Would corporate funding give impetus to the restoration of historical monuments in India? Or would it instead alter the spaces where these structures stand? The desire to protect historical monuments in the country is facing a stiff challenge from the possibility of corporations defacing heritage structures, all while proclaiming to be the saviors of these sites.
What began as an attempt by a cement company to “adopt” the historical Red Fort in India’s capital has turned into a series of “adoption” announcements in various parts of the country. Together, they have galvanized the Indian people to question the authority of local governments to preserve various heritage sites.
In September 2017, the “Adopt a Heritage” scheme was announced to allow private and public sector corporations to adopt most of India’s top heritage sites, giving them the onus to build, operate, and maintain tourism infrastructure at 105 monuments and natural heritage sites across the country. The infrastructure includes amenities like toilets, drinking water, accessibility for the disabled, signage, audio guides, illumination, canteens, ticketing, and the maintenance of cleanliness and security. The scheme promises the companies brand visibility at the sites.
The Dalmia Bharat Group won the rights to adopt the historical Red Fort in a $3.7 million deal for a period of five years. The move was opposed by a body of Indian historians, who feared, among other things, that it could lead to the propagation of “false or unproven interpretations of particular structures in the complex” to attract tourists.
The Red Fort, built in late 1600, was at the heart of the Mughal Empire in an undivided Indian subcontinent. The premises of the Red Fort were used by the British to court martial a number of officers of the Indian National Army in 1946 on charges of waging war on the British Empire. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru delivered a speech from the Red Fort on August 15, 1947, the day power was transferred from the British. This ritual, of the prime minister delivering a speech on the Independence Day from the Red Fort, continues to this day.
However, an article written following the uproar claimed a nationalistic association behind the aim at branding: the patriarch of the company, Vishnu Dalmia, was a key mover behind one of the most significant anti-Muslim, Hindu-nationalistic incidents of the early 1990s. Besides, the group has no experience in conserving monuments.
Opposition parties took to their usual ways of condemning this move by the government, questioning the efficacy of the government in its duty to maintain a national monument while also hinting at possible profiteering by the company from such a move.
In addition to the Red Fort, the Kaziranga National Park – home to the one-horned rhino – and three other historical monuments built by the Ahom kingdom in the 16th and 17th centuries have also been adopted. One of these structures is Rang Ghar, one of the oldest amphitheaters in Asia. Student bodies from across communities in Assam, which exercise reasonable clout in the politics of Assam, protested this move; the leader of a peasant-grassrooots movement threatened to chase private companies off if they stepped into the National Park.
While proponents to this scheme draw comparison to the restoration of monuments in Italy by private companies, broader skepticism stems from fears of inept practices toward restoration without a sensitive perspective before any tree could be possibly axed.
For a country whose history is layered because of the legacy and origins of its rulers and whose present is marred by Hindu jingoistic zeal, any attempt at sweeping alteration of these sites without due process and review toward understanding cultural and historical nuances is bound to raise more than the regular eyebrow.
At the same time, for regions like Assam that have long experienced a sense of alienation from mainland India, these possibly well-intended efforts at preserving historical monuments without due consideration of the local culture and mores only foment further discontent.