Lok Sabha Elections 2024: From Royalty to Ruin — Darbhanga’s Heritage Fades into Political Backdrop

Once a bustling hub of Mithila heritage, the historic city in the Tirhut region of north Bihar was originally the capital of the princely state of Raj Darbhanga. Indifference of successive governments and public apathy have caused the heritage town to go to seed.
Lok Sabha Elections 2024: From Royalty to Ruin — Darbhanga’s Heritage Fades into Political Backdrop

Darbhanga (Bihar): Pitambar Paswan, 53, is disheartened by the poignant evolution of his hometown’s once-royal palaces and forts into silent backdrops for tumultuous political campaigns in this ancient city — which has inherited a great architectural legacy.

Once a bustling hub of Mithila heritage, the city in the historic Tirhut region of north Bihar was originally the capital of the princely state of Raj Darbhanga, but its residents claim that government's indifference and public apathy have caused the heritage city to go to seed.

The area flourished during the Raj for more than four centuries, reaching its peak in the 1960s when London's elite publications praised its royal gardens and mansions.

However, the legacy quickly began to fade once the last king, Maharaja Kameshwar Singh, passed away in 1962, and the town never managed to make it onto any tourist’s map.

“During every election, politicians come here, hold rallies, make tall claims, spread falsehood, disparage their rivals and then leave to revisit in the next polls. But nothing changes. The residents continue to live in the same condition or even worse,” Paswan — while making tea at his roadside shop in the city’s Allalpatti locality — told The Mooknayak.

Be it sprawling the Raj Maidan, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a public meeting on May 4; the Polo Ground; the majestic Lalit Narayan Mithila University, which is located on the site of the Raj’s Secretariat; or the Kameshwar Singh Darbhanga Sanskrit University (KSDSU), which is currently housed at Laxmi Vilas Palace, also known as Anand Bagh Palace; all these treasures are in desperate need of restoration.

Previously acclaimed as India’s other Red Fort, the condition of the Ram Bagh Fort has been far worse — high-rises have been built inside its grounds, eroding the grandeur that it once displayed, and its perimeter walls are covered in gaudy ads.

Some city dwellers attribute the region’s decline in prominence to the “lack of vision” on the part of the Bihar government as well as the “neglect of the state by the Center”.

“The state never truly had a leader with any sense of heritage preservation. In the 1960s, one of the chief ministers even opposed the proposal of turning buildings into museums. These are some of the reasons why Darbhanga in particular and Bihar in general have not been able to capitalize on their past the way cities like Jodhpur and Jaipur in Rajasthan have,” said an official of Patna Secretariat, who has been awarded doctorate for his research on historical monuments in the state.

Today’s politicians, according to him, are far worse.

Is it only political leaders who should be blamed for the terrible deterioration of the cultural heritage?

“Of course, not. We the residents too have become apathetic. Vandalism, encroachment and disdain for the heritage have grown widespread. Rather than developing it into a heritage city, which would have attracted tourists, Darbhanga has been orphaned both by the people at the helm of affairs and residents,” he said.

Not just its historical monuments, Bihar, particularly Darbhanga, serves as the classic case study of systematic deindustrialisation (here, here, here and here).

Apart from Purnia, Darbhnaga was among the first places in Bihar to have its own airport. Additionally, Douglas aircraft were introduced to the area by Maharaja Kameshwar Singh’s Darbhanga Aviation company. Following his death, the company was liquidated, and the Indian Air Force assumed control of the aircraft.

Manish Kumar, a resident of neighbouring Madhubani district, who is pursuing bachelors in geography from the LNMU, said it’s unfortunate that the voters would continue to vote on caste and communal lines even though they are facing numerous problems.

“Preserving heritage has never been on the agenda of politicians and people. And therefore, caste — which is the pet theme of all politicians — rules the roost in every election. With the closure of industry after industries, the state has been turned into a labourer factory. The closure of sugar mills hit the farmers hard. They were left with no option but to migrate, he said.

Raj’s contribution is not just restricted to building factories, hospitals and schools. It also published English dailies such as the ‘Aryavarta’ and the ‘Indian Nation’ from its edifice in Patna. The ‘Mithila Mihir’ was its Maithili periodical, which used to be published from Darbhanga, besides ‘The Dove’ — a monthly English magazine.

Ashish Jha, a journalist with a Hindi daily, who hosts ‘Vibrant Darbhanga’ (an event to celebrate the city’s rich history) every year in Patna, emphasized that Darbhanga was a “smart city” even during the colonial era.

“After the 1934 earthquake, the Nargona Palace was constructed as the nation’s first tremor-resistant structure. It has central air conditioning. However, rather than being showcased as a marvel to the outside world, the palace has been turned into a university department — for which a separate piece of land has been alloted. Furthermore, in the name of development, its heritage features are being altered,” he said.

In nutshell, the majestic palaces and forts of the city have only encountered grand indifference of the government and people. Regardless of which party wins, Darbhanga and Bihar will continue to lose.

Voting in Darbhanga is scheduled for May 13 (the fourth phase of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections).

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded sitting MP Gopal Jee Thakur to take on Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Lalit Kumar Yadav, who is an incumbent MLA from Darbhanga — a seat he has won six times in Assembly elections. He first won the election in 1995 and ended Congress dominance on the seat.

Thakur won the constituency in the 2019 general elections, securing a total of 5,86,668 votes. He defeated RJD’s Abdul Bari Siddiqui, who got 3,18, 689 votes.

At a time when the BJP candidate is facing huge anti-incumbency, with people at several places showing him black flags and boycotting his meetings, Yadav is trying to mobilise support among various demographic groups. His campaign seems to be focused on the issue of social justice.

The constituency is recognized for its diverse demographic composition, heavily influenced by Brahmins, Muslims and Yadavs.

Cricketer-turned-politician Kirti Jha Azad has also made a lasting impression on the district’s electoral past, having been elected three times as an MP from here. In 2014, as a BJP nominee, he defeated Ali Ashraf Fatmi of the RJD.

Fatmi too has had a long-lasting effect on Darbhanga’s political climate. In addition to his wins in 1991, 1996 and 1998 general elections, he was the MP from here in 2004. As the Darbhanga MP with the highest number of terms served, he holds the record with two wins apiece on the Janata Dal and RJD tickets.

This time, he is contesting from Madhubani against Ashok Kumar Yadav — the son of former MP and Union Minister Hukmdev Narayan Yadav.

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