February 1985, Ahmedabad
The moonlight makes the labyrinthine streets of the densely-knit ‘pol’ feel like a board game. The high timber canonical bearings on the doors and window lattices cast shadows, chequered on the floor. Unlike the evenings filled with the bickering of guild-men returning from the mills, an eerie silence envelopes the social conglomeration today. Warnings had spread like wildfire, and the main gate of the pol was bolted steadfast.
Winner | RTF Essay Writing Competition May 2021
Category: Essay: Complex Pasts – Diverse Futures
Participant: Radhika Jhamaria
Country: Jaipur, India
Crossing the small threshold(otla) into one of the house courtyards, you see a man descending, perhaps an entranceway that leads to the underground cellar. Faraway, the man can hear outcries. His stomach lurches. They will be here any minute. There has been enough horrendous devastation. If no one douses the riots, the timber and brick framework that his forefathers have built with their sweat will salvage in the flames of animosity.
He has decided. At the creek of dawn, he will abandon his identity, his home and flee.
This is the sad story of several Ahmedabadi Muslims, Scheduled Castes, and tribals that deserted their nests during the infamous communal riots of Ahmedabad. Social unrest began around 1964 and culminated with the carnage of 2002. The aftermath of the riots rendered several men jobless, deepened the social divide, and drove propagandas of inequality that political parties happily tapped unto. Half a century of intergroup violence fuelled the fires of caste supremacy and further pushed the marginalized off the deep end.
Why does this story matter? How does it relate to our built heritage?
A city is not the incubative brainchild of a single individual. A mastermind may be attributed to its glorious planning, but a city is never a static work of art. It is anything but; continuously evolving over a long period. Cities are the manifestation of a society’s ideals and aspirations. The masonry, craftsmanship, and age of a building are not enough for its heritage assessment, albeit it highlights the historical importance. The interwoven stories behind every facade that leave an imprint on society are what truly account for its heritage. Thus, when the centuries-old pol region of Ahmedabad was accorded the title of World Heritage City in 2017 by UNESCO, it was touted for its ‘universal value.’ There were celebrations of the domestic typologies that were preserved and the varied cultural connections, thriving communities, religious symbolism, and their coexistence.
The blatant attempt to entirely purge the disconcerting narratives of a group of residents of the pols so that it could be pigeonholed into the tourism-friendly ideal of ‘inclusivity’ was abysmal. The celebrations seemed to mask the widespread destruction of the 1990s that nearly 230 Islamic monuments across Ahmedabad, including a 400-year-old mosque, had to endure (The Wire). This historical evidence was driven out of the window when the social inclusion concept of the pols received international recognition, which thrived under Sultan Ahmed Shah, the
founder of the old city. Nobility guild of the fifteenth century or Mahajan as it was then called (culture of social well-being putting aside any religious beliefs) promoted collective enterprises and dejected individual interests to turn Ahmedabad into an indomitable trading center.
As we remembered these past strategies, why did the parallel pictures not include the furors over the following centuries? Because it spoke of a different era under another leader? Or was it just another tactic to suppress years of injustice? We chose to remain silent. We decided to actively forget their stories.
It is times like this that remind us that heritage should not be a remnant of the past. It should be a discourse that spans the future as we mould it in the present. The erasure of certain narratives in this discourse also turns a blind eye to the creative diversity of the society and their respective lineages. It further deepens the divide. How can we then talk of shared heritage when the rightful owner’s proprietorship is itself under furtive scrutiny?
“What is the city, but the People? True, the People are the Cities.”
Entangled in the mesh of communal and social hierarchies, heritage conservation is an outlet for one community to strengthen its position as superior. In contrast, for the others, it is an attempt to address its open wounds and drive the restoration of justice for its tumultuous pasts. If the global accreditation only resonates with one side of the story, how will we steer to an inclusive future?
April 2013, Ahmedabad
An idea; rather, a risk. Conflictorium, a participatory museum on the theme of conflicts, breathes life into an abandoned lodge once owned by a Parsi woman in the pols. Stitching the torn pieces of history and memory, a young graduate births an architectural and social intervention that brings justice to the built heritage of the Amdavadi society by honoring the historically marginalized. It is an open challenge to reshape the dynamic history by changing the meaning assigned to their buildings.
Avni Sethi, the brains behind the adaptive reuse project, converted the deteriorating rooms of the lodge into spaces of unfettered artistic ingenuity that unabashedly addressed the imbalanced narratives of the state. The museum captures the various conflicts that Gujarat had seen over the decades by uncovering both sides of the coin. It is not a museum for comfortable silences, to gorge at beautiful art. Instead, it is a self-explorative journey that stirs conversations—a space to share experiences, stories, histories.
It is here that the heritage is re/constructed.
The Conflictorium has six exhibition spaces, each with an unorthodox way of delivering the narratives to their audiences. There is an open courtyard where artists meet to debate and discuss. One of the rooms has a mirror, preserved as an original artifact of the lodge. As you sit by the dresser and stare into the mirror, you get a chance to assess your reflection. Surrounded by the overwhelming stories, it wreathes with inner turmoil.
“Because without accepting the existence of a conflict, achieving resolution is futile.”
This approach to heritage conservation reinforces the stories of the ostracized faction and undoes the damages of the past. It is a healing function of heritage, also known as restorative justice. By bringing to light the unfair treatments of the past, the heritage fills us with critical pieces of history that target possible cooperation for future generations. This happens by not just contesting the victim’s side but by unraveling the truth where both parties may be at fault. An inclusive future requires a tolerant and empathetic approach to study the past and the present. Rather than reinforcing stories of the elites, this approach balances the polarised practices of conservation.
Multiple timelines and events attribute varying degrees of importance to the same site for different groups of society. The Ayodhya Verdict is a clear testimony of how the destruction or preservation of historical monuments and sites impacts the contesting social groups of a region and mobilizes agendas for the future. After an arduous stretch of hearings, we can only hope that harboring against selective interpretations of heritage has helped restore justice. The multiple representations of the violent past yield the site as a hallmark of creativity and expressiveness that can continue to be re-interpreted, mutating from violent histories to sustaining a convivial future.
“The past can become a force for personal growth and political and social betterment.”
Addressing issues of victimization and social exclusion of minorities is a highly contextual and multi-dimensional process. A group can identify themselves with a specific heritage property, for example, an ancestral site or a monument in a shared civic space. It can be actively engaged to give meaning to their everyday lives. Heritage conservation practitioners must acknowledge these sentiments and then regroup to transform the nature of conflict and promote dialogue to prevent further hostility and mitigate violence. Through the microscopic lens of Ahmedabad, we can see the story of several other nation-states facing the same dilemma: an age-old struggle of social identities, powers, and values that are homogenized for painting a national identity. The process of defining ‘our’ past and ‘our’ futures, in turn, erases the plurality of our heritage.
Obscured from the view of heritage walks and conservation practices, if we do not uncover the inclusive narratives of the past, there is no chance of rooting for a diverse future. It is imperative that the communal ideas of place-making are re-iterated from our history textbooks and catapulted into the present to spark a dialogue for mutual understanding, something that Conflictorium has achieved. Political apathy should not be a deterrent to the spirit of bonhomie that our heritage represents. Let us unravel new stories and maintain a balance between remembering and forgetting. Only then can our heritage be appraised for its ‘universal value’ and pave the way for a tolerant, heterogeneous future.
- Costa, Dia. “‘Heritage City’ Ahmedabad Was Built Through Violence and Exclusion.” The Wire, 11
- Korostelina, Karina “Understanding Values of Cultural Heritage within the Framework of Social Identity Conflicts.” Heritage Management Part Two, Getty, https://www.getty.edu/publications/heritagemanagement/part-two/6/
- UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “Historic City of Ahmadabad.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, unesco.org/en/list/1551. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.
- Pandey, Shefali. “Ahmedabad’s Museum of Conflict Shows You the Mirror.” Condé Nast Traveller India, 5 2018, www.cntraveller.in/story/ahmedabads-museum-of-conflict-shows-you-the-mirror.