This is primarily because any history we read, hear, or watch, is refracted, it is shaped by the person or thought process that is engaged in the exercise of compiling it. The difference between History with the capital ‘H’ and history as everything that happened in the past is crucial. The former is carefully picked out from the latter – a series of events and artefacts chosen to tell a story. The historian then carefully selects these ‘chosen ones’ to help shape the narrative they wish to see furthered; a narrative that is intrinsically based on the politics of the day.
The question raised then is why should someone care about this act of selection now? The answer is simple, everyday instances like the renaming of roads, the demolition of buildings and the rebuilding of common spaces reinforce this act of selection. One such undertaking that makes one stop and think about this is the Central Vista Redevelopment Project.
The project aims to renovate 86 acres of land in New Delhi, including historical buildings like the Parliament House, the Rashtrapati Bhawan, and the India Gate. Moreover, the National Museum is also set to be taken down and rebuilt where the current North and South Blocks stand in the Central Secretariat. The area, associated with affluence and political power is commonly called Lutyens Delhi after the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker who designed it when the capital was shifted to Delhi in 1911 under the British rule.
Ever since its announcement in September 2019 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the project has come under scrutiny for violations of municipal and environmental law as well as change in land use. Following this, the Supreme Court gave it the green light in January 2021. Close to a month prior to January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation of a new Parliament building under a Hindu ceremony. The ceremony itself was allowed when the government reassured the court that no demolition or construction would begin until the final decision had been received.
The focus of this article, however, is to draw attention to something that seems fairly inconspicuous at first but can have lasting impacts on how we associate our present with our past. The act of demolition and consequently rebuilding employs the historical process mentioned earlier – that of selection and by extension erasure of what gets chosen to be rebuilt and featured. With the National Museum for instance, the idea is that North and South Blocks will be able to house more historical artefacts. However, which artefacts are highlighted and how are questions that remain to be answered.
The entire episode reminds me of something Susan Sontag said in relation to photography – “[To photograph] means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” While she was talking about the act of framing something within photographic borders, the idea at its crux seems especially relevant here – when somebody controls the framing of the past, they wield power. Perhaps, therefore, the same self-reflectivity is required for the curation of renovated spaces.
While the words ‘heritage’, ‘redevelopment’ and ‘conservation’ paint rosy pictures in one’s mind about the building of new spaces, they actually point to the larger question of historical knowledge production. Buildings and architecture has always been used to assert power, symbolise progress and display grandeur. The act of rebuilding is not unique either, as history is replete with examples of the same. That being said, the question, especially with an edifice like the National Museum is its current housing of historical artefacts, and the process of curation that will go into the remade property.
While the aforementioned already acts as a repository of history, the other buildings like the current Parliament House are receptacles of public memory of post-colonial India while themselves being colonial products. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) is a prime example of a building set to be taken down which is associated with the memory of a former Prime Minister. Founded by Kapila Vatsyayan, it is a space where art has found expression during nationally significant events. Keeping the relevance of these in mind therefore becomes important as contemporary history may be memory for now, but it will not remain so for the coming decades. This highlights the importance of preserving not just historical remains but also elements of post-independence public memory that have not become canonical History yet.
Preserving public memory, if nothing else, can create context. They point to the uncomfortable understanding that even if features do not fit proposed narratives, they cannot be razed. For instance, the reason behind the decision to withdraw the candidature of colonial Delhi and Shahjahanabad as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2014 has been traced by some to their legacies rooted in the Mughal period and the colonial era. While the legacies may cause discomfort to some, their significance cannot be dismissed.
The Central Vista Project sheds light on the importance of history and public memory. The fact is that the past cannot speak for itself. Whatever the past says, it does through the actors who consolidate it. The thing to keep in mind then in light of the project is this – demolishing heritage buildings should not open up the passageway to raze history.
Sanya is a student of History, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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