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The Holy City, the Smart City: Urban Planning in Amritsar
Shinjini Dey

It is important to say now that national sovereignty failed its citizens. There’s no way to pay rent for those no longer caught in war (in ‘politics by other means’), used up as ‘cheap labour’ in the sentence. There were a few wars, some of which were ‘civil’ (all the more bloodier for it). The ‘death of mankind’, the end of ‘society’. No masters and none of their narratives. The fiction of the sovereign, without the excess of absolute power, without the gamble of the decision – it must grip tighter, it must control itself. 

Must the demos then rummage through the ruins for their legacy? Where do we situate ruinations of imperialism? Derek Walcott said, “The rot remains with us, the men are gone.” 

What cities could rise out of this disorder? Debris escapes naming. That which doesn’t escape becomes history and heritage. 


In 2015, The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a legally recognized administrative body, opposed the formal designation of Shri Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, as a Heritage site under UNESCO, a ‘foreign organisation’ (Times 2015). The community’s refusal was a result of Operation Bluestar – symptomatic of irrationality and bad faith in the government. 

Articles questioned their ‘claim that the Sikhs will have to “concede” sovereignty to India if it is designated a World Heritage Site’ (Guha 2015). Their critics, independent liberal journalists offered the predicate that ‘Sri Harmandir Sahib is not a state, and India is already “sovereign” in this precinct’. (Guha 2015) The community’s reasons, however, were numerous. A petition cites implications such as a governmental legal and extra-legal takeover of the site, commoditisation for tourism rather than spirituality, militarization on the pretext of security, the ban of political meetings, as well as representation by non-Sikhs in the central and state governments. 

Currently in its last few months, a national project four years in the running, National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) has been seeking to offer Amritsar up as the next Heritage City, soon to be followed by Varanasi. 

In another section, sits pliably Narendra Modi’s famous claim to build Smart Cities, global futuristic model towns by 2050. Only Surat has seen development in this arena. This city too is situated in Gujarat. Under its then CM (and now PM), Gujarat has been both the model of neoliberal development as well as a ‘laboratory’ for a Hindu State (1).

HRIDAY has hardly received sustained coverage. Seemingly conservative and traditional, focused on the policy of preservation of heritage, it does not quite signal the romanticized dystopias of scale and scope. This myth is boring and retrospective. However, over 500 crores has been invested into HRIDAY. Quietly mentioned on real estate websites, Amritsar also topped the list of the 27 new Smart Cities announced in round two by the Ministry of Urban Development under the Smart City Mission (Jilap 2014).

What ‘trickles down’?


The documented CHP (City Hriday Plan) for Amritsar, proposed by the Indian government, begins historically (only apt, considering that it is a project based around the preservation and revitalisation of the city’s past). However, read carefully, it would be possible to identify and isolate certain elements that are common and constitutive of a rational, secular, modernist history in their telling. The HRIDAY project is thoroughly modern, even as it appears to project backwards into a romanticized past. 

At the same time, it is difficult to read. Its vocabulary is the materialisation of the dissonances of bureaucratic transparency. It legitimizes the logic of rational and efficient planning. The CHP exactingly obscures material structures and its bodies. As the CHP is conceived on a ‘managerial model that divests it of a vocabulary of power, justice, freedom, equality and law’ (Brown 2003) — I become uncertain about what is raw and made habitable and by whom.

Within the anatomical examination of crosshatched maps, hegemonic historicity, and economic vocabulary of the CHP there are moments where one can comfortably view its referents. The enlightenment men trusted scientific evolution, liberalisation and the social contract. These ideological tracks can be arrested. 

The moment and the persistence of the social contract always involves a little sacrifice, a little blood, a giving up for the commonwealth – a moment that locates its inscription finally on the Golden Temple. The first Guru rested his body at a tank and a tree and garnered a following of many. From this moment of abandon grew the branches of the tree. The place acquired the word – the Granth. Later came the swords – there are, of course, two: one for the temporal sovereign and the other a sharp edge reflecting the brilliance of the divine (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.).

The ‘Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, was nine years old when his father, Guru Arjan, attained martyrdom at the hand of the Mughal Emperor. He ascended the gaddi (the seat), and chose to wear the twin swords of miri (temporal power), and piri (spiritual leadership), thus declaring Sikhism’s engagement with the politics of the times. He built the Akal Takht (the Eternal/a temporal Throne) on a platform facing the Harmandir, where temporal and political matters were discussed, but always in the presence of the divine, manifest through the Granth’ (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.).

The branches of the tree attracted craftsmen and traders; locales formed and changed internally, becoming khatras (markets), the overbearing fruition of trade. One sovereign authority replaced another until we finally reach the modern period. 

‘The city of Amritsar showcases the composite culture and secular heritage of “Punjabiat”. This most important city of the Majha region of Punjab, on the east bank of the Beas River, is a repository of spiritual and national heritage. Every devout Sikh tries to make a pilgrimage to Amritsar and bathe in the amrit sarovar at least once in his or her lifetime. The evolution of the town over the ages and its association with some of the greatest historical figures of the region, have given the town a particular “sacred and socio political geography”, typified by buildings and sites as well as routes and processional paths. Amritsar, further, exemplifies the soul of the Majha region of Punjab, and is the focal point of the evolution of the Punjabi language, its idiom and literary traditions. Further, as a manufacturing centre, it was historically affiliated to Lahore, the great capital city of the Mughals and later Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the urban centre par excellence of undivided Punjab’ (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.).

The city appears as the fulfilment of the modern, nationalist dream. 

Keeping in mind the enlightenment men, we must ask how it is that the holy city can appear as secular once it has moved beyond divine transcendentalism. Is it simply that secularism belongs to the public sphere and religion to the personal and private? An answer may be reached through Talal Asad: ‘By successfully unmasking pretended power (profaning it) universal reason display own status as legitimate power. By empowering new things, this status is further confirmed’ (Asad 2003).

We may read the continuation of a transcendental power, which is a logical order of the secular state. Transcendentalising this power does not formulate it into a theological Other but locates it within the logical relationship of humans and their institutions. The first reference of the CHP is to the social contract. This contractual agreement is made between the subject and the commonwealth, but in effect it negates and totally alienates the subject to the commonwealth, making the latter into an absolute entity. The other evolutionary schema of the tree and trade affirms, first of all, scientific reason as an ethical imperative towards the commons. Finally, the secular state at the centre orders the market and balances it with public interest. This is only possible if it establishes a singular locus and a single measure of value. The transcendental power is that of mediation. While it separates itself in its historical functions from other fields of power, it primarily manages the divisions and fortifications.

 ‘At the very moment of becoming secular, these claims were transcendentalized, and they set in motion legal and moral disciplines to protect themselves (with violence where necessary) as universal. Although profanation appears to shift the gaze from the transcendental to the mundane, what it does is rearrange barriers between the illusory and the actual’ (Asad 2003).


The CHP lists twelve cities – Ajmer, Amaravati, Amritsar, Badami, Dwarka, Gaya, Kanchipuram, Mathura, Varanasi, Velankanni and Warangal. Each of them is a raggedy tourist town that seasonally throngs and bulges at the seams, the potbelly of the middle-class that hasn’t yet learnt the regimen of selfcare. 

The nation state must beckon the entrepreneur to sustain itself (its fiction, and – no less – its policy). ‘Policy is the form that opportunism takes in this environment. It is a demonstration of willingness to be made contingent and to make contingent all around you by demonstrating an embrace of the radically extra economic, political character of command today’ (Moten and Harney 2009).

The National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) is a project sanctioned by the Indian Government that seeks to develop heritage cities by concentrating on ‘sanitation, security, tourism, heritage revitalization and livelihoods [while] retaining the city’s cultural identity’ (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.). This, they believe, will promote civic infrastructure. However, these secular agencies are organisations with global capacities; the state cannot do without them. 

These transnational organisations cannot be perceived as imperialist, even as we remember that the East India Company was a transnational organization. Cities projected globally cannot be conceptualized as trade centres between self-sufficient units in Weberian terms. This indeed is Saskia Sassen’s thesis about global cities: they are not materials reworked by global forces; instead, the key structures of the city can help us understand the global economy. She argues that ‘the territorial dispersal of current economic activity creates a need for expanded central control and management’ through growth from firm to firm in the form of a chain (Sassen 1991). 

Within this formulaic bureaucratic loneliness, HRIDAY appears as a network spearheaded by the state. The figure below displays a network of circulations that seeks to establish an optimum degree of communication between the nodes of politics and capital. What appears as a top-down relationship between the state, the stakeholders, and the Implementing Agencies (NGOs) is a reliance on – aptly named – Anchors. 


The involvement of stakeholders and investors, and NGOs in addition to the state does not equal decentralisation. It is a formula where the government can centre capital more efficiently and faster. Punjab’s Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal (2007–2017), announced that the state would grow as per the policy of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) (2). Approvals were granted primarily to DLF Private Limited in Amritsar (440 acres) and Ludhiana. Ishan Developers Pvt Ltd were further granted 100 acres in Amritsar. Mohali, near Chandigarh, was given more land under A-Tech IT City. BJP-SAD candidates have regularly brought up the Chinese industrial development model during election campaigns. The CHP projects Amritsar into the future – 2031 to be precise – along two lines, infrastructural planning and mobility. It identifies the possibility of ‘sectoral investment’ and an enhancement of the area through the addition of more sectors, economically beneficial and otherwise. Tourism is one of the highlighted sectors where reform would decongest the site, introduce open spaces, move the bulk local market along the railway lines, and change land use from residential to a regulated commercial system.

The SEZs that were announced by Manmohan Singh in 2006 are to remain as they are in the master plan, except that a few acres are to be added to it. The major change is a regulation that states the necessity of a green belt around these zones.

To boot, booming real estate activities have been observed with the coming up of several residential colonies such as Impact Gardens (a mega project), Garden Enclave, Shubham Enclave, Ansal City, Heritage City and so on (3). An aesthetic caveat is the use of ‘vernacular architecture and the existing architectural features as integral part of the building design.’

The CHP obscures dispossession, known better as slum renewal. ‘In zone RD1 which is the core density area of the walled city the master plan identifies it as a high density area and proposes to decongest it by reducing the net residential density to 300 person per acre from the present density of more than 380 person per acre’ (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.).

The corporate state requires a well-oiled bureaucracy and other social institutions outside the direct control of the state which nevertheless will aid and design techniques of control and appropriation. 

There is a need for the state to develop its economic growth and the rate of its accumulation while increasing its position in the world market. At the same time it must remain wary of the cyclical crises of the economy and the dissent and discontent that develops within the state itself.

In the current mode of development, governance, and production, one must polemically note ‘Modi’s willingness to accommodate the desire of capital to expand in any way it wants – horizontally, across land and field, vertically, above and below the earth, and laterally, in terms of accommodating the demands of foreign investors, including for the opening up of the insurance and retail sectors’ (Varadarajan 2014). 

The dream of the liberal bourgeoisie public sphere disintegrates in this organization. It looks and speaks like the polis, like the nationalist city, but is situated within a top down contingency. David Harvey writes; ‘From their inception, cities have arisen through geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product’. The phenomenon of spatially ordering a city according to the circulation of surplus into a few hands makes the city a haven for the few. The cronyism of the BJP government has been reported enough for us to take note. It relegates those closest to the Municipality into an opaque blur; it appears to be an error but it is, in fact, mere design.


Other recommendations made by the master plan read thus: ‘All the services laid down in the heritage zone shall be made underground including, electrical, telephone etc. in order to minimize visual pollution. Display of advertisement on the buildings and along the roads shall be regulated and made integral part of buildings and available spaces. Special lighting arrangements shall be made to enhance the visual effect of historic buildings and available spaces’. (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.) Additionally, the defunct sound and light shows at various locales, such as the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial and Ram Bagh, are to be fixed. All other public spaces should be flooded with light.

Historically, in the modern cities of Europe, the use of light converted the city to a theatrical stage. Usually, the places that were most heavily lit in cities were the docks and yards – areas of high industrial activity. On the other hand, in the twentieth century, another form of light illuminates the city – the light of the advertisements. Advertising acts upon the city and remaps it, creating new imaginary spaces (M.Cronin 2006).

While the advertisement itself was not a new form that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries and instead existed as far back as the Renaissance (Borden 2000), the new technologies of the 20th century produced a form of advertisement that was suited to the logic of the city of consumers. However, one should not read the 20th century advertisement in a teleological mould, as progressing from the early modern to the modern (Cronin and McFall 2005). The new technology only converged upon the pre-existing form of the advertisement to produce one that is new, without ever letting go of the old (Cronin 2006). As an effect of this technology, Segal argues that the ‘light fests’ at night were grand displays that lit up the once dark nights with ‘symbols of daytime consumption’ (M.Cronin 2006). Ascribing the city to the power of light confers upon it an epistemological dominance. Light is the embodied power of the order of the nation and the order of capital to do as it pleases. A well-lit city is also a well-surveilled city. 

It is true that for advertisement and investment, the aesthetic landscape of the city has been enhanced. However, the transformation of the city has to make its assets ‘tangible’; despite the attempted ‘vernacular’ similitude of the buildings and the standardizations of green parks and roads, the city is not just a visual territory. It is an autonomous, materialized world on its own (Debord 2001).

It is not simply that the reified, objective world hides the truth. It is constantly involved in the mode of production. The tourist, who is doomed to a homogenous experience in Amritsar, reacts differently to each fragmented reality created by the spectacle. One can say the same about the worker, or the spiritual traveller, or even the realtor. Leisure, culture, art, information, entertainment, knowledge – the most personal and radical of gestures becomes part of the spectacle in the form of an experience. The standardizations – fatal samenesses – that have been formed in alienation are constantly producing and representing. This is reactionary only in so far as that which is reactionary is also regenerative. It justifies and determines itself – it is simultaneously the means and the end. 

The spectacle presents itself as the society, the fiction of the public sphere, the nation’s preserve, the investor’s zone, the cleared slum. Thus spectacularized, Amritsar is not a commodity but a social relation (Debord 2001).


At the body politic of Amritsar lies a stagnating disease, claims the CHP. It digs into its flesh. It is an abnormal growth. ‘We witness a type of “ingrown development” at these centres; a type of disturbing inverse expansion’. The centres are projected; they’re the assets made ‘tangible’ as sites of capital (Shri Harmandir Sahib and forty other components that will be represented and revitalized). Currently, its bulging weight overflows into ‘buffer zones’. The plan aims at ‘de-congesting’ these sites, ‘de-stressing’ the heavy weight of the population (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.).

Zoning laws, parking and terminal services, removal of slum populations and street level markets, as well as reduction of residential houses have been proposed and implemented to that end.

The other, slightly heavily funded, mobility plan is the ITC’s Multi-Modal Integrated Transport Corridors. Engineers have already been deployed.  ‘The Ministry of Commerce and Industry has proposed the 550,000 sq. km Amritsar-Delhi-Kolkata Industrial Corridor with an investment of INR 5,749 crore in the first phase. This industrial zone will be spread across 20 cities in seven states and be built along the 1,839 km-long Eastern Dedicated Freight corridor between Khurja and Mugalsarai. 

As the city is growing radially, the widening of existing roads and development of a Ring Road are underway. Another major infrastructural development is the expansion and modernization of Amritsar’s airport. 1,613 hectares of land are required for this, of which 44 acres have already been acquired. A 31 km BRTS corridor is under construction in the city. A High Speed Rail Corridor between Delhi-Chandigarh-Amritsar is another major infrastructural initiative which will boost tourism, reduce travel time and improve Amritsar City’s connectivity with the rest of the country’ (Jilap 2014).

It may be relevant to turn to Foucault’s lectures. Having read Le Maitre, he explains the ideal design of the state. A concentric organisation confers an aesthetic and symbolic relationship of power to the city – where this symmetry makes the centre the ‘ornament of the territory’. In his later work on disciplinary society, he talks about the dispositifs put the society to work and ensure that the relevant social institutions and customs are obeyed. This would be done as political necessity entails that the ‘decrees and laws be implanted in such a way that no tiny corner of the realm escapes this general network of the sovereigns order and laws’ (Foucault 2010).

Foucault reads the spatial, juridical, administrative, and political opening up of the town according to the modern idea of this dissemination or ‘circulation’ (Foucault 2010). Circulation was not just related to laws and decrees, but was also economic and social; circulation was made in terms of streets as well as the transmission of diseases. Circulation was both knowledge production as well as an imperative. It may be prudent to note that the CMP provides varied propositions for efficient disaster mitigation and waste management.

Social institutions become the site of dissemination where ‘political effectiveness of sovereignty is connected to a spatial distribution’ (Foucault 2010). The social institutions here are the productive practices, customs, and habits reasonably wrought by the history and heritage of a developing Indian city.

Moreover, this mobility plan would not have been possible without the earlier mentioned Anchors. The Anchors here are informants, nothing but coagulated metadata – ‘pure’ information.  Part of the problem is not that data is separately produced and superimposes a virtual world onto the real; it is by now autonomous and blended with the capitalist project to become a political project. Note that if neoliberalism is capitalism on steroids (Harvey) and one is aware of the speed at which technology has modified dominant modes of production, then the raw material for tech is data, and by now the human subject is nothing but data. A ‘speck of capital’ (Brown 2003).  Information circulates between the actors enabling a consensus and efficient governance.  Data seeks to ‘eliminate all partial impulses and immobilize bodies’ (Lyotard 1973). The only way to put this episteme into play is to work the machine, that is the whole of the social body. The work of the machine is to perpetually produce and justify the centre (here the spectacle) at the level of the visual, the aesthetic, and the moral. It is a conductor. 

It may be more prurient to conceptualize the order of Amritsar (or any such territorially bounded space) as historically shifted from a disciplinary society to a society of control. The latter is Deleuze’s elaboration of Foucauldian biopower. Biopolitics is made possible only in contemporary periods where the mode of conduct and production may be called neoliberal. The mechanisms of control become far more diffuse and immanent in the biopolitical exercise, interiorized by the subjects themselves. Spatially, it does not require a quantitative or geometric logic to appear rational (Deleuze 1992).

The machine, despicably, is what it is. 

However, to bring the tools and/or the derivations of my reading of Amritsar here – I’ve continually sought and attempted to leave the noisy marketplace to trespass into productive spaces. While Foucault moves to the ‘biological, the somatic, and the corporeal’ (Foucault 2010) away from the economically determinant analysis of the material structures, both Debord and Adorno, read in conjunction, are relevant to the exploration of the productive forces of capital itself. There has not necessarily been a linear path from Adorno to Debord to the deviant Foucault to the multiplicity of Deleuze. However multifariously headed, my affirmations of are not my endorsements. At the same time, I am limited by my optics; I can only view a section of Amritsar through documentation by the nation and its media outlets, a freeze-frame. I cannot hear the bodies but only arrest the apparatus as it attentively focuses on the subject. 

(1) ‘Mittal, head of the Bharti Group said “Chief Minister Modi is known as a CEO, but he is actually not a CEO, because he is not running a company or a sector. He is running a state and can also run the nation.’  (Varadarajan 2014)

(2) ‘i. Punjab Small Industries and Export Corporation (PSIEC) is in the process of developing a New Focal Point on Mehta Road along Bypass. The scheme is of Small Township with all facilities located at the same place. The total area of the scheme is 184.04 acres, 62.05 acres of which is allocated for industrial plots numbering 459 plots. The industries coming here are related to power loom, electroplating, dyeing, etc.

ii. Setting up of Information Technology Park – Government of Punjab has been requested to set up an IT Park at Amritsar.

iii. A Sector specific Special Economic Zone (SEZ) dedicated to Textiles is coming up in Amritsar at Khasa village on GT Road towards Attari. The Punjab-based Ishan Developers and Infrastructure Limited, is developing The Integrated Textile Park on 100 hectares at village Khasa in Amritsar with the investment of Rs 1,861 crores.

The project is expected to provide employment to 15,000 people.’ (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.)

(3) In fine print, ‘The Master plan does not evaluate the impact of new development of real estate on the historic core of the city which is the walled city in the areas of overall mobility at the city level as well as the in long term environmental and economic sustainability’ (CRCI (India) Pvt. Ltd n.d.).



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Shinjini Dey is a fledgling writer who has run from the academy after her graduation from Jadavpur University's dept of English in 2018 (MA); since then she's been editing in commercial publishing houses (Rupa, Macmillan, Penguin Random House etc). She has written for The Gaysi Zine, Blue Nib, Anime Feminist and Bloodknife Magazine.

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