Placemaking and Placelessness in Janakpur: ‘Saffron City’ and the Subversive Politics of Mithila Heritage
Placemaking as a tool for urban planning has its roots in the works of urban thinkers such as Jane Jacobs who coined the phrase ‘eyes on the street’ to indicate inclusive spaces in the city (Jacobs, 1961). Central to this approach to planning is the creation of a ‘sense of place’ in which the neighborhood is to adorn an ‘identity’ that is people-catered and people-centered. However, when actively mobilised, placemaking can create ‘placelessness’ too. In the age of identity politics on the one hand, and ‘united colors of capitalism’ under the guise of ‘multiculturalism’ (Mitchell, 1993), on the other, it can be argued that the ‘people’ are an increasingly variegated category. In other words, a ‘sense of place’ for some, can designate someone else as ‘out of place’, through logics that may be both cultural and political-economic. This paper brings these ideas of placemaking and placelessness into the cultural landscapes of Janakpur, in which ‘Mithila heritage’ has become a center-piece in rebranding the place as a ‘saffron city’ – a ‘Hindu’ city and a tourist hotspot. It does so to ask the following questions: Under what logic of planning, governance and bureaucracy is the discourse of ‘Mithila heritage’ being mobilized to legitimize the making of ‘saffron city’? And concomitantly, what kind of ‘erasure’ is taking ‘place’, as an attendant politics, in creating the cultural ‘other’ of the ‘saffron city’?
The preceding two questions form the first part of the paper. The second part of the paper focuses on what might be seen as an obverse of the coin that is ‘Mithila heritage’: a counter-politics from below in which the power of art is mobilized as a discursive tool to fashion a potent critique of the ‘saffron city’. This mode of activism, which may be called ‘subaltern urbanism’ in action (Roy, 2011), subversively mobilizes Mithila heritage that can help reveal the dominant cultural political and political economic logic underpinning the Hindutva narrative that is the ‘saffron city’. Therefore, this dual use of heritage forces us to ‘expose’, ‘propose’ and ‘politicize’ (Marcuse, 2009) how the logic of ‘urban planning’ has been used to co-opt the discourse of heritage in service of Hindutva, on the one hand. On the other, by exalting the ‘subversive turn’ in the Mithila heritage, this paper forces us to radically re-conceptualize the Mithila heritage as an ‘inventive’ and ‘insurgent’ (Miraftab and Wills, 2005) counter-politics from below forged to reimagine Janakpur anew – as a necessary counterpoint to the ‘saffron city’. The paper is based on an ongoing long-term collaborative ethnographic research project called ‘heritage as placemaking: the politics of erasure and solidarity in South Asia’.
Key words: planning, activism, subversive politics, heritage, erasure, solidarity, placemaking