The two-week-long Sindh festival, now underway in Pakistan, is significant for multiple reasons. For one, it is about the unfolding leadership transition in the Pakistan People’s Party from Asif Ali Zardari, who led it after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
Zardari now appears to be stepping back to let his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, take on a larger role. During his five-year tenure as the president and mentor of the PPP-led government in Islamabad, Zardari consciously sought to promote the unique cultural heritage of Sindh, the stronghold of the PPP. Bilawal has now taken it to a higher level by assuming personal leadership in organising a lavish celebration of Sindh’s cultural heritage at the site of Mohenjodaro, one of the most valuable sites of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation. Some experts have warned that these celebrations might damage the ruins. The organisers, however, have contradicted these claims and asserted that they have taken every care to avoid any damage. That a leading political party is celebrating vital civilisational heritage is an important development not just for Pakistan but the entire subcontinent.
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The Sindh festival comes amidst the rise of sectarianism and extremism that have vandalised the subcontinent’s priceless heritage, both pre-Islamic as well as Islamic. The Afghan Taliban, it might be recalled, destroyed the spectacular Buddha statues in Bamiyan. In the last few years, militant groups have attacked many historic Islamic shrines in Pakistan, including the Data Darbar in Lahore. The traditions of Sufi and Barelvi Islam that have had such influence in the subcontinent are under massive assault in Pakistan. If the collective response in Pakistan has been muted so far, Bilawal’s effort could have the potential to change the terms of the discourse.
Leading Islamic countries — Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Indonesia to name a few — are proud of their pre-Islamic roots and have gone to great lengths to preserve and showcase it to their own people and the world. A similar effort in Pakistan is welcome. The PPP is not the only one in Pakistan to have shown interest in pre-Islamic heritage. During the Musharraf years, Islamabad had decided to restore the Katas Raj temples in West Punjab dating back to the Mahabharata era. BJP leader L.K. Advani was shown the sites and briefed of plans by the Musharraf government during his visit to Pakistan in 2005. It is not clear if the import of these fleeting signals from Pakistan is appreciated in Delhi. India needs to think boldly about cooperation with Pakistan in excavating, protecting and promoting the shared cultural heritage of the Indus Valley civilisation. Unlike Pakistan’s national narrative, India’s has always tipped its cap to the Indus Valley Civilisation. But Delhi is yet to invest significant resources in an intensive exploration of the Indus Valley sites and the development of those already known. With the new interest in Sindh on the Indus Valley Civilisation, it is possible to imagine extensive archaeological cooperation between Pakistan and India. In Pakistan, the Indus Valley sites are not limited to Sindh, but stretch all the way up the Indus into the Punjab and beyond. In India, these sites range from Gujarat to Haryana and Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh.
Speaking at the inauguration of the Sindh Festival, Bilawal called for more funds for the protection of the Indus Valley Civilisation and other cultural treasures of Sindh. International organisations like Unesco have always shown interest. But the scale of the effort involved can’t be addressed by the generosity of international organisations. What the subcontinent needs is a strong participation of the private sector, especially the tourism industry, that can help develop and secure the Indus Valley sites in collaboration with the archaeological departments of state and national governments. In India, there has been some effort to develop pilgrimage tourism around Buddhist sites in eastern India. China has been eager to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, in Nepal into an attractive destination with world-class facilities. It is not impossible to imagine an ambitious project to develop an Indus Valley circuit that will generate more than enough resources to find, secure and showcase this extraordinary legacy of the subcontinent.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’