Column after column has been written on how Fort St George is one of the most historic locations in our country. And yet when it comes to being a tourist attraction, it falls far behind the more popular destinations. Why is this so?
The answer to this is not far to seek – there is a commonly held perception that the Fort is out of bounds to most visitors. This is far from true, though it also being the seat of Government of a State does give it that image. The place is open to all, provided they abide by the security guidelines in place – you need to get your bags scanned and be ready to have your person tested by a metal detector. But this is common practice even at railway stations and airports, and we don’t complain there, do we? Once you are within the Fort, certain areas have restricted or no access, but these are clearly marked and so can be avoided. Once again this is not different from what prevails at the Red Fort, Delhi, for instance. But what is rather peculiar is that the Department of Tourism, Government of Tamil Nadu, does precious little to popularise Fort St George as a tourist destination.
There is an unfortunate reason for this. Many in the Government believe that the Fort is a symbol of British imperialism and so it goes against the grain of present political thought to highlight it in any significant way. But what is conveniently forgotten is that the Egmore Government Museum is also a British creation and yet it receives more than its fair share of publicity in all tourism brochures! And this from the very same Government that thought it fit to raise an arch to commemorate the diamond jubilee of the Legislative Assembly, once again an institution set up by the British. We also forget often that the War Memorial to which genuflections are done each year on important occasions is a monument primarily to the Great War. And what about Napier Bridge that is maintained so well and at enormous expense? Another relic of our British past, no less. The list is endless and the logic of the Fort being a hated reminder of our colonial past is a weak one. And if it was so, the present Government conveniently overlooked that argument when it chose to relocate to the Fort from the newly built Assembly-cum-Secretariat on Mount Road.
Let us not forget that six years from now will mark the centenary of the beginnings of Indian governance. And that start was at the Fort. It was in 1921 that the Justice Party was invited to participate in the administrative process with a Prime Minister and two other ministers taking on Cabinet responsibilities. Since then, the Fort has seen a number of pioneering moves – the first Government in India to enact legislation for reservation (the Communal GO of 1921), the first legislature to have a woman member (Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy in 1927), the first elected body to decide on an industrial estate (Guindy in 1958), the first Assembly to moot mid-day meals for school children (both by Kamaraj and MGR Governments)… the list is endless. Can all of these not be highlighted? After all, each one of these Acts was passed at the Fort.
It is time we shed certain preconceived notions that we have and which we bring to the fore whenever it is convenient to us. The achievements at the Fort, both before and after 1947, are many and commendable and are impressive enough to bring in visitors in much larger volumes. It is necessary for the various agencies in control of the Fort to realise this and take steps to ensure that the Fort becomes a popular place to visit and a worthy heritage attraction of our city. They also need to ensure it looks its best, being the heart of one of the most progressive States in the country.
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