Ram jinx chases Ambika to Red Fort

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By MANDIRA NAYAR in Delhi
  • Published 22.09.07
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New Delhi, Sept. 22: The culture ministry and the Archaeological Survey of India are again at odds over Ram and damage to heritage sites.

The issue is culture minister Ambika Soni’s permission to bring Ramlila back to the Red Fort grounds five years after the ASI had succeeded in banishing the annual ceremony off the world heritage site’s greens.

“We come under pressure to give permission every year but have resisted for the past five years,” said a source in the ASI — an arm of the culture ministry — which has spent a large sum manicuring the lawns.

“The show involves cooking of food, digging up the grounds and lighting crackers, all of which violate world heritage site guidelines.”

Now Ambika has given permission “only for this time”. Her nod, however, came before the setu controversy that may have made her reluctant to fall foul of Ram bhakts.

The minister had suspended two ASI officials after a government affidavit questioned Ram’s historical existence. The affidavit had denied an islet chain to be dredged was “Ram’s setu” and therefore deserved heritage status.

This time, the ASI’s desire to protect a heritage site from being damaged in Ram’s name has found support from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach).

“As a planner, I feel this place is inappropriate to hold the Ramlila. It is also in the controlled zone of a world heritage site, which is bound to create problems,” said the convener of Intach’s Delhi chapter, A.G.K. Menon.

ASI officials suggested “political reasons” behind the move. The ceremony was shifted from the fort when the BJP, which swears by Ram, was in power.

The new president of the Delhi Congress, J.P. Aggarwal, had pushed for a reversal.

“The grounds were shut down by the local BJP member of Parliament, Vijay Goel,” he said. “This was a betrayal of Ram. By God’s grace, I became Rajya Sabha member and went to the culture minister who kindly gave permission.”

He saw no need for such a fuss. “After all, it is only grass,” he said, hoping that Ramlila would now become an annual feature at the fort.

An official said the move violated the guidelines the ASI had drawn up following a high court directive. “We had identified specific monuments for functions. The Red Fort grounds were not part of the list.”

Over the past few years, the ASI has adopted a strong stand against the use of monuments as backdrop for cultural functions. And if they had to be leased out, at least the customer must pay a fee, it has insisted.

The two Ramlila companies that will perform at Red Fort, Luv Kush and Nav Shri Dharamic Leela Committee, will only pay a security deposit.