Whose Site is it anyway? The Question of Custodianship

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The paper examines the case of Begumpur, typical of many other sites in Delhi, where a monument is hemmed in by the settlement of people who had been living within and around the monument, and who were partially or wholly evicted when the ASI began
   Whose Site is it anyway?  The Question of Custodianship In Delhi, as in India, there still exist so many monuments that we are spoilt for choice. We also tend to despoil most of these monuments, whose custodianship is a tricky affair, and one, that at least for the past couple of hundred years does not seem to have been resolved satisfactorily. I argue that to do so, we have to  fundamentally   change how we view the custody of these monuments. I intend to explain this through my experience with some monuments in Delhi, particularly the Begumpuri Masjid and Bijay Mandal, in company with a group called the Friends of ASI (  FrASI). My understanding of the monuments is based on the process followed as part of the setting up of the FrASI, and the subsequent interactions  we had with stakeholders. My analysis of the custodianship of these monuments, therefore, requires me to explain the formation of, and the interventions made, through this group. I’d like to do this by, first, explaining what   we tried to do; and then later analysing it in the larger context of inhabited monuments. So, I’ll begin with:   1.   How we began  The idea of collecting the FrASI into a working group as a 150 th  anniversary present to the  Archaeological Survey of India, was a brainchild of Professor Narayani Gupta. She roped in a few more of us to see how we could do this. It wasn’t, however, a surprise anniversary present!  The ASI were very much a part of the planning of this group. In fact, when the FrASI assembled for the first time on the 25 th  of April 2012  —  not with much fanfare, but certainly with a star attendance  —  it was in the Committee Room of the Central ASI Office, a venue decided   in consultation  with the ASI, though our suggestion had been that we meet in a more public space such as Safdarjang  Tomb. 1  It seemed to us that the full cooperation of the ASI was essential for the idea of the FrASI to take off and stay on course. In the very first letter that I wrote on behalf of the FrASI to Shri Gautam Sengupta, the then Director General, ASI ,  I specifically requested him to identify persons within the  ASI, who would actively commit to participate in this entire effort, so that the idea does not fizzle out.  What was this idea, and how did we hope to get ahead with it? 2.    What we hoped to do  The main reason for a designated group of Friends of ASI, was the gap between the ASI as official custodians of much of our tangible history, and the rest of us; as well as a need to re-evaluate  what should   be the role of the ASI as official custodians.  The Friends of ASI  was intended to be different from any other existing body, and meant to be a positive platform  —  one that did not merely bicker and point out problems or lecture ‘from the outside’ , but highlighted what the ASI had managed to achieve as positive milestones, to be further disseminated. It seemed to us that the ASI often got ‘bad press’, and their more positive efforts were not recognised in the public domain. As one member of the group put it, ‘ as friends we needed to bring out the strengths of the ASI anchored to their core objectives for the benefit of the public at large and for the future generations of this country  ’, and ‘ move away from a ‘UNESCO - centric’ view of heritage’  to preserve our diverse cultural wealth in the light of our own distinct cultural values. 2   We also felt that the trust-building had to be a two-way process, and just as it was important to highlight what the ASI did ‘well’, it was equally important to have a channel where people’s opinions of  what they did not manage to do so well, could be communicated directly to the ASI, without recourse to newspapers or media. Also, rather than just have reactionary responses  —  such as providing feedback on  what the ASI has done, well or otherwise  —  the FrASI hoped to ensure more participation so that 1  Letter, ASM to DG ASI, March 2012, Subject: Venue and Time - First Meeting of    ‘    Friends of ASI’   2  A.R. Ramanathan, Email in response to the invitation to the First meeting of the Friends of ASI  communities and members of society could know beforehand  what  was planned for their city’s monuments and they could have a say in the direction and intent of such planning. We thus, envisaged the FrASI to be an initiative of civil society supporting and    supported by the ASI.   3  So, we began by first identifying key potential friends, who could, in their turn, facilitate positive interaction not just between themselves and the ASI, but with other people beyond them. This was very important, because there was an inherent limitation in the fact that of the approximately 50 friends we first identified (and of whom about 30 people turned up for the first meeting), even though they came from varied professional backgrounds  —  they were all essentially on one side of the fence. They were mostly ‘professionals’ dealing with conservation and history  , who were requested to encapsulate their ideas and publicly commit to what they could do as ‘Friends of     ASI’ . 4  Given the density and proportion of various monuments in Delhi, many of them lived in some proximity to one monument or the other  —  but none so closely inhabited the environs of a monument that their daily routine was intimately connected or affected by its presence, and all were privileged in having access to some power and influence and no great problems in issues of daily living. This, then was thus intended to be just the starting point, and our aim was to expand and extend the circle of friends, especially among those whose lives or livelihood were most affected by the presence of a monument  . Our objectives unanimously agreed to, which I recorded after the first meeting, were to:    Forge a connection in the minds of people to bring history and historic sites alive;    Establish awareness and induce local individuals and groups to protect and conserve;    Bring out and develop the strengths of the ASI related to their core objectives, as an Institution that sets bench marks for the conservation of cultural heritage. 5   3.   How we planned to do this Since the objective of the FrASI was different from any existing body, our method of working was also  very different. One of the first things we felt was, to get out of ‘ the rarefied air of the professional ’ . So, it  was decided that 1.    All further meetings of the FrASI were to be held at the site of a monument rather than in a meeting room. The very act of meeting in a public space meant that the possibility of local people joining in the discussions, whether formally invited or spontaneously joined in, was far greater. 2.    The members of the initial ‘ band of FrASI ’ , many of whom were professionals such as lawyers, architects, teachers, writers, conservationists, historians, serving and retired ASI officials, etc. were to act as facilitators to deal specifically with the objectives and concerns of the FrASI, not as representatives of any professional bodies they might be affiliated to. 3.   Primacy was to be given to a site, its inhabitants and the ASI as its official custodians; the FrASI were to mediate or act as a bridge between them as required.  We planned to do this primarily through dissemination of information  , and involvement at site  , both aimed at all sections of people, but particularly children and students. Information researched and culled from ASI sources and from the inhabitants at site, two different sorts of histories, gathered together and published as economical field-guides as well as detailed volumes. Involvement at site through planned 3  A core team of the following members: B.M.Pande, Narayani Gupta, Janwhij Sharma, B.R.Mani, Sohail Hashmi,  Vivek Jindgar, Robinson, and Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, was allocated the task of taking these suggestions forward, with help from Shilpi Rajpal and Jennifer Chowdhary. Anisha was asked to serve as the node for coordinating activities, and to summarize the way forward reached at the end of the discussions of the First meeting to be shared with the rest of the core team. Dr. B.M.Pande, ex DG ASI, Dr Narayani Gupta, Dr. Gautam Sengupta, the then DG ASI, were seen as senior advisors to this group. 4  Invitation to First Meeting, Friends of ASI’   5  Minutes of the first meeting,  activities where the inhabitants, the ASI, and visitors get to know and understand each other as well as the site better; and consequently work at improving the site and their relation with it. 4.    The Case of Begumpur and Bijai Mandal  All this became particularly relevant in the case of the connected and unique historic site of Begumpur and Bijay Mandal. 6  Bijai Mandal, which presently exists as a protected area to the north of Begumpur Village, is believed to have been part of Jahanpanah, the fourth city of Delhi established in the reign of the King Muhammad bin-Tughlak. It has been declared a monument of national importance. The most prominent extant built feature here is an octagonal structure on a high platform.  This has been identified as a bastion of Jahanpanah 7 , and even linked to the Dar-Sara, the Royal Palace popular as the Hazar Sutun, ‘Hall of Thousand Pillars’ . The ASI has made significant discoveries in excavations in this area, first undertaken in 1930-31, including ruins of a hammam, rows of pillar bases, chambers, drains, china dishes, lamps, iron dowels, entrance ramps, and treasure wells, etc. 8  The Begumpuri Masjid, a large congregational mosque, also dates from the Tughlak era. One body of thought believes that it is the mosque the King Muhammad bin-  Tughlak’s got constructed in  Jahanpanah next to his Palace, as recorded by writers such as Ibn-Battuta. However, the general belief is that it was constructed by Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, the Prime Minister of the Tughlak King, Firoz Shah, who succeeded Muhammad bin-Tughlak. 9  Either way, the complex dates from the mid 14 th  century, and is thus about six centuries old. Closely linked as it is, to royal patrons and historic urban cities of Delhi, believed to have been inhabited or used at least intermittently by the King’s retinue; it is of importance not just in Delhi’s hist ory but also that of the subcontinent.  The Begumpur village, which has apparently existed since the late 18 th  century  10 , is most directly linked to Begumpur Masjid and Bijay Mandal, though there are many other early residential localities such as Shah Ji and Kalu Serai, and later housing colonies, both plotted and flatted, bounding the site. It is uncertain how many of the present villagers have a direct familial link to the medieval inhabitants, though many of them have a connection with the Begumpur site from at least three generations. ASI photos of the area from 1950s show the village with the area around stretching for a long distance as cultivated fields.  There is also a ‘floating’ population  of tenants in Begumpur, who live here because of its central location in the South Delhi District, an influential area cited on its Wikipedia page as having the highest number of millionaires in India. 11  Land pressures are consequently very high.  The case of Begumpur and Bijai Mandal is typical of many other sites in Delhi, which are hemmed in by a settlement, historically of an urban character but now dwindled to the state of an ‘urban  village ’ , and home to both a permanent and shifting population. Many of the families of such settlements either actively inhabit the monument or use it for purposes connected to their daily routines; some of  which are quite different and conflicting from what they were originally intended as, or what the ASI sees them as being intended for.  These activities were largely curtailed when the ASI began to 'protect' these sites. Many families living within the Begumpur Masjid were evicted in the 1920s 12 . They now live around the Masjid, which continues to be the spatial focus of the village and is still used as a secular gathering area, playing space for children, and a refuge for all sorts of activities as well as unfortunately, a more than occasional toilet.  There is free entrance to the mosque as to the nearby Bijay Mandal, an important open space for these  villagers, but it is regulated, and as in most ASI sites, can be accessed between sunrise and sunset. There is 6  Following from the 21 May 2012 Site Visit to Begumpur and Bijay Mandal, and the follow-up meetings/ email correspondence between various members)  7   Delhi and its Neighbourhood  , pp. 72-3, ASI 1990, First edition 1964 8    Annual Reports of the ASi for the Years 1930-31, 1931-32, 1932-33, & 1933-34, Part Two , Excavations, Bijai Mandal, Delhi 9  Zafar Hasan, List of Monuments  , 1911, p. 155 10  village elder Shri Raghubir Singh 11  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Delhi 12  In 1928, according to a village elders information; and in 1921 as noted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jahanpanah#Begampur_Mosque, accessed 17 Aug 2015,  thus, an inherent bone of contention between the presence of the ASI and the presence of the inhabitants.  The Regulations of 1992, which state that there should be no buildings within 100 metres of a monument, cannot be realistically implemented in such sites, which for the villagers are a vital part of their shared living space and their collective community memory and not just a monument complex. 13   The main concern of the residents of Begumpur Village is that related to daily living activities,  which are under immense pressure due to overcrowding, regulations stemming from their inhabiting the environs of a site of national importance, the presence of a multitude of agencies over which they have no influence, and a perceived and real disparity in the services meted out to them versus the neighbouring government or private colonies inhabited by richer people. For instance, there is a DDA park on the other side of the village towards the Mother's International School, MIS, but villagers feel intimidated from accessing it, and village children do not often venture in here. Most parts of the village come within the protected or prohibited area, where no new construction is permissible. Provision of infra-structure services here is poor. During the involvement of the FrASI, we were made aware of a manhole right in front of the main gate of the Mosque, which begins to overflow from about 5 a.m., the scheduled time for daily potable water-supply from the Delhi  Jal Board DJB (the water from whose leaking pipes has apparently been diverted into the sewage system or finds its way in it). The land naturally slopes in front of the Masjid entrance and rises on both sides.  Therefore diluted sewage begins to flow into the main street of the village, and maximum collection of sewage happens right in front of the main gate of the Masjid. The villagers have tried, unsuccessfully, to meet and petition the councillor, and local authorities, to rectify this problem. From their point of view, the provision of adequate sanitation facilities is a pressing need  —  in the form of appropriate permissions to build more private bathrooms to take care of increased densities, in the form of well-kept public bathrooms, and in the form of appropriate infrastructure of water supply, sewage and garbage disposal.  The MIS students and the other residents also find the site unsafe and unhygienic  —  the sewage is one aspect; apart from this, there is no real provision of garbage disposal by local authorities, leading to the open area around the Bijai Mandal and the Mosque being used for such purposes. Since the villagers do not have enough toilets, they use any open space at their disposal, which tends to be the less frequented parts of the Bijai Mandal site and the less visible parts of Begumpur Masjid, especially its covered portion, believed to be the zenana mosque. Business interests from outside that have colonised the space such as a kabariwallah who has set up shop near the site, are resented by the villagers who claim it is people like him from “outside”  who dirty the area and not them. Because of the unhygienic aspect of this site, the people who most frequent it are those who have no other place to go  —  those with no shelter, those who want anonymity to drink liquor, or take drugs without supervision, etc. Additionally, because of its central location, many people use the site as a short cut. Every Thursday, many people of different faiths, both from the village and around, come to  visit and pray at the shrine of a saint, a pir, located in the Bijay Mandal area, leaving incense sticks and matchboxes in their wake. There are four permanent staff of the ASI here, who find it difficult to deal  with the large area of the site and the different users, most of whom are antagonistic to them. 5.    What we finally could do  The FrASI managed to do some of what we had planned to, over the span of one year, entirely through voluntary efforts by different members, both within and outside the ASI .  The first part of our effort, which was to disseminate information , was done as an ongoing process through a blog formulated and formatted early on in the formation of FrASI. The blog was intended to be a space not just for dissemination but also for dialogue; it invited and contained specific information about what we  were doing or intended to do at Begumpur and Bijay Mandal, and what we hoped to do at a more general level, including information of interest about the ASI’s conservation or excavation work in other sites.  Whatever we were doing as a process and as outcomes were uploaded publicly on the web, couched in non-technical language.  13  Minutes of the Site Meeting at Begumpur on 21 May 2012, Dr N. G upta’s observation    Information    was also disseminated through events planned at site  with the participation of some of the inhabitants, primarily the village elders, and with some of the residents and users around the site, primarily the students of the MIS.  At one such  very successful event, a photo exhibition was put up in the foyer of the Masjid, 14  and opportunities were created to publicly share bo th villagers’  and ASI staff  ’s experiences and memories of the site, where many locals expressed their thoughts, particularly the women of the village.  Tasks were shared between ASI staff and other members of FrASI to make such an event possible, including writing and editorial work for signage and information panels, and identification of old photos documenting rare views of the area from the 1950s-60s from the ASI Photography Department. Resources; the MIS lent display boards for the week long exhibition; the ASI Delhi Circle organised large prints of photographs, and ensured security by deputing extra staff, and got the entire area cleaned.  There was participation of people from the nearby areas, including local school-children, and samples of drawings, writings and posters by MIS students depicting their understanding of the monuments, which lent an unusually festive air to the place. Shri A.K. Pandey from the ASI Delhi Circle, and Shri Raghubir ji, a prominent village elder, addressed everyone in the Mosque courtyard. There was much bonhomie, and the 50 odd people present joined the ASI in a pledge to protect our combined heritage. Students and  villagers took centre stage, and transformed the monument into an active clean place.  The ASI provided hot samosas to eat, which the children especially seemed to enjoy. Most people who attended came away  with an increased appreciation of the monument and the ASI. In the short term, this was an important achievement  —  the students of MIS, whose efforts to clean and green the outlying area of Bijay Mandal, had been earlier facilitated by the FRASI by liaising  with the ASI Horticulture Department, and who participated regularly in the meetings,  were very enthused by the entire exercise. They came away with a feeling and regard for at least this monument. Some of the villagers had an opportunity to interact with other citizens of Delhi and express their views; and relive and share memories of the site, through the older photographs; for the space of a few days they saw another side to the ASI.  At a less ‘exciting’ level, t he FrASI met on different occasions at site with local and central ASI officials and staff, 15  and had formal and informal public consultations with villagers 16 ; with representatives of other authorities connected with Begumpur, such as those from INTACH and the National Monuments Authority, working on bylaws for Begumpur 17 , and with children from the MIS. Some FrASI 18  trained children from MIS to lead heritage walks in the site. Awareness about the site and its importance was also disseminated through assigned studio work to students from the ID Department of  S.P.A. Delhi. There was, for that year, increased visitor footfall and general interest in the site.  6.    What we couldn’t do    These, however, were ‘ flash in the pan ’  events. Our long term objectives of the FrASI could not be met. We were unable to formulate   a sustainable format   for the Friends of ASI  , which could be then taken as an overall guide to be followed at regional levels. Though the long-standing sewage overflow from the manhole pipe was rectified, thanks to the media-coverage possible through the efforts of FrASI members, we were unable to initiate measures for essential sanitary facilities,  water supply, garbage disposal; or systematic and sustained cleaning through community service outreach programmes that may have helped the development of Begumpur and Bijay Mandal as pleasant, safe and inclusive public spaces. Suggestions that a designated area inside the DDA Park in the vicinity of Begumpur village be 14  Held on 30 th  January 2015 15  Mr Ajay Singh, C.Asst. and Mr A.K. Pande, Dy SA, ASI Delhi Circle 16  Shri R.D.Sharma, Shri Raghubir Chowdhary, 127 Begumpur, who represents the village elders.  and Rohtas Kataria)  17  Dr Meera Dass and Dr Sanghamitra Basu 18  Sohail Hashmi, Robinson
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