Is the Taj Mahal Pakistani?

Updated March 01, 2014

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OF COURSE, this is an absurd question. How on earth could the Taj Mahal ‘be Pakistani’ and claim a nationality which was only imagined 400 years after the mausoleum was constructed, and one hopes that no one in their senses would ask such a preposterous question.

Yet, in a class of undergraduate students at one of Pakistan’s best universities, precisely this question was animatedly debated during a session on Pakistan’s history, with some students stating that the Taj was part of Pakistan’s history, and others implying that it was ‘Pakistani’.

These students had all taken a course in Pakistan Studies prior to starting their undergraduate degree. Clearly, the highly controversial and contested nature of how history is constructed in Pakistan, given the numerous possibilities of framing a history of Pakistan, allows for multiple competing narratives, including a claim to the Taj ‘being’ Pakistani.

Pakistani history has been a contentious topic where different sets of narratives give differing accounts of what Pakistani history is and, hence, how one imagines Pakistan.

Given the eventual partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan, some historians have claimed that Pakistan was ‘created’ in 712 AD when an Arab invader came to what is now part of Pakistan.

This is incorrectly called the beginning of Muslim contact with what is now referred to as South Asia, yet it supports one of the many official narratives of when Muslim ‘consciousness’ and identity were created in this region.

Other competing narratives look to the Delhi Sultanate, or the Mughal Empire, or events in the 19th century and 1857, crystallising into a separate Muslim identity which, inevitably led to Muslim ‘separatism’ and to the creation of Pakistan.

The question, when was Pakistan ‘created’, is one which simply works around a Muslims-are-different-from-Hindus discourse, culminating in a separate homeland.

Hence, if the history of Pakistan is the history of Muslims in India, and just as Mohammad bin Qasim can become part of a certain legacy and heritage and can be caricatured as the ‘first Pakistani’, so too can the Taj as ‘being’ Pakistani. Pakistani history and a history of Pakistan’s people and their land, become two conflicting narratives.

As a consequence, ‘Pakistani’ history, ignores the history of the people who live in what was Pakistan (West and East) and what is left of it. Mohenjodaro, Harappa, and the history of the people of Pakistan is dominated by a north Indian (largely Hindustani) Muslim history, and that too only of kings and their courts.

The Pakistan ‘freedom movement’ of course — and not the movement for independence from British colonialism for all Indian peoples — shapes this discourse more teleologically, once politics dominate undivided India in the 20th century.

The little writing that has taken place about Pakistani history is largely hagiographic and hyperbolic, where the project Pakistan with Muslims as a driving force is required to explain processes which led to the culmination of the events leading to August 1947.

The actors, or at least the heroes are almost always Muslim, and students seldom hear about the role Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Patel and Bose played in bringing about freedom for the 300 million Indians under colonialism.

One only hears of a handful of Muslim men who brought about freedom for Muslims from a Hindu majority. The British imperialists are inconsequential in this narrative, and are only responsible for making a mess of partition by not giving Pakistan many of the districts which are claimed on the basis of them being Muslim-majority areas.

In the most ingenious and creative recent book to be published on Pakistan’s emergence as a political idea, historian Faisal Devji in his Muslim Zion raises some fascinating and sophisticated arguments which complicate any simplistic notion of what passes as Pakistani history.

His book is a highly nuanced and multilayered understanding of the ideas which led to the justification and creation of Pakistan, and while many of Devji’s conceptualisations need to be contested, for our purposes his statement that Pakistan’s history lies outside its borders, gives rise to some of the problems of imagining a history of Pakistan described here, and allows some to claim the Taj Mahal as ‘Pakistani’.

Moreover, if this claim that Pakistan’s history lies ‘outside its borders’ is valid, and indeed in many critical ways this is certainly the case, it also implies, that the country which came into being called Pakistan, in this hegemonic notion of history, really has no history of its own. The so-called ‘freedom movement’ was fought in a foreign land, the land of the Taj Mahal, not the land of the people who inherited a country called Pakistan where their ancestors had lived for millennia.

Ascribing a status of nationality to brick and mortar — even the Taj Mahal — poses numerous challenging epistemological questions, yet the question of what Pakistani history is, remains unaddressed in a land still searching for understanding. Depending on how one answers this question, one is led through many ideological labyrinths and some geographical ones as well.

If Pakistan is imagined ideologically, then all one has to do is determine when Pakistan came in to being, clearly no easy task, and limiting oneself to a history of the Muslims in India, or a history of Islam in South Asia. If Pakistan is imagined geographically, the connotations of how the history of the peoples and lands of Pakistan is taught and understood, varies hugely.

The writer is a political economist.