other ancient cities with a palace or a fort at the centre of the town. However, one has to pay heed to the use of the term democratic in this context for its contemporary connotation. It is highly likely that much like ancient Greece, this “democracy” was limited to a particular gender, class or caste of people. There is also a theory that instead of a king, these cities had a priest-king who, while not a monarch, was more equal in this democratic system than others.

Historians and archaeologists also point out that the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation were not governed by an overarching state but run as city-states with localised governments. The age of empires, at least in ancient India, had still not taken root.

Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa (in picture) are said to have been multi-cultural and functioned as city-states. (Credit: Haseeb Ur Rehman Malik / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)
Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa (in picture) are said to have been multi-cultural and functioned as city-states. (Credit: Haseeb Ur Rehman Malik / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)

Rival histories

There is, therefore, much to appreciate in these ancient cities. In India, it sometimes feels as if this appreciation has been amplified to an absurd level. In recent years, with the rise of the mythological and historical fiction genres, popular writers have crafted narratives about an ancient India that was “pure” from the “corrupting” influences of Muslims. This is imagined to be a time when India was technologically advanced with its indigenously developed helicopters, surgeries and even bombs. In these myths, the ingenuity of the simple innovations, such as a sewage system that truly transformed the world, is lost.

On this side of the border, the situation is reversed. India is projected to be an impure, uncivilised land that first saw light with the arrival of the Muslims. This narrative is created particularly through school textbooks, which rarely focus on the pre-Islamic history of the land. Even when there is mention of this pre-Islamic history, it is in a certain context, to highlight the ultimate ascendancy of the Muslim civilisation. Thus, on both sides of the border, it seems children are educated with mirror opposite images of each other.

The situation worsened in Pakistan in the 1970s under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In 1971, Pakistan had lost East Pakistan, which before Partition had served as the vanguard of the Pakistan Movement. It was being asserted that the Two-Nation Theory, Pakistan’s raison d’être, was dead and dusted. The new populist state emerging under Bhutto, instead of being reflective of changing circumstances, adhered to a reactionary approach. History as a subject – which included stories of Ram, Buddha, Ashoka and Kanishka along with Mahmoud Ghaznavi and the Mughals – was abolished and Pakistan Studies was introduced, with the sole purpose of instilling a Pakistani identity. The course seemed to shout out loud that the Two-Nation Theory was not dead but rather, it had lived on for thousands of years and would live on forever. All traces of pre-Islamic history were removed as Arab commander Muhammad Bin Qasim became the “first Pakistani”. As a new breed of leaders emerged after Bhutto, even those who defined themselves in complete opposition to him continued promoting the historical framework bequeathed to them.

Political tool

In this new order that emerged, the Indus Valley Civilisation acquired a unique significance, for this was not as “Hindu” as some of the other historical sites and buildings in the country. At the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation, Brahminism, popularly associated with Hinduism, had still not emerged. There is, in fact, a popular theory, rejected by several experts of the Indus Valley Civilisation, that its cities were destroyed by the Aryans of Central Asia, who eventually laid the foundation of Brahminism. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were, therefore, not “Hindu” cities.

Divorced from their Hindu influence, these cities became acceptable. Their archaeological digging continued while the museum at these sites remained open. In 1996, Aitzaz Ahsan, a Pakistan Peoples Party senator, wrote a book, The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan, in which the implication is that the Indus Valley Civilisation was always separate from the Gangetic Valley Civilisation that was to emerge in North India later – thus, in a way, Pakistan was always destined to be separate from India. The most recent appropriation of this history was in 2014 when Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto decided to use Mohenjo-Daro as the site of the Sindh Festival, a cultural event.

In 2014, Bilawal Bhutto used the historical Mohenjo-Daro site as the venue for the Sindh Festival. (Credit: AFP)
In 2014, Bilawal Bhutto used the historical Mohenjo-Daro site as the venue for the Sindh Festival. (Credit: AFP)

The message is clear: Pakistan’s pre-Islamic history is acceptable as long as it is separated from its Hindu influence. This message can also be clearly seen in the Taxila region, where dozens of ancient Buddhist sites are well maintained and open to visitors. What is, however, missing from the boards that contain the histories of these sites is how they were once “Hindu” sites before they were appropriated. The situation of Sikh historical sites has improved with several gurdwaras renovated in recent years. Compare this to the Katas Raj, an ancient Hindu temple in the heart of Chakwal in Punjab province, constructed around a sacred pond believed to have been created from a tear drop of Shiva. The sacred pond has dried up several times. In November, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo moto action to inquire about the drying pond.

With Imran Khan, sworn in as Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister, promising a “New Pakistan”, there is much expectation that the state will undergo a massive transformation. However, would a transformation be experienced in this context? Would the state under its new prime minister become secure enough to acknowledge its Hindu past and the Indus Valley Civilisation without using it as a political tool to separate from “Hindu” India?