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Safeguarding India's heritage: DNA takes a look at Ministry of Culture

From introducing a grading system for artistes for government grants to digitising India's cultural resources, the Ministry of Culture's initiatives have drawn both admirers and critics alike. DNA takes a look at the results

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Safeguarding India's heritage: DNA takes a look at Ministry of Culture
Prime Minister Narendra Modi declassified 100 files on Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s on his 119th birth anniversary
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When the NDA government came to power in 2014, culture was expected to be a contentious issue. Critics voiced their concerns that the government would lend their "saffron credentials" to all things culture. Such concerns seem to have some basis, as some irresponsible statements by the man at the helm, Minister of State (independent charge) of Culture Mahesh Sharma, has managed to obfuscate the efforts of the government in the field.

Outlandish statements

From making statements, later denied, that "night outs for Indian girls is not part of our culture" to launching a countrywide movement to rid India of "cultural pollution," Sharma managed to create a negative impression of the culture ministry and for a time seemed to confirm the critics' worst fears.

In fact, the man — who also had charge of the tourism ministry till recently — was seen as being more resourceful and dynamic in his other ministry where he had launched a slew of initiatives.

This included the launch of the e-ticketing service in monuments which helped increase tourist footfalls in the country, and the declaring of 25 of the most prominent monuments as 'adarsh' or 'model' monuments. This initiative, in particular, was welcomed by all stakeholders in the sector.

Initiatives introduced

In the culture ministry, Sharma and his team have announced a number of initiatives, some of which are still to see the light of day. One of the most prominent announcements in 2015 was the redevelopment of the National School of Drama (NSD) greenlighting a new campus in the next three to four years for a budget of Rs 180 crore.

Then, the ministry also launched the culture-mapping scheme under which artistes were to be "graded" in order to equally distribute central funds across all regions. Under the scheme, artistes from the field of architecture, sculpture, painting, handicrafts, puppetry, music, dance, theatre, and literature will be graded by the Centre on the basis of their performance.

The categories devised are O "Outstanding" P "Promising" and W "Waiting." The grading which was and is done by a selected committee, that comprises bureaucrats and artistes, will determine the amount of funds an artiste will receive and whether he or she can participate in festivals. According to a government memorandum, only those in P and O categories will be eligible to participate in festivals abroad.

However, outrage has emerged about the "discriminative" nature of this project and in private officials said that grading the lakhs of artistes who applied — the number was estimated to be at 1 crore — was proving to be a difficult exercise.

Despite the criticism and the practical problems some of the younger artistes selected have lauded the system.

Declassification of Netaji Files

Come 2016, the ministry had a series of hits and misses. Taking forward his promise of declassifying the Netaji Files, Prime Minister Modi released the first lot of 100 files after they were conserved and digitised on January 23, 2016 on the date of Netaji's 119th birth anniversary. The second and third batch of 50 and 25 files were then released by Sharma on March 29 and April 29, 2016. A fourth batch, too, was released on May 27. In all, 16,530 pages relating to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose were released.

Other notable achievements also came up during this year. In 2016, the excavated remains of the Nalanda Mahavihara and Sikkim's Khangchendzonga National Park and Chandigarh's Capitol Complex made it to the list of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, while yoga was recognised as an element in the UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Amendment to Monuments Bill

On the policy front, the ministry has also introduced the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains (Amendment) Bill, 2017. If passed by Parliament, the Bill could ensure that public works can take place through the "prohibited area" which is 100 meters of a protected monument — a practice which is currently forbidden under the law.

Recovering documents and cultural artefacts

On the issue of documentation and recovering cultural artefacts from abroad the government has made some strides forward. During the PM's visit to the United States, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch pledged over 200 artefacts worth $100 million to India. They included religious sculptures and statues, bronzes and terracotta artefacts which were stolen from India and smuggled in the international art market. However, since then, the ministry has managed to bring back only 17 pieces.

On a positive note, the government signed an MoU with the Torre do Tombo (National Archives of Portugal) and they have handed over digital copies of 12,000 documents under 62 volumes to the National Archives of India. They consist of correspondence between Lisbon and Goa between 1568 to 1914.

Controversy over ongoing statue project in Gujarat

Despite such initiatives, concerns that the culture ministry is looking to "saffronise" Indian culture have not faded. Following PM Modi's announcement, the ministry's release of over Rs 200 crore for the 'Statue of Unity', a monument dedicated to freedom fighter Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel which was slated to come up in Gujarat, has caused concern.

Comments abounded on social media stating that the project, estimated around Rs 3,000 crore, was money being wasted on a project that could have been earmarked for better purposes. The government has dismissed such concerns, stating that already there were a plethora of Indira Gandhi statues in the country, and the balance needed to be rectified. Clearly, the fight over the "politics of culture" is far from over.

FINDINGS & REACTIONS

  • In Tamil Nadu’s, Keezhadi, an ancient settlement of the Sangam era, dating to the 3rd century BC, was found.
     
  • Controversy erupted when the Keezhadi site in charge was transferred. Critics said the move was politically motivated.

DIGITISATION OF MONUMENTS

  • In 2015, the ministry launched an initiative of e-ticketing services in over 116 monuments under the ASI and launched an initiative to digitise cultural resources.
     
  • While it was the ASI portal on the must-see monuments, or the digitisation of over 15,750 artefacts in the National Museum, or the launching of the GAGAN App in collaboration with ISRO, the ministry took big steps to go digital.

CULTURAL MUDDLE

Trouble with Nehru Memorial
Days after the BJP-led government assumed power in 2014, director Mahesh Rangarajan stepped down after the Minister of State for Culture, Mahesh Sharma, said he would seek legal opinion on Rangarajan’s appointment. His contention was that Rangarajan was brought in before the elections when the Election Commission had prohibited any new appointments. After Rangarajan’s exit, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) remained headless for several months, after which Shakti Sinha was made the director.

After the dust over the appointment settled, another controversy broke out. A published advertisement last month sought the “appointment of a professional advisor for setting up a new museum”.  

Encroachment of monuments
Another miss from the ministry has been encroachments of monuments. Over 278 centrally protected monuments have been encroached upon or have illegal occupants, as per government data. And, last year, a parliamentary standing committee rapped the Centre for earmarking only Rs 200 crore for conservation activities.

Lalit Kala Akademi
The appointment of Sudhakar Sharma as the secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademi, despite a previous suspension order, departmental inquiries and a Delhi High Court judgement, raised eyebrows. He had been dismissed from the Akademi twice earlier. However, soon enough, the LKA administrator Padma Lochan Sahu alleged that Sharma was favouring some artistes.

Award Wapsi
This was perhaps one of the biggest challenges.  After the murder of Indian scholar and academic MM Kalburgi in 2016, several artistes returned awards conferred by the Sahitya Akademi in what came to be known as “award wapsi.” Around 80 artistes and intellectuals returned awards, protesting at what they called was the “shrinking” liberal space.

MINISTER SPEAK

'Sita's birthplace a matter of faith'

Statements of MoS for Culture, Mahesh Sharma, that caused a stir at the time

"Today, we are fortunate to have another Gandhiji among us in the form of our prime minister, who is an inspiration"

In June this year, while releasing a book on the Salt Satyagraha, Mahesh Sharma made the comment, which was one in many in favour of the Prime Minister. Sharma mostly praises the PM in his speeches, and when he was asked about it by a TV channel in May this year, he said that he was extremely proud to do so.

"The stand is very clear. Millions of people of this country want their Ram Mandir to be constructed. But it will be done either by the act of court of law or by consensus,"

Sharma made the comment in July this year while releasing a book on Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.

"Sita's birthplace is a matter of faith. There is no direct evidence of its existence. The Archaeological Survey of India has not undertaken any excavation in Sitamarhi district of Bihar and hence it does not have any historical evidence that Sitamarhi is Sita's birthplace."

In a written reply to a question on whether there is any proof of Sita's birth, Sharma wrote that Sita's birthplace is a matter of faith leading to a furore, especially from the Opposition who took no time in pointing out that the minister should then also think of Ram's birthplace as one of faith.

"Small things such as not to venture out alone at night, or wear skirts. They should also click a photo of the vehicle number. For their own safety, women foreign tourists should not wear short dresses and skirts ... Indian culture is different from the western."

In August 2016, while speaking at an event in Agra, Sharma said that tourists who arrive in India, especially women, will be handed a self-help kit along with a list of dos and don'ts. His remark, made while he was the tourism minister, made him trend on twitter for all the wrong reasons. He then clarified that he has daughters and that he will never impose a ban on what people wear.

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