Identifying with the Indus

Sun 08 Jan 2017

The issue of water-sharing between India and Pakistan is an important aspect in the ties between the two countries. Yet, until a few months ago, when it was reported that Pakistan decided to approach the Permanent Court of Arbitration to protest against two hydropower projects being built by India in Jammu and Kashmir, the waters of the common rivers that flow from India to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan were mostly neglected. It is not unusual to overlook the influence of the waters on the formation and identity of Pakistan as since its inception, the country has been shaped mostly by its emphasis on religious and national identities and military alliances. Nearly two decades ago, Aitzaz Ahsan broke the silence on the importance of the rivers to the nation’s identity, attempting to establish the separateness of the Indus from India.

Of all the waterbodies, the Indus river remains unique to both Pakistan and India. Ahsan, a prominent lawyer and political activist of Pakistan, brings out the symbolic and political significance of the river through The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan . The book, which was written at the height of the democratic debate in the 1990s, tries to provide a narrative of Pakistan different from the ultra-Islamic history of the country. The writer mostly relies on cultural phenomena, delving, for instance, into the history of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, to spin the tale of modern Pakistan.

However, he takes liberty with history, laying little emphasis on some historic developments such as the ancient and modern thought that flourished in the land. Ahsan tries to build through a historical narrative the story of the modern Pakistani who will be equipped to counter both religious fanaticism and militarism. In that quest, the Pakistani turns out to be a modern citizen of a riverine civilisation.

Despite being a courageous attempt at an alternative narration, the book falls short on a few counts, mainly the author’s desire to fit history into his discourse without fully grasping it. Yet it remains relevant, for it looks within and not outside to understand the land that is nursed by the Indus but is not at peace with the history of the river.


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