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The murder of history: How India and Pakistan are erasing their shared past

By Ayushi Malik, Fateh Guram, Filza Rizwan, Shaily Agrawal and Shoaib Ali

It is around 12 noon, and the sun is beating down furiously on the golden sandstone walls of the Jaisalmer Fort. You make your way through the Ashrey Prol, the main gate of the Fort, and find yourself in a vast courtyard, with the gigantic walls of the Fort towering above you. Shopkeepers greet you with cries of discounted clothes, footwear, leather products, jewellery, fake Raybans, and even airline tickets. You walk up the stone pathway, and approach the Amar Sagar Prol, where you witness numerous men immersed in animated discussion, in the shade of the gate, protected from the sun. Once inside the main area of the fort, you stop and stare in wonder at the fortified city of Jaisalmer, where nearly 5,000 people reside. You walk in the narrow, cobbled streets of the Fort, and the residents of the fort greet you and invite you inside their homes, which look not a day younger than 8 centuries old. Apart from the heat, noise, and pollution, everything about the Fort seems perfect.

Amar Sagar Prol, Jaisalmer Fort, India. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fort draws hundreds of thousands of tourists annually

Except, it isn’t.

As per the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the walls of the Fort, which was constructed in 1156 AD by Rawal Jaisal Singh, are under immense pressure due to increasing urbanisation and proliferation of hotels within the Fort. “The bastions of the fort are under tremendous pressure right now. This is because people have built their houses and restaurants in and around the bastions. As more and more restaurants come up, the seepage of water increases,” says Mukesh Kumar Meena, who is part of the Multi Task Force at the ASI’s office in Jaisalmer. The seepage is a major concern that threatens to destroy the walls of the only ‘living’ fort in the world. Meena also says that when the ASI tries to repair a particular bastion, the walls around it become weak due to the presence of numerous houses in close vicinity of the walls and the bastions.

Locals reveal that the Government of India laid down an effective pipeline system in the fort which would help arrest the degradation of the walls of the fort due to seepage of water. While this crises seems to have been averted for the time being, the structures inside the Fort are crumbling and nobody is willing to take responsibility for their maintenance

More than 400 kilometres away, Pakistan’s Pucca Qila, situated in Hyderabad, is facing asimilar problem, albeit on a much larger scale. As you enter Pucca Qila, the stench of sewage and garbage greets you. Dilapidated walls loom large over the horizon. The Qila – which literally translates to Fort – is inhabited by refugees who migrated from India during the partition of 1947. While the fort was meant to be a temporary residence for the refugees, state apathy and ignorance towards the plight of the refugees meant that the fort has been rendered into a derelict condition over the last 71 years.

In Pakistan, no construction can take place within a distance of 200 feet from a heritage monument. However, these rules are constantly flouted around the Pucca Qila, and mounds of garbage can be seen lying around the walls of the fort

Today, it is not uncommon to see stitching units, tuition centres, cobblers and people belonging to similar professions within the walls of the Pucca Qila. In areas where parts of the wall have caved in, people have set up small units and practice their profession there. “People have created kitchens and washrooms within the walls of the fort, and the abundant usage of water has weakened them, “says Dr Kaleemullah Lashari, a scholar of Applied Archaeology in Pakistan. “As a result, many portions of the wall collapse frequently, and many people die due to this, too,” he adds.  

The Pucca Qila of Hyderabad, Pakistan is under severe threat due to unchecked sewage water flowing next to its walls, causing them to weaken and collapse

Dr. Lashari, who is the former chief custodian of the Sindh province, also claims he was approached by the provincial government to oversee the construction of apartments for people living in the fort. They would be relocated, and the conservation of the fort would then be taken up effectively. However, Dr Lashari was transferred before it could take off, and the project has now come to a standstill.

Pucca Qila is also the site of an immense standoff between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – two of the largest political parties in Hyderabad- the second-largest city of the province after Karachi.

Muhammad Rashid Khilji of the MQM-P, who is also the Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) from Hyderabad, accuses the PPP of being indifferent towards the plight of the people living in Pucca Qila. “The PPP government has never been concerned about the interests of people. It’s the duty of the government to provide houses to them but they have never focussed on this issue. The people are not financially well off, so they don’t have the resources to buy or construct a house,” said Khilji.

As the walls of the Pucca Qila suffer from continued degradation, the residents of the fort
rue the lack of alternative accommodation options

People living in the fort are also sceptical of any reforms being undertaken by the provincial government with respect to their proper relocation. A 46-year-old primary school teacher, Amir Hussain Siddiqui, residing in the fort, is critical of the government, and feels that visits by officials have not yielded any concrete results. The weak financial stature of the people living in the Fort has meant that they have had to build walls around their houses in the fort in order to ensure the safety of their children. “Government officials said they would build separate apartments with proper facilities for the residents, but then disappeared and nothing happened,” he says. “The people living here are so underprivileged, they hardly earn enough money to feed their families, how can they buy a house?”

As the walls of the Pucca Qila suffer from continued degradation, the residents of the fort
rue the lack of alternative accommodation options

This, coupled with the residents’ strong ties to the fort has made them reluctant to move out. Muhammad Tahir Khan, a resident of the fort says that they have a deep sense of affiliation with the heritage site. “Our great-grandfathers have lived in this fort, we ourselves grew up here, how can we abandon it?” he questions.

Across the border, in Jaisalmer, people living within the Jaisalmer Fort echo similar concerns. Manish Vyas, a 26-year-old shopkeeper, believes that the people living inside the Fort must not be evicted since the Fort is an integral part of their identity and culture. “My family has been living in this Fort even before India existed as a country. We have been inhabitants of the Fort for the last six centuries now. If the Government feels that the Fort is being harmed in any way, evicting people from their homes is no solution at all,” he says.

The law

In India, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASRA) of 1958 (amended in 2010) prohibits construction of new buildings within a radius of 100 metres from an ancient, protected monument. This zone is called the Prohibited Area, beyond which lies the Regulated Area, which extends to another 200 metres.

Construction of new buildings in the Regulated Area can take place only after prior permission is taken from the ASI. In fact, even if an existing building requires repairs, prior permission for the activity is required from the ASI.

However, the situation on the ground paints a completely different picture. In Jaisalmer, for instance, scores of houses and shops have been constructed in the Prohibited Area. While the majority of these came up before the ASI came into existence, almost all shopkeepers around the Fort have been served notices by the ASI for not seeking permission before initiating repairs. Devi Kishan Khatri is one such shopkeeper who was served a notice by the ASI. “I began repairing the first floor of my house, and soon, a notice appeared at my doorstep explaining how my repair work was illegal since I had not taken prior permission from the ASI. I have filled the form now, and submitted it to the relevantofficials,” he says. According to Khatri, almost all shopkeepers have been served notices by the ASI. However, most of them don’t comply with the rules and regulations, and carry on with construction activities which are deemed illegal by the government.

The Gopa Chowk Police Station on the left lies at a distance of less than 100 metres from the wall of the Jaisalmer Fort, and thus lies within the Prohibited Area

“Another problem in Jaisalmer is that nearly 75 percent of the city falls within the 300 metre zone. It is not feasible to apply this law here, since it becomes extremely cumbersome for people like us,” explains Khatri. “We have no idea when we will be given permission to carry out construction activities,” he adds.

This much, the ASI’s Meena concedes. He, however, blames the delay on the shortage of personnel available with the ASI. “Due to the shortage of staffers in the department, our work suffers immense delays. Permissions, which are ideally supposed to be granted within 45 working days, sometimes take over 6 months to be processed,” he laments.

The ASI is also keen to ensure that the natural and authentic look of the Fort does not get altered. Consequently, those living inside the Fort, who wish to make repairs in their private property, must get prior permission from the ASI. The use of materials like cement is also forbidden, since it alters the original look of the Fort. However, a closer look at the walls of the houses inside the Fort reveal ample usage of materials like cement and bricks, blemishing the yellow sandstone facade.

While the ASI discourages people from tarnishing the original look of the Jaisalmer Fort by using cement, on the ground, it was found that people continue to use the material for repair and construction

While the rule of law is taken lightly in India’s Jaisalmer, 550 kilometres away, in Karachi, the provincial Government of Sindh dealt with encroachment at the Empress Market with an iron hand.

Empress Market, built between 1884-89, was one of the busiest markets of Karachi, with hundreds ofshops selling a wide variety of products like spices, meat, condiments and even birds and animals. However, in the month of November 2018, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation(KMC), acting on the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, raised nearly 1,100 shops in an anti-encroachment drive.

The drive drew flak from many conservationists, and shopkeepers also alleged that by destroying their shops, the KMC had impacted the heritage value of the place.

Yazdani Sethna has a shop at the Empress Market, which is 75 years old, and is under threat of being razed in the anti-encroachment drive. “We are very disturbed by this drive,” says Sethna. “They are making a garden here but they do not have the money and resources to take care of the garden. This market was our culture. The fish, vegetables, spices, meat and dry-fruits represented our culture which was much better than the garden. It was a source ofemployment for people. All of them are unemployed now,” he laments.


Javed Abbasi, a dry fruit seller at Empress Market rues the fact that he would not be able to pass on the legacy of his business to his kids, which was started by his great-grandfather

People like Sethna have also found support from experts like Kaleemullah Lashari, who are of the firm view that the anti-encroachment drive contributed towards a loss of tradition. “The market had more than 1,000shops and every shop had its own identity. People used to go there and buy stuff from all over the country,” he said.

However, Yasmeen Lari, the first female female architect of Pakistan and CEO of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, begs to differ. Lari believes that the drive was the need of the hour and since urban spaces are for every citizen, it does not make sense that the Empress Market area had been hijacked by a few shopkeepers. “I am very pleased that the city court has taken action against encroachments at Empress Market. Unauthorised constructions should be removed because these are urban spaces and urban spaces are for citizens, not for the people who use the area due to corruption,” she said.

Empress Market, Karachi, after the anti-encroachment drive

For the last couple of decades, Lari’s foundation has been trying to raise awareness about the need to preserve heritage sites. She has partnered with the provincial government on occasion to organise façade cleaning activities, where she encourages the youth to come forward and share the responsibility of saving the historical sites. “We owe it to our future generations to preserve this heritage for them,” said Lari, at a recent such campaign in Karachi.

Such citizen-led initiatives, notwithstanding, not much is being done at the state level for the conservation of these heritage sites. In Karachi alone, the provincial government has notified 422 buildings as heritage sites. Not much has been done for their conservation beyond this notification. Across the border, the situation is all too similar.

Both countries are signatories to several international conventions as well as local laws in place for the protection and conservation of these heritage sites. Save the last 70-odd years, both countries share a common history, which is at risk of being lost if something is not done soon.