Former archaeology director Qasim Ali Qasim
Former archaeology director Qasim Ali Qasim

Debate on Pakistan’s claim to the Dancing Girl of Moenjodaro is in the headlines these days. The director general of the Pakistan National Museum of Arts, Jamal Shah, recently said the country would seek Unesco’s [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] help to get possession of the bronze statuette that has been in India’s possession for the past 70 years.

The two most famous artefacts belonging to Moenjodaro, regarded as one of the world’s most ancient planned cities, are the King Priest and the Dancing Girl.

The two relics had been taken by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the British archaeologist, to New Delhi in 1946 for display at an exhibition. It has stayed there since then.

The Dancing Girl.
The Dancing Girl.

In 1947, after the partition of the Sub-continent, Pakistan asked India to return the two relics along with several others, including the Fasting Buddha. Pakistani officials visited Delhi and succeeded in getting hold of the King Priest and the Fasting Buddha. But intriguingly enough, documents showing Pakistan’s efforts to bring back the Dancing Girl, which still adorns New Delhi’s National Museum, are missing from India’s archives.

Qasim Ali Qasim has recently retired from the archaeology ministry, where he worked as director and took care of Moenjodaro as its project director for more than two decades. Excerpts from an interview:

Q: Is Pakistan in a position to bring back its most celebrated artefact home, as some officials suggest?

A: Absolutely. The Dancing Girl belongs to us. As this statuette was discovered at Moenjodaro, the Sindh government is its owner. But such matters should be raised by those who really have a mandate. The Dancing Girl is actually an archaeological object. Just because it depicts dance, it does not belong to the ministry in charge of the arts and the performing arts. The fact of the matter is that after devolution, archaeology stands devolved to the provinces. This artefact was found at the Hargreaves Area of Moenjodaro in 1926 during an excavation supervised by Ernest Mackay. It is more than 4,500 years old and an integral part of the heritage that places Sindh among the world’s oldest civilisations.

Q: But how can we bring it back home? Is there any realistic chance?

A: We have a realistic chance, but for this we have to do our homework well and use our tools in an orderly manner. Thousands of our artefacts taken away by the British are now in London. Similarly, the Dancing Girl is among many artefacts which India should give us back. We should know that it is not Islamabad or any organisation run by the federal government that could start the campaign on its own. The Sindh government is the legal owner of the object. It should contact Unesco through Islamabad and invoke the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Since Pakistan and India have ratified it, Unesco could help us bring back the Girl in the way it has helped many other countries to get back their relics. India did not steal it and Mortimer Wheeler was a senior official when he took it away for exhibition. Unesco, our foreign ministry and experts on archaeology and law can plead our case in a persuasive manner. A lot of homework has to be done. We cannot rely on our diplomats as their performance remains below par in many areas. Anyway this matter belongs more to law and archaeology than diplomacy. We should realise that we cannot take the statuette back through a letter addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as many would have us believe.

Q: Tell us about previous attempts for the Girl’s return?

A: Soon after independence Pakistan had staked a claim to archaeological objects left in India. We managed to get back the Fasting Buddha and the King Priest, but not the Dancing Girl. Although the two countries reached an agreement that they could exchange such entities till 1953, we were unable to get it back. I have tried hard to know about the reasons behind that complacence on the part of our officialdom, but no record is there to help me. We were so deficient in qualified manpower to run our archaeology department after Partition that a librarian with no required qualification was made its director general. However, we discuss this issue with our Indian counterparts whenever they meet us at international forums. But such attempts have turned out to be non-starters. The Sindh government planned to launch a campaign two years ago, but nothing has been heard of it since then.

Q: Can we demand the return of the Dancing Girl when two countries are in a war mode?

A: Certainly it’s not possible these days. But we need months to prepare our case for presentation before Unesco. So we can launch our campaign when better days return. Then we should approach India over and over again. And when Unesco will be there to mediate, we should hope for the best. Hopefully, things will not get as messy as what happened when Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto requested Britain to return Koh-i-Noor. India and Afghanistan also filed a claim, giving the British government good reason to retain possession.

Q: Did our leaders leave the Dancing Girl deliberately in India for religious reasons?

A: I don’t think so. I have met many people who held senior positions in the department in those days and they were all open-minded. They too would laugh at the turn our society took in the days of Gen Ziaul Haq and later.

Published in Dawn October 11th, 2016