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Politics Of Heritage Sites

David Lelyveld

By Hilal Ahmed
Routledge, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 328, Rs. 850.00


For many observers the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 stands as a pivotal event in turning India from a pluralistic and secular society to one founded on a monolithic concept of ‘Hindu’ identity. An effort to purge Muslims from Indian history and marginalize them in the present, the project of tearing down the mosque and replacing it with a temple to Rama has played a central role in the narrative of India’s transformation from the Nehruvian vision of social justice to Modi sarkar. In recent years several stimulating examinations of the modern history of premodern ‘monuments’, particularly those identified in some sense as Muslim, have added insights into the cultural dimension of politics and political dimension of culture.1 These books generally reach their climax in accounts of the Babri Masjid vandalization. Hilal Ahmed has now added a political scientist’s perspective to the study of ‘monuments’ by concentrating on legal regulations by the colonial and postcolonial state, claims by individuals and organization to authority over historic buildings and sites, and popular mobilization by competing Muslim ‘political actors’. Hilal Ahmed’s focus is on the nature of ‘Muslim politics’, that is, organizations and issues that were considered relevant to people who identified themselves or were identified by others as Muslims. What exactly that might mean, Ahmed makes clear, has been contested, varied from place to place, and has also changed over time. Muslim political concerns were not necessarily religious. In the colonial period, that is, before Partition, ‘Muslim politics’ was dominated by constitutional demands for Muslim separat-ism. In the early decades of Independent India, the dominant issues for politically concerned Muslims, at least in northern India, were the Urdu language, Muslim personal law, and Aligarh Muslim University. From roughly 1970–1990, however, such issues, Ahmed claims, were ‘over-shadowed’ by concerns about ‘Muslim heritage’, that is, demands for Muslim ‘control over the Indo-Islamic historic sites’. In any case, this is the focus of the present book. He has almost nothing to say about the history of communal violence or the declining economic and educational status of Indian Muslims during this period. Ahmed wants to show how the colonial and postcolonial legal regimes that identified and presided over religious endowments and ‘protected monuments’ set the stage for renewed political conflicts between mobilized Hindu versus Muslim constituencies. Ahmed doesn’t deny—or even discuss—the force of the Hindutva bigotry in the Ayodhya conflict ...

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