ON Nov 2, 2020, a small ceremony was held at the consulate general of Pakistan in New York City. The occasion was an unusual one: a ceremonial handing over of 45 antiquities recovered by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The artefacts, most of which date from the Gandharan era, were smuggled out of Pakistan. The Department of Homeland Security — which, in past decades, has only concerned itself with catching terror suspects it alleged were Pakistani — had found them. The ceremony marked the official handover of the objects (valued at approximately $250,000) to Pakistan’s consul general in New York Ayesha Ali.
In her remarks, she noted that the repatriation was particularly important because Pakistan has recently been promoting cultural tourism and that the return of the objects would assist in attracting more cultural tourists to the country. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr, who happens to be a former diplomat and current prosecutor, responded by saying he would love to visit Pakistan once the pandemic is finally over.
To actually attract cultural tourists, Pakistan needs to develop the historical and archaeological facets of its history. This sort of development has not yet taken place. The repatriation of these recently looted antiquities would be a cause for celebration if it were known what would happen to these objects once they are returned to Pakistan.
Indeed, wondering what is going to happen to these artefacts from Gandhara raises the question of what Pakistan is doing with the antiquities that are already present in the country. After all, Pakistan has hardly any museum dedicated to its own history, let alone the history of the Buddhist era and the Gandhara civilisation that predated the advent of Islam.
This truth has a direct impact on the ability of Pakistanis to truly understand the role of the land they walk and breathe and live on.
One of the reasons for this paucity of museum heritage dedicated to national history is because no government has been able to solve the conflict between religious obscurantism and historical reconstruction. The narrow-minded antipathy towards everything and anything that existed in the region prior to the coming of Islam has meant the active destruction of objects that are thousands of years old and represent important bits of the past not just of Pakistani but also of human history.
This truth has a direct impact on both the possibility of cultural tourism in the country and the ability of Pakistanis to truly understand the role of the land they walk and breathe and live on in the larger panorama of human civilisation. In a tragic self-perpetuating cycle, the lack of historical consciousness means that there is no national plan to construct museums that provide venues for this history to be understood, and the inability to understand this history in turn means no one cares if such a venue is created. Instead, ancient objects are left to be bought and displayed in the homes of the ultra wealthy and well connected, or smuggled outside the country, or blown up by dynamite.
As vaccines for the novel coronavirus are developed, the world will inevitably experience a resurgence of cultural tourism. All those who have been cooped up at home will turn back to the world with even more zeal and enthusiasm.
If Pakistan is pursuing the goal of attracting cultural tourists with any seriousness, it must be able to offer a historical and cultural story that is cohesive and not stymied by extremism. The development of a museum, and of groundbreaking exhibits that are properly curated can become the basis of such a story. The world is not interested in the hang-ups of a country that is uncomfortable with its own history; it is even less interested in one that is afraid of or instrumental in erasing portions of that history.
Situated as it is on the Indus River, a fertile area rich with ancient heritage, Pakistan has all the potential to model itself as the cradle of the world’s oldest civilisations. It is tragic that the insecurities of obscurantists have made this story alien to its own citizens. The repatriation of antiquities, a movement that is gaining traction in recent years, is crucial if the deleterious effects of Western conquest are to be corrected. Pakistan’s distorted history is in no small way an effect of the divisions sown by the British that led to a fanaticism which threatens to erase everything that does not connect to its Islamic heritage. Erasing the destruction wrought by colonialism involves making the population secure enough in its identity that it does not feel threatened by the existence of a story that began and ended before the story of Pakistan’s creation and even before the arrival of Muslims on South Asian shores.
In the particular case of these antiquities that have been returned to Pakistan by the Americans, several questions remain. The government could announce where these antiquities will be kept, if Pakistani citizens will be able to see them and also whether they will be part of some larger project of cultural and historical reconstruction. As a matter of fact, it would be useful to know where the thousands of other objects from the Gandhara region are being stored and kept.
The consulate general in New York has done a commendable job in pursuing and then receiving the antiquities that have been returned. It is now the government at home that must reveal its plans, including those for attracting to Pakistan interested persons who want to learn more about the Gandhara civilisation. The rich history and archaeological wealth of Pakistan is an asset, but it is one that loses its value if it is not contextualised and presented as a narrative driven by historical truths.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2020