Swapna Liddle worries about rewriting history, changing names, to suit ideology

November 14, 2018

“There is no excuse for us today, or in the 20th century when the Babri Masjid demolition happened, to try to right any perceived wrongs of the past. Even assuming that a temple was demolished in the 16th century, does it mean that we have to behave like that today?” she asks.

Swapna Liddle
Swapna Liddle is a historian who has endeavoured to make history and heritage accessible through informative, entertaining and easy to read works. Her focus on 19th century Delhi and a PhD on the subject has led to many years in activism to preserve the historic architecture and neighbourhoods in the capital. For many years she has been associated with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and is currently the Convener of its Delhi Chapter.

Her works include Delhi: 14 Historic Walks (Westland, 2011), Chandni Chowk: The Mughal city of Old Delhi (Speaking Tiger, 2017), Sair-ul-Manazil (edited and annotated; Tulika 2017), and ‘Connaught Place and the making of New Delhi’ (Speaking Tiger, 2018.)
In an exclusive interview with Sabrang India, she spoke to Ujjawal Krishnam.
Your love for Delhi and particularly Shahjahanabad led you to write a PhD thesis on its cultural and intellectual life. How did this come to be?
I was a student of history. I studied at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. I was particularly fascinated by the East India Company time period. Slowly I began to get interested in the monuments of Delhi, which also, of course, made me interested in the history of Delhi. Because I was interested in the 19th century, it automatically led me to narrow down the subject of my thesis and that meant Shahjahanabad. I specifically worked on cultural and intellectual developments during that period.
You are the convener of INTACH's Delhi chapter which is actively involved in a variety of projects to promote the cause of heritage conservation. Several legal interventions in the form of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) or campaigns to save threatened heritage were made. India can be called a difficult country when it comes to heritage conservation, then, how do you execute such tasks? 
Our main aim is to raise awareness and education – among the general public but also among public authorities and different departments of the government. We do this from a position of strength, simply because we have been working and researching heritage related issues for several decades; we have built up capacity and expertise. We try to work with the government authorities and also challenge them when we think that they have not done right by heritage. It is at times a difficult task.
You are interested in organizing heritage walks. What is the importance of a heritage walk? 
They are a crucial means of increasing awareness among citizens. I feel that they have built a greater prominence of heritage issues in the last few years.
In a recent column, KJ Alphons, Minister of State for Tourism (Independent Charge) has described 'Adopt a Heritage Scheme’ as a radical idea. How do you see this development?
It is unfortunate that the issues in this scheme have got bogged down in ill-informed criticism. I for one, think that this could be a good way of bringing corporate funding to monuments. A lot of people said that the ticket money would go to the funder, that they would be doing conservation, that the monument would be ‘handed over’ to them – all of which was not correct. The arguments around these non-issues obscured the other potential problems with the scheme. I think there are ambiguities that need to be cleared.
One, even construction work for toilets, or illumination etc. in a monument such as Red Fort needs great sensitivity towards the historical structure and the archaeology. The public does not know if the ASI is closely supervising these works. Second, things like signage, sound and light shows, interpretation centres, etc., need a great degree of knowledge and sensitivity. Who are the knowledge experts who are contributing to and designing these, and what is the information that will be conveyed? Thirdly, our monuments have been very inclusive places. Even in Delhi, people come from all parts of India, rural and urban, and of various classes. I would not want our monuments to become out of reach for the common man/woman in the obsession with making them ‘world class’. This could happen in two ways – by increasing ticket prices, or by making it too high tech. I am already finding that there are automated ticket turnstiles and there are people posted at them who literally grab the token from your hand to swipe it, not trusting you to do it yourself. It is putting in technology for the sake of it, has no clear benefit and makes people uncomfortable. There should be a debate on these issues.
The prominent heritage sites have always received attention but there are several structures spread across the nation which suffer from extreme negligence. I have personally visited Sevasi Vav which is considered as the oldest and most beautiful Vav of Sultan Mehmud Begada’s time dating back to 16th century. There was not even a board indicating its name, let alone preservation. Your comments on this?
There are of course a large number of monuments all around the country, some protected by the ASI, some by state authorities and some at the municipal level. Even among these, attention and care vary greatly. In addition, there is a large number that is not legally protected at all. The problem is that as long as heritage is seen as antithetical to ‘development’, few people will want to protect it. Instead, it should be seen as an engine of development, as a source of sustainable growth for local communities, through tourism as well as the preservation of traditional ways of life. Governments need to evolve holistic policies for heritage, integrating not only tourism and culture but also town planning, water management, employment generation, etc.
Allahabad and Faizabad have been renamed to Prayagraj and Ayodhya respectively. Ahmadabad is to be called Karnavati soon. Do you welcome this?
I am against name changing generally, because layers of history are lost in the process, and it becomes a spiralling vicious cycle, with each new regime embarking on a new round of renaming. At the same time, I do not endorse undoing name changes that took place long in the past.
Majoritarianism has been fueling Indian socio-political debates since independence. There are many fringe theories by the Hindutva brigade giving Islamic heritage sites Hindutva colour, prominent among them is ‘Taj Mahal by PN Oak’. What according to you could be after-effects of this Hindu-centric historical revisionism?
Theories like that of Oak have long been there. The problem arises when they begin to enter textbooks or begin to inform official pronouncements and policies. Today, of course, there is also the role of social media, which can be a means of rapid spread of misinformation. It is sad not only because it can sow divisiveness, but because it makes for a poorly educated, misinformed public.
Ancient sites in India mostly bear religion connections. There are many temples where entry of a non-religious visitor is prohibited or some strict custom is followed. To what extent is it acceptable?
We should make a distinction between monuments and heritage sites that are living buildings. There are inevitably some differences. Though Rashtrapati Bhavan is a heritage building, it is not a monument, and visits of people have to be strictly regulated. The same goes to some extent for religious buildings, even if they are historic. In these cases, the emphasis should be on ensuring that they are properly conserved, rather than concentrating on the nature of public access. On the other hand, I am totally against re-starting religious observances in places such as mosques and temples which have been protected monuments for a long time, and where prayers have not been had.
You work for heritage conservation spans decades and you must have assessed attitudes of various governments towards this. How should the government coordinate the execution of heritage conservation programs? 
As I mentioned earlier, heritage should be seen as a positive sustainable development goal. Good policies, which include sensitizing various departments (not only culture and tourism), and incentivizing, supporting and educating public or private owners and managers of these structures are very important. These positive measures should be combined with a strict enforcement of heritage laws and enactment of such laws in areas where they do not exist.
Pollution is a direct threat to heritage sites. How can conservation sites be saved from this menace? Are statutory bodies concerned about this?
Pollution actually is only one of the factors affecting buildings – most notably marble covered structures such as the Taj. These have to be dealt with in a very scientific manner. In many cases, it would be helpful to not strip the patina of age that marble acquires over time. This gives it an off-white colour but protects the stone. If an obsession with making it white leads to a stripping of this patina through aggressive means like chemicals, it could leave the surface exposed to damage from the effects of pollution. For most buildings, the greater concern is the effects of improper constructions in the vicinity, improper design of drainage, or disrepair which leads to water damage. Proper upkeep can go a long way towards preventing these problems.
Late 20th century India saw the demolition of Babri Mosque. Politicians tricked people to demolish and vandalise the historic precincts. What is the probability of it happening to other historic structures? The government is sponsoring writers like Dinanath Batra to revise history textbooks. Do you think these moves are an attempt to raise sleeper cells for mass political gain? Where does the root cause of this lie?
 I of course totally agree with the concern that Profs Habib and Thapar and many others have expressed. There is no excuse for us today, or in the 20th century when the Babri Masjid demolition happened, to try to right any perceived wrongs of the past. Even assuming that a temple was demolished in the 16th century, does it mean that we have to behave like that today? Unfortunately, the answer to this is tied up intimately to the question of what our ideal for India’s identity is. If we believe in the inclusive ideals expressed in our constitution, the answer would be, ‘of course not’. On the other hand, if the aim is to overturn the constitution and aim instead for a Hindu state, or any other such exclusionist identity, then the answer would be different. It is the responsibility of all of us to uphold the values of our constitution.
India is certainly facing rifts on many fronts, one of them is education. While NCERT brilliantly revised the textbooks of social sciences under Prof Krishna Kumar's NCF 2005, there is still low leaning towards social sciences. A typical Indian parent doesn't want her ward to pursue a career in social sciences unless the ward is willing to appear for exams of civil services. How can this rising imbalance be tackled?

I suspect that the answer is going to come from the market itself. There are fields in which a good social sciences education is an asset. These are especially in the areas of culture, media, tourism, etc. which are growing sectors. Even a traditional area such as law is now seen as very desirable. Once people realize that a social science education can be beneficial for these increasingly desirable fields, the balance will slowly tip.
History is quite a complicated subject. How, according to you, should history be studied? Your message for youngsters who are willing to pursue social sciences as their career? 
Unfortunately, the problem lies with our school examination system, which still tests students on facts, rather than their understanding of historical processes. The need to memorize minute facts like names and dates in order to score on exams, which puts off a lot of students in the school itself. They never opt for and get a chance to experience history in college, which is very different and really interesting, at least at a good university.
What are your future plans? 
My first love is research and writing. I hope to take more time out for that. My current project is turning my PhD thesis into a book for the non-academic reader. I feel that a study of the intellectual and cultural changes in Delhi during the Company period – the era of Ghalib, Momin, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Bahadur Shah Zafar, etc. will be of great interest for a general readership too.