The reimagining of the old city began gradually in the late ’90s, with the percolation of Western-inspired ideas of heritage conservation. These influences can be seen in the preserved facades of landmarks, identified by small, neat plaques, in statues in lifelike poses, that turn public squares into exhibition tableaux. The effort snowballed through the 2000s, involving stepped-up conservation activity and local communities — artists, photographers, dancers, students, including those at the city’s premier design and architecture institutions, quasi-historians and the media, culminating in a quest beginning around 2010 to be listed by Unesco as a World Heritage City.
The listing of Ahmedabad as a World Heritage City by Unesco this month — India’s first — can then be seen as a welcome move. One cannot argue with the need to protect historical monuments and cultural artefacts from wanton destruction. Nor is there any doubt about the merits of Ahmedabad’s unique and fascinating history. However, the announcement also raises some concerns.
The first is over the representation of history. In recent years, revisionist historians have attempted to urge different versions of Ahmedabad’s history. For instance, in 1987, when the BJP came to power in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, it mooted the proposal to change the name of the city to Karnavati on the basis of a claim that Ahmedabad had come up on the site of a town built by the Hindu Solankis called Karnavati. Historians are not clear if Karnavati existed and, if it did, whether it was a town or a military outpost. It is also likely that a tribal settlement called Ashavali existed in the vicinity.
Then, there is the story of how a weaving master from Ahmedabad made an offer at the 1905 Congress session in Benaras to train Bengali youths in cloth-making if they would teach Gujaratis how to make bombs. A group of revolutionaries from Bengal turned up. In 1909, a bomb was thrown by a Gujarati, Mohanlal Pandya, on the Indian viceroy and his wife, Lord and Lady Minto, in Ahmedabad. The Mintos escaped unhurt.