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God, State and the City: Negotiating Urban Development Around Religious Properties in Calcutta and Rangoon


· Ritanjan Das University of Portsmouth (Portsmouth, United Kingdom)
· Elizabeth Rhoads Kings College (London, United Kingdom)


07/29 | 11:40-12:00 UTC+2/CEST


Contemporary urbanisation in South/Southeast Asia is dominated by multipronged debates around land and dispossession. However, a critical dimension of the land question, something with current and historic relevance, is rarely at the forefront. This is the question of land owned by God, i.e. religious land/properties, and the state’s handling of such properties in the context of urban development. There are serious ongoing debates, particularly in India, about whether religious properties - as collective cultural assets and part of a larger heritage - can be considered private or public places, and the legal-political ramifications of such decisions (the long tussle to bring the Nataraja temple under state administration in Tamil Nadu, the current case of Sabrimala in Kerala, and the Ayodhya dispute in Uttar Pradesh). What we propose in this paper is a novel approach of placing this debate in the urbanisation domain. Using a comparative study between two cities with an integrated colonial past – Calcutta and Rangoon – we explore how a state (and its agencies) approaches Hindu (debutter) and Islamic (waqf) religious properties when they stand in the way of urban regeneration? There are numerous, and openly visible instances of urban development bypassing such properties (roads/flyovers being redesigned to avoid acquiring religious land), often succumbing to powerful religious and political networks. But how a state negotiates with a wide array of conflicting imperatives – development priorities, religious sentiments, legality, and local political dynamics – has not been studied before. This paper represents our first attempt at a longitudinal analysis of these processes.