‘Heritage City’ Ahmedabad Was Built Through Violence and Exclusion

Any celebration of Ahmedabad’s heritage as an icon of peace and unity (of Hindu, Muslim and Jain traditions) must be understood in light of the city’s profound anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim violence.

In July 2017, in recognition of its ‘universal value’, Ahmedabad became the first Indian city to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage City. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani and citizens alike wasted no time in expressing their pride and joy. The mainstream media has echoed their justification of the syncretic Jain, Islamic and Hindu heritage of the pols (neighbourhoods) in the walled city, as well as the proximate connection to Gandhian politics as accounting for Ahmedabad’s universal value.

Ahmedabad’s inclusion is part of UNESCO’s race to rectify its racism, since a vast majority of UNESCO heritage sites are in Europe. Indian pride might have to do with a patiently-waiting people winning a difficult race through which their history and culture is finally viewed as ‘universally valuable’. If this designation incites genuine political will in saving a rich and crumbling heritage, this is a moment to gloat for all those well-heeled Indians who have compared sites abroad to those at home and felt shame. But I want to encourage pause to consider the global, national and local implications of this designation for Ahmedabad.

When colonial capitalism meets heritage planning

I view the UNESCO designation as one outcome of an ordinary violence under way in Ahmedabad at least since the 1980s, culminating in the pogrom of 2002 and obscured in a variety of ways since. Let us consider Ahmedabad’s designation in the context of broader global creative economy planning discourses and politics, and understand how such a discourse gains traction in Ahmedabad. Interestingly, in 2016, Modi named Ahmedabad a ‘Smart City’ for its sustainability and inclusiveness. Although the heritage designation appears to celebrate the past and seems antithetical to the futurism of the Smart City discourse, both are a part of the broader creative economy planning discourse. When in 2006, Richard Florida wrote in the Times of India that “creativity, it seems, is in India’s DNA”, he contributed to popularising the fuzziness between planning heritage and planning futures. Florida is the Canada-based business school professor who initiated the deeply-flawed creative cities theory that corporates, planners and municipalities have adopted all over North America, the UK and Australia. Since 2008, when UN documents quoted Florida’s theories and named the creative economy sector a ‘feasible development option’, his already-discredited and now recanted theories began being enforced as a means of development. His theory claims that post-industrial cities could be regenerated by attracting the talented, tolerant and technologically-savvy. For Florida, there is no contradiction in noting that creativity is in the Indian DNA (ancient and genetic), and claiming that Indians have not harnessed it well. An age-old colonial relation is at work here: the underdeveloped have resources but they don’t understand its value or how to use it, so we will teach them (at a price) how to be the best stewards of their own resources.

Remarkably, this is just the direction that we have taken, not least because colonial capitalism continues to structure our society and minds. The central government as well as many regional governments have poured money and invested political energies into planning task forces and working groups, hiring private (often foreign) consultancies and initiating legal changes that affirm, document, rank and make money from a wide range of creative practices. In India, the main focus has been on the question of what to champion as our national cultural heritage. Following global norms, India has joined a race to include cities (like Ahmedabad and Delhi), cultural practices (like yoga) and historical monuments and institutions (like Nalanda University) in the World Heritage list. These cultural practices, sites, forms and knowledge that are already in circulation are capitalised upon by enhancing and harnessing their monetary value – via tourism or intellectual property laws. Hybrid municipal government, university, community and international funding initiatives that nurture entrepreneurialism are mushrooming – such as the Centre for Heritage Management, Ahmedabad Cultural Heritage Cluster and the Ahmedabad Heritage Venture Lab.

Stephen Dixon's 'Clocking On' at the Cotton Exchange Exhibit in Old Rajnagar Mill, Ahmedabad, 2013. Credit: Dia Da Costa

Stephen Dixon’s ‘Clocking On’ at the Cotton Exchange Exhibit in Old Rajnagar Mill, Ahmedabad, 2013. Credit: Dia Da Costa

The race to sell our heritage in order to save it is also a race to save our heritage in order to claim ‘development’ and progress. In this race, the ability of a given project to show that displaying, documenting, saving and selling heritage benefits marginalised communities is of great importance. Never mind if it is actually helping marginalised communities or not. The 2006 report emerging from the Planning Commission’s Task Force for Cultural and Creative Industries insisted that the creative economy sector helps the most marginalised communities gain livelihood opportunities. Such a claim is made in the face of a growing crisis of suicides and hunger for small farmers in agriculture and the intensifying informalisation of the manufacturing sector. Yet, in another slickly-produced report entitled Past Forward: The Future of India’s Creativity, Montek Singh Ahluwalia positioned creative economy as the next ‘big idea’, noting that India’s advantage is “the largest number of economically vulnerable people” whose talents and traditions can be subject to design and technology and made competitive for a global market. Sustainability and inclusion is constructed as if it is a matter of simple arithmetic. Cultural impresario and vice chairperson of the Creative Economy Task Force for the Tenth Plan, Rajeev Sethi, insisted that populations rendered surplus owing to low 2-3% agricultural growth rate amount to an “excess capacity of 20-22%” population in villages. At a high 12-15% creative sector growth rate, “Creative, cultural and Traditional/legacy industries is the only key to gainfully employ this potential work force”. Rather than address how and why agricultural policy has failed to address hunger despite improving agricultural growth rates, the solution here is to absorb the unemployed and hungry into the creative sector because it has a higher growth rate than agriculture.

The ignored biases 

The compensatory optimism around creative livelihoods effectively suggests that impoverished municipalities and especially the migrant, Dalit and Muslim poor in cities can develop their tangible and intangible cultural heritage – monuments and cultural practices – in order to feed themselves. But this is like suggesting that the poor, who are hungry and lack jobs matched to present skills or capital, could instead become entrepreneurs in developing the creative economy sector, of which the heritage sector is a significant part in India. They are saying to the poor: eat heritage (or cake) if you don’t have bread. They claim that the creative economy sector saves the poor, because everyone is creative. For once, the means of production belongs to everyone. What’s not to like?

What this sentimental optimism about the creative sector hides from view is that not everyone gets to shape what counts as ‘creative’ or what counts as ‘heritage’. Indeed, as numerous anti-caste and Dalit scholars and activists from Gopal Guru to Sheetal Sathe have pointed out, canonical heritage, intellect and creativity has long been consolidated and controlled by ‘upper’ castes who variously prohibit, cleanse and deny the ever-present work of indigenous, Dalit and Muslim practices. Quite contrary to Florida then, creativity is apparently not in every Indian’s DNA. But perhaps it is not surprising that Florida’s characterisation resonates deeply with a casteist India that prefers an ahistorical view of its tolerance and creativity.

Beyond gaining traction in India, we might ask what gave this heritage planning discourse importance in Ahmedabad? In the last two decades, particularly through its Vibrant Gujarat campaign, the Gujarat government has turned to art and heritage as the primary means to address the crisis of representing Gujarat. Two critical events can be viewed as the proximate causes of Gujarat’s crisis of representation – the textile mill closures in the 1980s and the genocide of Muslims in 2002. The textile mill closures in the mid 1980s affected one-fifth of the city’s population. The already-poorly-paid workers (mostly Dalit and Muslim) joined the city’s sizeable informal workforce. In their heyday, the textile mills had generated profit enough for industrialists to convert their largesse into philanthropic benevolence and pay for building the city’s civic and educational institutions, its museums and art, its shelters and training centres. But the caste and class structure that controlled profit-making and municipal planning in Ahmedabad ensured that it was precisely the walled city and its largely Muslim inhabitants as well as the areas around the textile mills that were neglected in terms of municipal services, even as they had the highest population densities. Let us remind ourselves that the pols in the walled city that are being celebrated for their ‘universal value’ are neighbourhoods that have evolved through a combination of caste-based segregation (sari street, shoe street and so on) as well as fortification during communal riots.

Artist: Khalid Amin Khatri “A material response marking the significance of Gandhi’s position in the cotton story of India” at the Cotton Exchange Exhibit in Old Rajnagar Mill, Ahmedabad, 2013. Credit: Dia Da Costa

Khalid Amin Khatri’s “A material response marking the significance of Gandhi’s position in the cotton story of India” at the Cotton Exchange Exhibit in Old Rajnagar Mill, Ahmedabad, 2013. Credit: Dia Da Costa

The post-independence period was marked variously by Congress monopoly, the fallout of the Mahagujarat and Nav Nirman movements, alongside the steady gains made by the Sangh parivar among the landed and upper-caste Hindus disenchanted by the Congress. Political parties and patronage politics alike stoked and deepened class, caste, and communal insecurities. By the time the mills closed in the mid 1980s and thousands of people were left jobless, riots had been made ordinary and were the entirely normal, unsurprising outcomes of insecurity and injustice in Ahmedabad. Beginning his rath yatra in Gujarat in 1990, L.K. Advani built crucial support for the subsequent destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Even for a city that had seen plenty of riots, the pogrom of 2002 marked a turning point. The anti-Muslim pogrom was publicly justified as revenge and led to the killing, rape and displacement of Muslim families and businesses. State officials had managed to command the killing of Muslims by middle classes, lower castes, de-notified tribals, Adivasis and Dalits alike. Crucially, this was also a time when 230 Islamic monuments, including a 400-year-old mosque and Urdu poet Wali Gujarati’s grave, were destroyed in Ahmedabad. As Heba Ahmed has pointed out, many of these destroyed dargahs were dedicated to women patron saints and subsequently restored not by the city, but by worshippers’ contributions.

Whose heritage counts

This reality should prompt us to ask: Whose heritage counts? Whose conservation work counts? Furthermore, any celebration of Ahmedabad’s heritage and its walled city as an icon of peace and unity (of Hindu, Muslim and Jain traditions) must be understood in light of this city as a profound site of anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim violence and exclusion made ordinary. Of the numerous waves of modernisation and beautification drives in this city’s history, the Vibrant Gujarat campaign launched in 2003 has specifically celebrated the heritage and culture of the city as an explicit means to invite capital investment for Gujarat’s corporate model of development. The government of Gujarat paid Rs 15 lakh per month for conducting the Vibrant Gujarat advertising campaign to the American public relations firm APCO, whilst relentlessly excluding Islamic culture in its representations. The modernising AMC has worked with architects like Debashish Nayak (director of the Centre for Heritage Management), Balkrishna Doshi and Bimal Patel. Plans have been put forward to construct a Cultural Mile Precinct on the west bank of the Sabarmati river while the displacement of working class populations living on the river banks continues apace.

Ahmedabad’s “world-class” waterfront. Reproduced with permission from Dr. Bimal Patel, director, HCP Design Planning & Management Pvt. Ltd.

Ahmedabad’s “world-class” waterfront. Reproduced with permission from Dr. Bimal Patel, director, HCP Design Planning & Management Pvt. Ltd.

The Bhadra Plaza Redevelopment Plan imagines linking the precinct on the west bank (mostly inhabited by Hindu upper castes) with the Heritage Square on the east bank where the walled city is located. Importantly, this plan reimagined the stretch between Teen Darwaza and Bhadra Fort (key coordinates in the plan) as a pedestrian zone. This stretch has long been a densely-populated, largely-Muslim area, bustling with traffic and vendors, and notably, many fish and meat shops. No doubt the logic of ‘cleaning up’ and decongestion rhetorically invokes accessibility for citizens, heritage and reduced pollution, but it equally expresses classist definitions of pedestrian access, cleanliness and vegetarian tastes of Jains and upper caste Hindus. In so doing, it further normalises the ordinary exclusion and violence against Muslim life, culture and work in the process of revaluing real estate via the creative economy discourse. Although planners’ fantasies do not always come to fruition, they do reveal volumes about disposable populations and heritage.

Importantly, since heritage plans do not sit well with land speculation, director of heritage management Nayak and AMC officials have been looking into creative legal changes of lending laws and ‘air rights’ to allow (usually Jain and upper caste Hindu) landowners of heritage buildings in the walled city to borrow money to renovate homes or otherwise to sell ‘air rights’ and capitalise on hospitality and tourism revenue potential. In 2013, Nayak also sponsored the Cotton Exchange project which hosted artists from Manchester, UK to collaborate with a few artisans from marginalised communities in Gujarat to exhibit artwork in the defunct Rajnagar Mill. This exhibit traded in deep nostalgia for a ‘shared heritage’ of Ahmedabad and Manchester by championing the art of a few empowered artisans from Gujarat. While celebrating industrial heritage of the past, it obscured colonial history, relegated politics to an anti-nationalist Gandhian form and ignored the contemporary reality of most artisanal castes, Muslims and Dalits today.

Imagining the Shreyas flyover with Warli folk art. From Our Cities, Ourselves. Exhibition: A vision of Ahmedabad. Reproduced with permission from Abhikram and Panika.

Imagining the Shreyas flyover with Warli folk art. From Our Cities, Ourselves. Exhibition: A vision of Ahmedabad. Reproduced with permission from Abhikram and Panika.

A real reconstruction of heritage

Consider finally the case of the Chharas, who live in the vicinity of the former textile mills in Ahmedabad. The Chhara had lived and laboured in captivity under British rule until 1951, when Jawaharlal Nehru denotified the legal status of criminal tribes. The Chharas were granted land near their former settlement to build their residences, where present-day Chharanagar is located. Some worked in the textile mills. Meanwhile, the former settlement was turned into a beggar’s home. Following Indian Institute of Management professor Navdeep Mathur’s letter to UNESCO, UNESCO wrote to the AMC seeking inclusion of Chharanagar, (as well as Gulbai Tekra and Gujari Bazar) in Ahmedabad’s heritage city proposal. But this request didn’t gain traction with the AMC. Significantly, Reliance Industries also has its eyes on the former Chhara settlement since that land lies in close proximity to Naroda Industrial Area and significant state highways. Such are the politics of the Heritage City status. Celebrating cake while taking bread and land away. Heritage politics goes together with revaluing and raising real estate value. For the urban poor the world over, far too often, this revaluation spells gentrification and another rationale for displacement.

Not only is the relentless and normalised violence obscured from heritage walks and celebrations, state-defined heritage excludes creativity and conservation practices of the historically marginalised. The Chhara have a theatre troupe called Budhan Theatre through which they challenge their own caste history of criminality, as well as the criminality of the state itself. Crucially, their identity politics is in solidarity with various victims of violence – Chharas and other denotified tribals, Dalits, Muslims, agricultural workers and others. These are precisely the populations that are being asked to eat heritage, even as governments completely fail to address hunger itself. A Budhan play brazenly challenged the politics of ‘encounter killings’ and the troupe invited what is colloquially known as “POTA families” (Prevention of Terrorism Act) who are disproportionately Muslim, to the performance. Audience members and Chhara actors overcame mutual suspicion of criminality and terrorism to share tears, experiences and histories instead. These are the unrecognised spaces in which heritage is re/constructed. Here, communities creatively construct relationships of strength, shared histories and solidarity – in this case, between the Chhara and Muslims – to replace the hate, divisiveness and violence that have been enforced as conditions of survival for the urban poor. It is these spaces and forms of creativity that remain illegible and of little interest to heritage and creative economy speculators, as they make the poor eat heritage whilst entrenching nationalism based in caste supremacy and capital accumulation.

A Budhan Theatre performance in Chharanagar, Ahmedabad, 2009. Credit: Dia Da Costa

A Budhan Theatre performance in Chharanagar, Ahmedabad, 2009. Credit: Dia Da Costa

To celebrate Ahmedabad’s ‘universal value’ as ordained by UNESCO, then, is to take pride in a global stamp that reinforces colonial relations whilst celebrating the historic and contemporary value of caste supremacy and Islamophobia. It affirms Indian exceptionalism which relies on assertions of our ancient and age-old tolerance and our ongoing and unshakeable belief in India as the ‘world’s largest democracy’, both of which effectively take the plethora of evidence on historic and contemporary violence and inequality out of the picture. It also wilfully disregards the work, conviction and practice it takes to refuse the state’s capture of our imaginations. So while heritage is under siege today, photoshopped and sold in terms that agree with the state, it is also our caste supremacy and Islamophobia that makes us disregard the profound creativity and heritage that subalterns such as the Chhara, Muslims and Dalits have been building.

To be clear, the point is not just to include hitherto unrecognized creativity, because relentlessly displaying the creativity of the marginalised can coexist with displacement. The point is also to secure the land, history and memory that nourishes the social and political lives of the marginalised, and ensure that they do not go hungry.

Dia Da Costa is the author of Politicizing Creative Economy: Activism and a Hunger called Theatre.