Left-libertarians have no problems cadging sponsorships from the same ‘evil’ corporates for their lit-fests, and generous wine ’n cheese laden evenings.
In the past, we described a passing fad as flavour of the fortnight. In frenetic new digital India, it better be the flavour of 48 hours. As is the ongoing outrage over the Modi government handing over the nation’s pride, the Red Fort, to a rapacious Marwari business house. A little bit of research confirms seven principles of today’s polarised debate:
1) Nobody wants to be confused by facts: so nobody checks facts. Read up everything written taking apart the idea of “handing over” national heritage to corporates, even under the most famous bylines. They all tell you the government is hiding the details. That this whole thing is pick-and-choose, arbitrary and that be prepared for your monuments to be branded: Dalmia Red Fort, Tata Taj Mahal and, who knows, Wipro Chittorgarh.
Nationalist outrage is a most contagious virus and I also caught it initially. Then my reporter’s scepticism kicked in and I made some checks. The lazy thing would have been to call tourism minister K.J. Alphons. But I work late nights so I googled instead. It took me to the tourism ministry website which, in turn, directed me to www.adoptaheritage.in. It has the scheme of involving corporates as “Monument Mitras” in the running of chosen Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) monuments, in the greatest detail.
About a hundred monuments are listed for adoption. These are listed in three categories, from premium (green) to the less coveted (blue and orange). A corporate bidding for a “green” monument (Red Fort, Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, Chittorgarh) has to also take one out of the other two. The website gives you more details than you would usually expect from the government. It tells you 323 applications have been received, four approved, and guides you step by step if you want to apply. All the supposedly hidden, dark and diabolical secrets are here. I can spare Alphons a phone call.
2) No political party has the monopoly on a convenient memory if not unthinking stupidity: The Congress has been attacking this policy as a sell-out. If angry Congressmen had only bothered to make a phone call, not to NDA’s tourism ministers, but to one from their own times, Ambika Soni, they wouldn’t be looking so silly.
In 2007, I recorded a ‘Walk the Talk’ for NDTV at the Taj Mahal and she told me about the struggles she was having with the low-level bureaucracy in her own ASI, who were sabotaging the wonderful work the Tatas were doing restoring the monument. You want more details, check out Kaveree Bamzai in India Today, on how a few ASI people went to the Supreme Court, asking if it approved the changes the Tatas were making. Because, they said, the court was responsible for the entire Taj complex. C. Babu Rajiv, a wonderfully committed ASI chief, tried to save the situation but failed. The Tatas pulled out after sinking Rs 2 crore and wasting much time of the world’s finest restoration experts, including Sir Bernard Fieldon and Milo Beach. So, Manish Tewari, please do exchange notes with Ambika Soni on this.
3) Politics was more decent until a decade ago: Partly it’s because the older politicians were more civilised, but mostly because Twitter wasn’t invented then. The scheme of involving corporates in running the big national monuments had been launched in 2001 by the Vajpayee government. Ananth Kumar and Ratan Tata had posed for pictures together at the Taj Mahal to celebrate the “handing over”. The Congress simply continued the good idea from the predecessor it had defeated. Any such thing possible now?
4) The Indian Left-libertarian loves the government: They want government out of their own lives entirely; mention Aadhaar and they jump. But everywhere else, they love to have the Bharat sarkar and the same bureaucracy they keep cursing. Why should culture, history and archaeology be the monopoly of the state? Why can’t private capital, enterprise and efficiency get involved? Surely, they have no problems cadging sponsorships from the same “evil” corporates for their lit-fests, generous wine ’n cheese laden evenings, gifts, travel grants, track-2, social sciences conferences (all paid for by sponsors). The intellectual-liberal community lives on handouts from Ford, McArthur, Rockefeller, Bill and Melinda Gates, and our own Tatas and other such corporates for funding scholarships, conferences, new universities and even independent new media. All that’s kosher because it is coming to us, the deserving. Talk Red Fort and it is, watan ki aabru khatre mein hai, hoshiar ho jao (national prestige is at stake, so battle stations). Ask the angry ones the last time they went to Red Fort since probably their school bussed them there, sucking at lollipops and ice cream.
5) Too many in the complaining elites haven’t been to their monuments lately, or they would have known the mess the ASI has made of them. Open defecation may have been stopped elsewhere but most monuments, including Hampi and Mamallapuram, are open-air toilets. Their walls have love-notes scribbled, sometimes with a knife. Walk on the bridge on the beautiful Betwa river bouncing through boulders, facing the stunning old temples of Orchha early in the morning and soak in the sights—but avoid the smells please. The ASI drove piles through the Sun Temple in Konark, the Army built barracks in the Red Fort, and my colleague Rama Lakshmi, a trained museologist, tells me about the tiny museum in Nalanda with one bored chowkidar, “dusty glass cases, cobwebs, peeling walls”. There is a 12th century artifact on display there, she says, which is a tiny bowl with rice grains. The text label to it unimaginatively says, “burnt rice”. It is the description for a powerful artifact from the 12th century. If Indian elites were going to their own monuments more often, they would also be complaining about the lack of facilities, no souvenir-economics: good quality mugs, caps, key-chains, replicas, nothing like a “my mom went to Ajanta and all she got me was this lousy t-shirt”. Nothing. Our monuments are run like CPWD properties.
6) They do see monuments overseas but miss some facts: Italy has the largest number of UNESCO Heritage Sites in the world. Cash-strapped, its government has been handing these out to corporates, mostly the fashion brands, for restoration and upkeep, in return for branding opportunities. Tod’s has the Colosseum, Diesel the Rialto Bridge in Venice. When you go to the Trevi Fountain next, look for the logo of Fendi, and Prada’s at Venice’s big palace. I know, it isn’t smart to mention Italian wisdom in India at this point. But it should be for the BJP wallahs to complain, not their (mostly Left) “liberal” critics.
7) And finally, for the last twist of the knife. Many critics point out the dangers of giving great monuments to the Dalmias given that one of that complicated and large family’s uncles was charged in the Babri demolition. Since they also seem to love swadeshi Archaeological Survey of India and government-run museums, they should meet the current director-general of the National Museum in the capital, Dr Buddha Rashmi Mani. This retired additional director-general of ASI got the job in 2016 until the age of 70, “or further orders”.
Dr Mani’s claim to fame: He led the excavations at Ayodhya that “proved” the existence of the Ram Temple underneath.
This article has been updated to correct the position occupied by Dr Buddha Rashmi Mani. The error is regretted.