Declaring a site of heritage or cultural importance should not be the sole prerogative of the government authorities or the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). For such a decision, people's involvement is a must, said Prof Philippe MF Peycam, director, International Institute for Asian Studies.
Peycam, who is from the Leiden University in the Netherlands, was here on Tuesday for a round-table talk on the 'Politics of national and international heritage in South-East Asia' at the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC).
In response to a question about Chandigarh and Amritsar trying hard to seek heritage status from the UNESCO, Peycam said in such cases one also had to deal with the heavy baggage of such decisions. The UNESCO may have its own agenda while conferring heritage status on a city or a monument.
He said there should be a series of dialogue between the government authorities, the UNESCO and people who live in these cities before deciding on the heritage status of these cities. "Let the people decide if they want the city to be known by its civilisation or a mere architectural monument," he added.
Peycam said in most of the discourses on heritage, there existed a "real disconnect between the locals and the site". "Countries engaged in conservation and restoration work have built their own narrative. Heritage has been commodified as a tourist destination," he added.
Having spent a decade in Cambodia from 1999 to 2009, it was Peycam's experiences that triggered many questions on the involvement of locals of the country vis-à-vis their monumental heritage and cultural antiquity.
He began the talk by addressing the concept of heritage, how it came about, what it entails and the queries raised within its gamut.
"Cambodia is still recovering from its 20-year-war that saw about 2 million people killed by the nationalist regime," Peycam said, talking about the political dynamics and power games of colonial and post-colonial players such as the French and the Japanese being conducted at Cambodian heritage sites in the name of cultural diplomacy.
The talk was chaired by eminent art historian Prof BN Goswamy, who spoke of the "dilemma and fuzziness regarding heritage and the fact that there are no hard and fast lines in politics that plays a major role in matters of heritage."
"Heritage has been mystified. To demystify heritage, inquiry and exploration has to be scientific," observed Dr Pramod Kumar, director, IDC, while initiating the round-table interaction.