Indian Government Bulldozes National Cultural Institutions
By HG Masters
Amid the devastating second wave of Covid-19 that has swept through India in the first months of 2021, the Indian government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has carried ahead with its USD 2.8 billion redevelopment of the central government district in New Delhi, including the demolition of historical buildings such as the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the National Museum, and the National Archives. The oppositional Congress Party and numerous leading cultural figures have decried the continued construction work while hospitals across India experience shortages of oxygen, medical equipment, and vaccines, and as new Covid-19 cases remain rampant.
The redevelopment initiative, known as the Central Vista project, will transform the areas around the Rajpath (or Kingsway), a central axis from the President’s House to the India Gate, with the construction of a new Parliament building, lavish new private residences for the prime minister and vice-president, as well as ten new blocks to accommodate government offices. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts will be relocated to a building on the premises of nearby Jamnagar House by 2024, while the National Museum will be relocated to either the North or South Blocks of the Secretariat Building. Many concerns have been raised by critics about the transportation and temporary storage of precious objects and historical documents, and whether those materials would still be available after the move.
On May 12, a group of intellectuals, professors, artists, and museum directors released a statement calling on the government to halt the project amid the pandemic and called for a reassessment of its aims. “It is especially troubling that this extravagant project is moving ahead in the midst of a devastating pandemic, endangering workers, and squandering scarce resources that could be used to save lives.” The 87 signatories included scholars Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Iftikhar Dadi; artists Anish Kapoor, Ram Rahman, Nilima Sheikh, G. M. Sheikh, and Vivan Sundaram; writers Geeta Kapur and Orhan Pamuk; and museum directors Glenn Lowry of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Suhanya Raffel of Hong Kong’s M+, and Chris Dercon of Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, Paris.
Another of the prominent intellectuals who signed the letter to Modi, cultural anthropologist and media theorist Arjun Appadurai, writing in The Wire on May 25, compared the Central Vista project to the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992, and described the initiative as part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s effort to replace the Islamic and colonial histories of India with a “Ram Rajya remake of modern Hindutva historiography.”
HG Masters is deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.
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