Political Economy of Appropriating the Heritage

The claim to fame for Patiala rests on the historical fact of the city having been the capital of the Patiala princely state during the British rule. Patiala was one of the t well known and influential princely states at the time of independence of India from the British rule in 1947. The powers and privileges bestowed by the British colonial state on the rulers of the princely states in India were taken away by the Independent Indian state though not immediately after the independence. The nationalist India looked down upon the ex-princely states as the collaborators of the British colonial rulers.

With a history and memory of the city, which is associated with a seemingly shady and colonial collaborationist past, how does one explain this sudden re-emergence of proud interest in Patiala’s heritage? The answer lies in the politics and economics of heritage appropriation. Punjab is now ruled by India’s Congress Party which came here into power in 2002 after defeating the alliance of the Sikh/Punjabi nationalist party Akali Dal and its junior partner the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Punjab is the only state in India where the Sikhs are in a majority. The Sikhs, who constitute only about 2% of India’s population, are mainly concentrated in the Punjab and constitute about 62% of Punjab’s population. The Akali/BJP alliance had ruled Punjab from 1997 to 2002. The Congress Party leader in Punjab who is credited with defeating this alliance and bringing the Congress Party to power in Punjab is Captain Amrinder Singh who is a scion of the Patiala dynasty. Amrinder Singh was awarded with a Chief Ministership of Punjab by Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress, for having led the Congress Party to power in Punjab in the 2002 Punjab State Assembly Elections. Patiala Heritage project launched by Amrinder Singh government is as much a political project as it is an art project. Through the Patiala Heritage celebrations, Amrinder Singh is seeking to reclaim an aristocratic aura for himself which none of his political rivals either within his own Congress Party or in the main opposition Akali party can ever hope to claim. The projection of the glory of Patiala is a projection of the glory of Amrinder Singh in the current politico-historical context. The pposition Akali party is aware of this link between Patiala heritage and the political fortunes of Amrinder Singh. About six years ago, when the Akali Dal was in power, it saw to it that a proposal by a Patiala district official to have a heritage festival in the city in which the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was to be the star attraction, did not go forward. With in a few months of the fall of the Akali government, the new Congress government under Amrinder Singh resurrected the earlier rejected proposal. The heritage of Patiala appears to have become a political football game. However, this political contest over heritage appropriation is never stated openly by any of the contesting players. The contest remains couched in artistic language. What is on display is impressive art and heritage beauty but what is hidden behind this display is political contest and economic calculations/interests.

Inaugurating the Patiala heritage festival, the Punjab Governor J.F.R. Jacob said that Patiala had the potential to emerge on the international tourist map (The Tribune, February 15, 2003). The Punjab Chief Minister, Captain Amrinder Singh expressed the hope that he might be able to persuade the Taj Hotel group to set up a hotel in Patiala to give a fillip to tourism and to complement his government’s efforts to bring the city on to the national tourist map. The Chief Minister disclosed that he was aware of the Taj Group’s plans to open a few hotels in Punjab and that he planned to lobby the Taj Group to set up its first such hotel in Patiala (The Tribune, February 16, 2003). Not only in tourism, the Patiala Heritage display opened new business opportunities in the sports and fashion world. During the Patiala Heritage week,a Heritage Golf Tournament was held at the Black Elephant Golf Course, Patiala. One hundred and twelve golfers from Patiala, Chandigarh, Delhi and Ambala took part in the tournament, which was sponsored by Seagrams and Chivas Regal. The possibilities of the expansion of the rural sports entertainment business in the state that is agriculturally the t advanced state in India, were expanded by the organisation of a Rural Sports Festival segment of the heritage celebrations. The possibilities of the expansion of the fashion business in the state received a boost with the fashion show of the Indian dresses, with a focus on Punjabi dresses, proving a grand success.

Heritage is a contested arena. What aspect of the heritage is selected for display and what aspect is ignored and kept away from the public gaze, is shaped, if not determined altogether, by the politico-economic calculations of those who have the power to select and reject. The heritage of Patiala includes a rich combination of music, dance, architecture, dress, crafts, sculptures and paintings. The best of these art forms were selected and displayed during the Heritage Festival Week. However, Patiala has another heritage too. This heritage refers to the politically oppressive forms of rule by the Patiala Royal family. The folk memories and songs of the peasantry of the Patiala region tell many sagas of its exploitation by the Patiala royal family. Photographic and archival records of the sordid tales of the Patiala rule are an irrefutable evidence of the inglorious aspects of the Patiala heritage. That heritage was conveniently ignored during the Patiala Heritage Festival. An attempt was made to forget that heritage which is politically uncomfortable to the present rulers of Punjab. A pliant media is always helpful in such a political enterprise. Loads of stories were written on extolling the acts of various Maharajas of the Patiala dynasty. Very little, however, was written on figurers like Sewa Singh Thikhriwala who was a valiant peasant leader and was persecuted by the Patiala royal family. An impressive statue of Thikhriwala standing right in the centre of Patiala city, is an ever present and powerful reminder of another heritage of Patiala which was sought to be ignored during the heritage celebrations.

In the politics of appropriation of the heritage, the timing of the display of the heritage is another important dimension along with the content of selection and rejection of the components for display. What has been ignored now, could not have been ignored right after India’s independence in 1947 when the collective memories of the various struggles against the oppressive rule of the Patiala royal family were fresh. With the global rightwing shift in politics, it has become possible now that a member of that family (Amrinder Singh) has become the ruler of Punjab. Choosing Patiala for heritage celebrations at this point of time seems like a rational political choice for Amrinder Singh. It is a demonstration of his power and it makes him popular with the residents of Patiala whose parochial pride in their city gets a boost with these celebrations and the media interest in their city. Many business-minded interest groups in the city can see economic gains emerging from the varieties of business activities associated with the heritage celebrations. Pleased with their cultural pride and economic benefits, the voters of Patiala are more likely to re-elect their ‘Maharaja’ to the state assembly in the next elections. It seems like a win-win situation for the ‘Maharaja’ and the Patiala citizens. The celebrations of the glory of the Patiala royal family extends the political gains for Amrinder Singh beyond the confines of Patiala to the whole of Punjab’s political territory.

However cleverly done, the project of the appropriation of the heritage is not a limitless elastic exercise. It is faced with a critique that is internal to the project i.e. a critique which grows out of the project itself. It is a critique, which sets the boundaries of the project. Those who wield political power to selectively appropriate heritage do so with the awareness of their vulnerability to an attack from a critique, which exposes the partisan character of the project. Sensing that an undeserving focus on Patiala’s heritage might send a politically damaging message in a Sikh majority state that Amritsar, the city of the Golden Temple, is being ignored, the Punjab Government quickly announced that an Amritsar Heritage Festival would be the next heritage festival in Punjab. The Cultural Affairs Minister of the Punjab Government announced that the government would be taking steps to get the Golden Temple declared as a World Heritage Site. These hasty and worried announcements about the government concern regarding the importance of the Golden Temple symbolised the politicocultural limits to the project of political appropriation of the heritage. The selection of Patiala in 2003 for heritage celebrations is as much related to the political power dynamics, as is the selection of Amritsar in 2004. However, what is sought to be
celebrated and what is sought to be forgotten about Amritsar in 2004 would be worth studying to further examine the politico-economic agendas of appropriation of heritage.

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