Seventy years ago, the departing British partitioned colonial India into the independent nations of India and Pakistan. India, with its capital in Delhi, was conceived as an ostensibly secular and pluralist state. Pakistan, with one half to the west of India and the other to the east (what is now Bangladesh), was devised as a homeland for the Indian subcontinent’s Muslims. Hindus and Sikhs fled to India while many Muslims moved in the opposite direction. Fifteen million people were uprooted. Even now, in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, the partition of India remains the largest displacement of human beings in world history. It is remembered in South Asia for the atrocious slaughter that accompanied the mismanaged mass migrations, with upward of 2 million people killed.
It wasn’t just land and people that were divided. The assets of the British Indian state had to be allocated to the new countries. This was an often thorny and convoluted process, with bureaucrats wrestling over everything from official government records to the collections of libraries to desks, chairs, and stationery. It produced odd diplomatic sagas, like the farcical episode when an elephant that was the property of the Forest Department was assigned to Pakistan even though its driver had declared for India, leaving the creature marooned for 10 months on the wrong side of the new border.
Fiercer battles were waged over which country had a right to the history of the subcontinent. One particularly contentious negotiation revolved around the artifacts of the Indus Valley Civilization.
It’s not surprising that the two fledgling nations would covet this heritage. When archaeologists uncovered the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization in the 1920s, those revelations lengthened the conventional understanding of Indian history by millennia. Indians could point to sophisticated cities and centers of cultural production that matched Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia in their antiquity. Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the most prominent leaders in the independence movement and eventually the first prime minister of India, visited the Indus Valley city of Mohenjodaro in the 1930s and was amazed by what he saw. “Astonishing thought,” he wrote, “that any culture or civilization should have this continuity for five or six thousand years or more; and not in a static, unchanging sense, for India was changing and progressing all the time.”
All nation-states—but especially new ones—use history to burnish their claims of grandeur and legitimacy in the present. After partition in 1947, both India and Pakistan laid claim to the physical and symbolic inheritance of the Indus Valley Civilization. In 1950, while working as a consultant with the Pakistani government, the British archaeologist Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler published an archaeological survey titled Five Thousand Years of Pakistan that sought to endow millennia of history upon a three-year-old nation. A modern nation-state drawn up by British civil servants in the middle of the 20th century can hardly be a prism for understanding South Asia’s deep past. And yet that implausible notion is still invoked by Pakistani nationalists today.