Conflicts and conservation
THE conservation of cultural heritage in India today is defined primarily as a management exercise directed by conventions, recommendations and charters formulated by the international community on the one hand and provisions of the Constitution of India on the other.
In the period from the 1950s to the late 1970s, the international community adopted major conventions, recommendations and charters for the protection of the cultural heritage. Some of these are the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954), the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (1964), the Report of the World Commission on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) and, last and undoubtedly the most famous of all, the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972) better known as the World Heritage Convention.1
Richard A. Engelhardt points out that the Convention of 1972 is undoubtedly the most universal and powerful. In November 2001, Unesco and Iccrom, at the request of the world heritage committee, jointly convened a meeting of heritage professionals from across the Asian region where it was decided that the Asian Academy for Conservation Management of Cultural Heritage be developed to upgrade the professional capacity for cultural heritage conservation and management in the Asian region.2
The campaign, first undertaken by the Unesco in 1959-60 on the basis of an urgent request from Egypt and Sudan to protect the Nubian monuments from destruction due to the construction of the Aswan Dam, introduced the idea that monuments are the cultural heritage of humanity and therefore of concern to the international community. Nevertheless, it was clear that the state, Egypt in this case, should bear a reasonable share of the burden.3
As a member of the global order India can adopt these provisions provided they do not go against the spirit of the Constitution. Some of these are being followed. The conservation of heritage in India is regulated by the following constitutional provisions: the fundamental rights to freedom of religion and culture (articles 21 to 30) that empower different communities to look after their cultural property; the directive principles (article 49 and 51.A) which empower the state to protect monuments and artifacts of national importance (List I-20, 6; II-7, 12: III-40 of the 7th schedule).
This regime, however, does not provide for numerous shared sites and built structures constructed by diverse communities dispersed throughout our rural and urban areas. Nor does it address volatile issues that underlie the destruction of cultural heritage and are thus central to determining the nature and scope of conservation. Some of them are as follows: the rate of destruction and dissipation of the diversity of natural resources and of social and cultural traditions on account of modern economic development processes far exceeds the rate of recovery, reproduction and regeneration; the state and the dominant community combine their power and authority to marginalize other communities and their heritage; differences multiply to give rise to conflicts – these escalate into violence, war and terrorism; the individual, family and community are rendered weak and vulnerable; gradually social and cultural fatigue and the monumental inertia of time have begun to undermine our confidence.
In such a situation the nature and scope of conservation cannot be a management exercise restricted to the territorial confines of a site. It has instead to be concerned with the revitalization of society and culture, through a network of middle level civil society social institutions that lie between the state on the one hand and the individual, family and community on the other.
The conservationist’s field of work is overcast with a heterogeneity of historical elements. These include both secular and religious built structures, artifacts, myths, landscapes, legends, manuscripts, rituals, customary practices, beliefs and memories. They carry a variety of social, cultural, political, historical and psychological meanings. Some of them have civilizational depth while others are part of modern history. By and large conservationists are concerned with commercially usable heritage, for instance those related to tourism. Much less attention is given to secular structures such as baolis as our obsession with modern technology and understanding of modernity prevent us from developing principles that underlie such structures. Together they constitute heritage and not tradition.
In everyday usage tradition and heritage are deployed interchangeably. On closer look there is a difference in their meaning. Heritage either belongs to all or to none. Unlike tradition, it does not constitute the identity of any single cultural-ethnic group. Heritage either belongs to all (a diversity of peoples) who have contributed their labour to its protection and conservation or to none. Those who look after it are caretakers and custodians (not owners) on behalf of the ‘all’. In contrast, those who share a common history, culture and language look after tradition. The tradition of a group is its heritage. However, all of heritage is not part of a group’s tradition.
When does tradition become heritage? In my view this happens when its identity and survival in the world is not dependent on the labour of the community that built it but on the labour of love and care from diverse groups of people who have looked after it. This applies to several abandoned heritage built structures that are being looked after either by the state (for instance, the remains of the Harappan civilization are not linked to any particular group – they belong to all Indians) or by people living in the immediate neighbourhood (for instance the Kishan Mandir in Kishankot, discussed later in the essay).
These heritage elements can be grasped as remains, residues and fragments. As remains they invoke a sense of a larger whole; as residues they induce a sense of past social processes and thought patterns; and as fragments they convey a sense of injury.
In most instances there is a record of property attached to such structures. The conservation of such heritage is possible only when property ownership is in favour of a collective of caretakers. I believe the most appropriate way to conserve heritage is to use the property to develop livelihoods and generate resources for conservation work.
In addition, there are several community traditions that have evolved by means of social exchange and thus share several ‘common elements’ or have integrated ‘plural elements in a common space.’ These too are part of heritage. The common elements, such as the five elements of nature, the work of the ten gurus of Sikhi (Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind) or the works of Kabir, have variously been interpreted as giving rise to the tradition of distinct sects and communities. The conservation of such heritage requires measures preventing any one interpretation of the ‘common elements’ from marginalizing and colonizing other groups and their interpretations.
The conservation of ‘plural elements in a common space’ or of the ‘common space that brings together plural elements’ such as is found in the Guru ki Maseet the mosque built by the Guru (described later in the essay) requires that the principle – the promotion not of one’s own religion but of the other and by extension the freedom of the other is the premise for the freedom of the self – is cardinal to the constitution of the group of caretakers.
Heritage leaves us with a variety of narratives. Some are tales of constructive peacekeeping, of social processes. For instance, the transformation of a prince into a Buddha, of a dacoit into the poet Valmiki and the works of several Sufibhakti saints and the ten Sikh gurus. Others are tales of conflicts, violence, war, terrorism, disaster and breakdown, for instance, memories of partition, communal violence and the divisive force of corporate victimization in the Bhopal gas tragedy. Finally, some narratives articulate the metaphysical anxiety underlying the yearning for continuity, common to both war and peace. For instance, the Harappan seal depicting Gilgamesh brings to us the story of his arduous journey into the forest in search of everlasting life.
Amore recent expression of this anxiety can be seen in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore:
The war drums are sounded
Men force their features into frightfulness
and gnash their teeth;
And before they rush out to gather raw
human flesh for the death’s larder,
they march to the temple of Buddha,
to claim his blessings.
They pray for success;
for they must rise weeping and wailing.
In the wake, sever ties of love,
Plant flags on the ashes of desolate homes,
Devastate the centres of culture
and shrines of beauty,
Mark red with blood their trails
across green meadows and populous
And so they march to the temple of Buddha,
to claim his blessings.
They will punctuate each thousand of
the maimed and the killed.
With trumpeting of their triumph,
Arouse demons at the sight
of limbs torn bleeding from women
And they pray that they may befog minds
And poison God’s sweet air of breath.
And therefore they march to the temple
of Buddha, the compassionate,
to claim his blessings.
To take this discussion forward I describe the conservation work undertaken by a multi-disciplinary team put together by the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI) during 1998-2000 at the Guru ki Maseet in Hargobindpur and the Kishan Mandir in Kishankot in district Gurdaspur, Punjab. The Guru ki Maseet is situated on the banks of the river Beas where it was originally built by the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib. He also built the Akal Takht that stands facing the Harmandir Sahib in the Golden Temple complex at Amritsar. Both these sacred buildings were constructed in the early 17th century.
Historically, the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev first built the Harmandir Sahib to give expression to piri, the spiritual aspect, and his son Guru Hargobind constructed the Akal Takht to introduce miri, the temporal aspect of Sikhi. In keeping with Sikhi, the piri regulates the miri. The two nishan sahibs represent this relation. Of the two, the one representing piri is taller than the other one which represents miri.
The story of the maseet, described here in brief, expresses this relation. Having defeated the Mughal forces in a fierce battle that took place at Rohilkhand (now Hargobindpur) the guru consulted his Sikhs to find a way that would bring to an end the war between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. After much deliberation the guru requested Vishwakarma, who at that moment descended in human incarnation, to construct a beautiful maseet, confident that this sacred shrine would bring together the Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus.
Several years after partition, the Nihang Singhs took the initiative to look after the abandoned maseet. In 1997, the Delhi-based CRCI undertook conservation work with the consent of the Nihang Singhs. At that point in time the Nihang Singhs daily read the Guru Granth Sahib which was placed inside the maseet. The conservation work generated a mixed response. The most significant was a petition to the Human Rights Commission that the maseet was being converted into a gurdwara. The local police office entrusted with the inquiry, however, reported that this was not so. Later the Wakf Board came forward to claim that since the maseet was listed with them, in accordance with their norms and regulations, Muslims should be allowed to offer prayers as and when they wanted. They also requested the Nihang Singhs to house the Guru Granth Sahib in a different place.
The Nihang Singhs willingly agreed and on their request the CRCI team constructed a separate room for the Guru Granth Sahib. They, however, requested the Wakf Board that the responsibility for looking after the maseet should remain with them. The Wakf Board willingly agreed. In 2001, by means of a written agreement, the Nihang Singhs acknowledged the Wakf Board’s right over the maseet and the Wakf Board in return endorsed the right of the Nihangs to continue as caretakers. As a substantiation of this reciprocity the members of the Wakf offered namaz at the maseet in the presence of the Nihang Singhs. As an institution of civil society, the CRCI team performed an important role by creating conducive conditions for conversation and dialogue.
When the CRCI team visited Kishankot to explore possibilities for the conservation of the Kishan Mandir, built in the late 17th century, it was being looked after by the Kishan Mandir Trust, set up by a middle class mazhabi Sikh landlord. As a result the conservation work was initiated and supported by the trust. The Kishan Mandir has valuable wall paintings. It was constructed by a family of thakurs whose descendants now live in Delhi, having abandoned the mandir and the village in the mid-1980s. The thakurs, though nostalgic about the mandir and the years they lived in Kishankot, were reluctant to return. Before the thakurs left, the mandir was exclusively used by them, though occasionally on festival days people from the village were allowed access. The social structure of the village was feudal with most villagers working for the thakur’s family in their household, agricultural fields and gardens.
After the thakurs left the village, their ‘labour of creation’ was dead and this prepared the necessary conditions for ‘the labour of love and care’ to replace it. The village began to participate in the democratic process of development – elections were held, a panchayat was formed and several programmes for economic and social development were initiated. Not all benefited from them and consequently inequalities were compounded. Not only did the social structures continue to remain inequitous, several new social problems cropped up.
Alongside, there began a bitter, violent and acrimonious conflict for possession of the mandir between the middle class mazhabi Sikh landlord and an upper class jat Sikh landlord, each backed by rival political parties. This divided the village into two groups. The mazhabi Sikh group took the matter to court, formed the Kishan Mandir Trust and through a series of litigations assumed responsibility to protect the mandir. In its perception, the trust believed it had saved the mandir from being appropriated by a jat landlord.
From the standpoint of the CRCI team, some aspects of the situation proved significant for conservation. Though both groups enjoyed a meaningful relation with the mandir, their understanding of materials and restoration was not in keeping with conservation standards. Crucially, the social structure of Kishankot was highly inequitous, culturally diverse and inflicted with severe social problems such as unemployment, alcoholism, wife beating and inter-family feuds. Finally, its association with the trust conveyed to the people that the CRCI team was biased in favour of the mazhabi group and prejudiced against the jat group.
The group with the mazhabi landlord was active in conservation work. It did not want people from the other group to participate even as those who supported the jat landlord dissuaded people from cooperating with the CRCI team. The CRCI insisted that these quarrels should not be brought to the conservation site. Though an effort was made to set up a ‘conservation group in the village independent of the Kishan Mandir Trust and the panchayat system, it was not a community organization. The intention underlying this effort was to create a common space for peaceful activity that might help restrain people from violence while enabling them to find solutions to their problems.
This failed because both the trust (which was aligned to the Congress party) and the panchayat (which was controlled by the Akalis) felt threatened. The question was who would take credit for work being done at the mandir – the Congress or the Akalis? The CRCI team’s position was that conservation work must be kept out of the folds of vote politics. From the standpoint of the district administration the CRCI sponsored ‘group’ enjoyed no legitimacy as they saw no reason why conservation could not be undertaken with the support of the panchayat.
The panchayat emerged as an institution in unstable equilibrium. It could not be free either of the dynamics of vote politics or state power and its development programmes. Thus, the CRCI decided to work with the trust. A central concern was to prevent the trust from becoming self-centred and promoting an agenda for destructive development.
Agroup of masons and youth from the village and its neighbourhood were gradually trained into selected aspects of conservation work. In the course of interaction with the people of Kishankot several activities were initiated for children, youth and women all of which got linked to the conservation work. These activities included setting up a sports club, a non-formal education centre, a tailoring and embroidery centre and a gardening club.
In addition, the trust initiated a programme to generate livelihoods. The village tank was prepared for breeding fish for the local market. In the absence of funds, the initial task of draining the water and deepening the tank was undertaken by volunteers from the village on the assurance that they would get the first right to wage labour in subsequent works once funds became available.4
Through these initiatives, an effort was made to communicate that voluntary work was necessary for conservation to ensure that everyone participated to evolve an understanding of conservation principles, practices and procedures, deal with social problems, and integrate the mandir into the routine life of the village, making it equally accessible to all.
I learnt that the core of conservation is a healing process and not merely a process of empowering the people of the village – technically, socially, economically and politically; that with the help of women, children and the elders who not only are the most vulnerable sections of society but also the foundation for the future the sense of collective life can be recovered; and that appropriate conservation practices and procedures can be evolved in reciprocity between professionals from the team and skilled craftspersons from the village.
In both instances the collective comprises of different communities. Like the Harappan civilization, the Guru ki Maseet and Kishan Mandir belong to the collective of caretakers. In the case of Harappa the collective is the people of India; in the case of Guru ki Maseet it is the Nihang Singhs and the Wakf Board; and in the case of Kishan Mandir the collective is the people of the village. In both instances the collective comprises of different communities.
In the course of work at the Guru ki Maseet and Kishankot it emerged that a conservationist needs to be more than a technically skilled person or a professional expert who only has his/her expertise to share. He is required to deal with conflict situations. The practical and theoretical skills for this develop in the process of conservation, which contributes to the making of the ‘culture of peace’ and strengthens the fabric of civil society.
The rhythm of conservation work thus runs against the grain of development processes initiated with high-speed technologies. It has to confront a hierarchical and inequitous society where not all communities have equal access to public spaces. Under a secular regime, groups with different capabilities come in different numbers to assert their constitutional right to propogate their religion and culture. In such a situation, different groups compete with each other for power in the public sphere. Thus public and private spaces become contested. Tradition loses its forward-looking orientation. The exercise of this right may actually undermine human rights – viz. since conservation protects group rights it can run the risk of promoting the discriminatory principles of the caste system and inhuman practices such as child marriage.
Further, the work of the conservationist is to recontextualise the elements of heritage by means of the labour of care. The process of recontextualizing elements of heritage (residues, fragments and remains) draws in several stakeholders from different communities and from different strata of society. They bring with them social problems and conflicts. Since these problems affect conservation work, they need to be addressed as part of it. This is possible as stakeholders begin to address these problems and see themselves as caretakers on behalf of society. This creates shared common spaces linked with heritage. They make a joint effort and contribute their labour of care (which includes physical work) to deal with social questions such as group rights, entitlements, problems of materials, resources and skills. It begins to restore people’s confidence to deal with their disabilities, to prevent differences and conflicts from degenerating into violence and inculcates a sense of collectiveness and plurality. The conservation habitus begins to evolve. This is the foundation of a culture of peace.
Conservationists can neither be value neutral nor see themselves as participating in conflict resolution. Both these approaches encourage conflict, which is not always good for conservation. There are no ready solutions to these problems. At best we can discuss and initiate the process for developing an approach. I would like to suggest that to be effective conservation must safe-guard human rights.
Conservation, as I see it, is a study of structural vulnerability. It has three aspects. First, it requires developing an understanding that remains, residues and fragments are fragile because they are displaced from their original historic situation and thus lack a ground for acquiring an identity. As shadows of a larger historical process they are more than material objects with physical properties. Having withstood the test of time they show the strength of human labour.
Second, it calls for the identification of the strengths and weaknesses of the immediate social context where they may find their ground and acquire a new identity. Thus it is important to know the relation between heritage and the context. This relation may be one of complementarity or contradiction and contrast. Third, it is an appeal to several stakeholders (that are linked to the heritage) to contribute the labour of care, come together and participate in the process to deal with conflicts that are likely to surface in the course of integrating heritage with the contemporary context. Such an effort facilitates a conservation habitus5 and initiates a healing process that prepares the ground for the emergence of a sense of collective.
Our ‘habitus’ constitutes us as ‘beings with habits’ – attitudes, emotions, practices, rituals, customs, thinking habits, material culture, ways of earning a livelihood, social relations and so on. The habitus defines the work of a conservationist in the likeness of organic gardening, that is to create conditions (by keeping away destructive forces – goats, buffalos and other intruders) for nature, both human and non-human, to unfold in the time and space of history.
The conservation habitus in my view has five aspects – shelter, parsimony, resilience, elasticity and plurality. They are aspects of a habit as well as of a structure and system. Shelter is both to protect and look after. It regulates the relation between the inside and outside of a structure and system. It has a physical and a social and cultural aspect. As a habit, to give shelter is to generate warmth necessary for recovery. Our memories (in the form of ideas, events, material culture and social processes) can generate warmth as much as an ability to forget. The past that remains with us can both be a curse and a blessing. Memories can cause illness as much as they can heal. Each by itself annihilates differences, generates conflicts and breeds violence.
There are so many situations wherein good theory and poetry can combine! Imagine our condition if the historical landscape was either cluttered with material remains or if there was nothing that remained from the past. Equally, imagine our condition if, in the search for everlasting life and unbroken continuity, we were to either forget all that went into making us what we are today or we were unable to forget anything at all. To remember or to forget can haunt as much as it can rejuvenate. Under such conditions there is no shelter and civil life is not possible.
Parsimony prevents dissipation of materials, efforts, energy and symbolic capital. It is an aspect of work culture that needs to be cultivated to deal with and restrain our wasteful habits. What is alarming is the speed of development. The rate at which injuries are inflicted is faster than the rate at which people can recover (with all the support systems). Wounds and scars do not heal for several generations. As our vulnerability to crisis increases our cultural reserves are depleted and capacities for recuperation diminish. Instead of generating a creative and constructive social force, contradictions and conflicts destroy the self, society and human and non-human nature.
Resilience is an attribute of materials used for conservation and of a system that is constructed on sound internal principles. This gives stability and over time adds to grandeur. What is significant is the rapidity with which differences degenerate into conflict, conflict into violence, and war and terrorism mirror each other. Human beings are reduced to thinking of themselves as wronged and ill-treated. Annihilation and absolute negation determines the relation between individuals, groups and nations and between man and nature. For instance, victims of social conflict and violence pay back their oppressors in the same coin. In the process they become like their oppressors and reproduce the social and material conditions that were responsible for their oppression. This vicious cycle of violence continually reproduces itself. As a consequence, over time, human beings become vulnerable.
Wholeness is a property of structure that equips it to cope with the wear and tear. An injury is not always reversible and it is difficult to find replacements without disturbing the intention and meaning. However, the intention and meaning embedded in the fragment acquires a fresh significance in changed historical contexts. This contributes to the wholesomeness of the fragment. An attempt to replace a part or different parts without considering the relation to other parts and the impact on the intention and meaning, destroys significance.
Plurality is concerned with respect for differences and the balance of opposing forces generated from them. Where crisis, breakdowns and disasters multiply, human beings begin thinking of themselves as victims and not the makers of civilizations and history. The pursuit of freedom by ‘one’ can then result in terror for the other; plurality is favourable for recovery, conversation and dialogue.
The making of the conservation habitus equips individuals and institutions in civil society with multiple skills – social and cultural – and work procedures, which together constitute the conservation process.
International conventions can make available professional procedures and international standards. Though important, by themselves these are ineffective and meaningless for the collective life of society and nation in the absence of a strong civil society. In all likelihood, legal measures will only create core heritage enclaves (a new form of cultural property) protected by buffer zones from destructive economic development even as the rest of society will increasing face more complex problems. In such a situation, the legal framework, no matter how just and fair, may well become tyrannical as its implementation would require stricter policing and stiffer procedures.
At best it can contribute to tourism, improve the quality of experience for visitors, marginally improve the lives of host communities, and contribute to the local and the national economy. At worst, it may deepen wounds and stiffen social boundaries. For instance, in the name of conserving cultural heritage, social and cultural practices such as child marriage, dowry and the patriarchal social system can become stronger. This would be contrary to the ethic of conservation.
The process of conservation is guided by the principle that the freedom of ‘one’ is premised on the freedom of the other; that the assertion of identity of a community is not a threat to the identity of other communities. Cultural plurality promotes cooperation in public spaces and creates common spaces most conducive to the conservation habitus.
There exists no given frame of reference for heritage conservation. There are legal regimes to protect and promote cultural property of different traditions. However, there is nothing to safeguard plural cultural property that has representation from two or more communities such as in the Guru ki Maseet. Constitutionally, there is a provision to protect and promote only ones own tradition. Accordingly, either there will be no legitimate caretaker of culturally plural properties or they will become contested sites, each community claiming that part associated with its own tradition.
Constitutional fundamental rights are by themselves insufficient to suggest guidelines that deal with complex issues of conservation. The secularism of the Constitution is not the same as the pluralism of the Guru ki Maseet and other similar structures that adorn India’s civilization landscape. While the Constitution favours the protection and promotion of ones own tradition, the maseet is an example of a community promoting and protecting and incorporating the tradition of other communities a part of its own. The Constitution favours multiculturalism while the maseet is an example of social and cultural plurality.6
Some of the issues that emerge are as follows: The history of conservation begins under the sponsorship of the state and moves to emphasizing community participation and ownership. Over this history there have emerged organizations working for conservation in the public, private and joint sectors.
In each sector, the method and approach is different, depending on the historical-cultural context within which buildings are located. All historic buildings, whether part of a living tradition or of the distant past, have a contemporaneous identity. Their presence in the modern world is fraught with danger. On the one hand, they are our national pride; on the other they are sites of contestation. They can become the reason for inter-community violence and even international conflicts. There are as many stakeholders as there are people who see themselves related to it. Furthermore, there is the question of resources and the slow, painstaking labour required to restore and look after the buildings.
All this points to a social political responsibility ingrained into conservation work. More than a technical job, conservation cannot either be defined from within the studio/laboratory/workshop or be handed over to the contractor. Conservationists have an important and significant role to play for the restoration of the built form which is also an act of writing history. Its preservation and conservation can lead to social divisions as much as it can prepare a common ground, a shared historical space to heal injuries inflicted by time.
What is our state of preparedness to shoulder this responsibility? For a start, there is a need to enumerate and describe the different kinds of capacities and skills required for proactive conservation. We then need to take stock of educational institutions, curricula and pedagogic methods. These need to be critically examined to fill the gaps. A continuous effort is required to link field learning with theory. The task at hand is to link a diversity of disciplines with the framework of restoration, which is infact a peace-keeping activity.
The above considerations can be summed up into a social framework for conservation. Social problems are an integral part of the conservation work. The first and most important social problem is the process which transforms difference into war and terrorism. It is worth recollecting at this juncture that the reason for conservation worldwide was the danger to heritage from war and terrorism. Most regulations and suggestions on the practice of conservation have been formulated by international organizations. These need to be examined from specific historic contexts and with respect to their effectiveness to protect buildings from war and terrorism.
Another important consideration is the relation between conservation and human rights. Conservation of heritage can easily degenerate into revivalism and support dogma, providing legitimacy to several inhuman social and cultural practices. We need to guard against such tendencies and give it a forward looking impetus.
1. The World Culture Report – Culture, Conflict and Pluralism 2000, Paris, Unesco, 2000, p. 153.
2. Richard A. Engelhardt, ‘Evolving Concepts of World Heritage: Need for New Management Strategies’, in Rajeshwari Tandon (ed), A Case for National Policy for Heritage Conservation and Management. New Delhi, INTACH, 2002, p. 47.
3. The World Culture Report, op. cit.
4. The work in Kishankot is incomplete. The reasons are beyond the scope of this essay.
5. This term was used by the French thinker Pierre Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice.
6. It can be argued that the Constitution is a continuation of the enlightenment colonial tradition and the maseet is a continuation of the Bhakti-Sufi tradition. Further, that they are opposed to each other.