One More Delhi
Posted on 1-July 2020
"O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,...."
T. S. Eliot, East Coker
Delhi, or Dilli as it is called in local speech, including Hindi, is according to legend, named after Dillu Raja who is said to have ruled the area around the middle of the first century B.C. For those who believe in the absolute historicity of the Mahabharata, one part of present day Delhi, under the name of Indraprastha, was the capital of the kingdom assigned to the Pandavas. But it is not until the end of the 12th century A. D., when the mamluk, Qutb'uddin Aibak took control over the Indian territories conquered by Mohammad of Ghur as Sultan and built a settlement in Mehrauli, around a mosque, also built by him, called Quwwat'ul Islam, the minaret of which, the Qutb Minar is still standing, that Delhi, never--except once briefly by Mohammad bin Tughlaq-- thereafter abandoned--even when some of them had their capital at Agra-- by any ruler aspiring to control large parts of north India, started its life as a capital city, known in history and not merely in myth or in archaelogists' conjectures. Qutb'uddin's settlement came to be known as Lal Kot-- in the same place as the earlier Rai Pithora, named after Prithviraj III of Ajmer in whose realm it was located and who took a stand against Muhammad of Ghur to whom he lost both his kingdom and his life. Alla'uddin Khalji (Ghilzoi?), an Afghan from the east of India who succeeded the mamluks shifted his base to Siri Fort, a few kilometres north of Mehrauli. In the fourteenth century, the Khaljis' successors, the Tughlaqs, a turkic dynasty, shifted their seat of power eastwards to what is now called Tughlaqabad, a settlement round the massive fort of Tughlaqabad. The third of the Tughlaq sultans, Firoze Shah built his own fort, called Firoze Shah Kotla, several kilometres north of Tughlaqabad, on the banks of Jamuna. Babar, Humayun and Farid Khan, better known as Sher Shah--were located in what is now called the Purana Qila. Then in the seventeenth century the fifth of the Mughal rulers of India, Shah Jahan, built his own city Shahjahanabad in Delhi--now better known as Old Delhi. Every Mughal Ruler after Shah Jahan ruled from the Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, even when from the second decade of the eighteenth century till the dethronement of the last of them in 1857 ruling progressively meant little more than occupying a throne.
Mughal power declined rapidly after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. It was completely erased after the brutal suppression of the uprising of 1857. Yet such was its prestige, that the forces of East India Company, retaking control of Delhi, did not feel completely assured in 1857 until they had captured the Red Fort of Shahjahanabad. Thereafter, even though Calcutta continued to be the Capital of British India for the next fiftyfive years, the British civil and military presence in Delhi grew substantially and a new British town was built north of Kashmiri Gate and in what is now called the civil lines--Delhi became a crucial staging post in the bi-annual migration of the Colonial Government between Shimla and Calcutta. For the British the prestige of Delhi was such that they organised there three durbars--ceremonial extravaganzas-- in 1877 to mark the proclamation of Victoria as Empress of India, in 1903 to mark the coronation of Edward VII and in 1911 to mark the coronation of Geoege V, he himself being present there. In the 1911 durbar the British, confident that they finally had India firmly in their control, announced that they would shift the capital to Delhi. In 1912 they started constructing a new city, New Delhi, south of Shahjahanabad. The Vice-Roy shifted to his palace on top of Raisina Hill in 1932, perhaps meaning that that is when the construction of New Delhi was complete, not knowing that barely fifteen years later the British Indian Empire would end.
After 1947, government business has continued to be conducted out of the now renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan, and two bulidings, also on the hill, on the two sides of the road leading down from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, called North and South Block and India's parliament has functioned from the circular building on the north of the broad plaza at the bottom of the hill, now called Vijay Chowk. In time a separate building was constructed to house the Supreme Court of India. Over the years new bulidings, symmetrically arranged on the two sides of the road, now called Raj Path, leading from Rashtrapati Bhavan to the arch called India Gate (built originally to commemorate men killed during the European War of 1914-1918) were constructed to house government ministries, departments and offices that could no longer be accommodated in North and South Blocks. Construction of newer buildings, spread over all of Delhi, for more and more government offices continues to this day. Two ceremonial practices adopted from early post-independence years continue to this day: the prime minster of India hoists the national flag and addresses the people of India every year on 15th August from the front wall of the barbican added by Aurangzeb, blocking the view of the Lahore Gate of Shahjahan's fort. And every year on 26th January the President of India presides over a military parade on Raj Path. In a manner of speaking, on these two occasions, modern India renews its connection to Shahjahanabad as well as to the imperial pretentions of the British Raj.
Narendra Modi wants to add his own stamp on the British New Delhi. Ever since his reelection in 2019 preparations have been afoot to implement a plan, known as Central Vista Redevelopment Plan, to raze down all the existing government ministry buildings and offices on the two sides of the Raj Path constructed after independence and replace them with, it seems two large and tall buildings--the same height as India Gate--to house all government ministries and a new building to house the parliament and new buildings to house the Vice-President and the Prime Minister of India. The North and South Blocks and the present parliament building will, according to the plan, be converted into museums. The justification given is that the older buildings no longer suit the needs of a modern government, or they are not in a state of good repair, or that they are too ungainly. In the case of the parliament it is said that the number of members might have to be increased in view of the much larger population than what it was in 1976 when the membership of Lok Sabha was frozen at 543. The project has been criticised by environmentalists, architects, town planners and social activists. Recently India's finance minister announced that during the current fiscal year no new schemes will be taken up. The President and the Vice-President and members of parliament have taken pay cuts and the routine, periodical cost of living adjustment allowances of Government of India employees have been frozen. It is quite clear that because of slow economic activities and consequent lower tax revenue the government will need to curtail its ordinary budgetary expenditure while at the same time increase infrastructure investment and welfare expenditure in order to pump prime an extremely sluggish economy. The present corona virus problem has if anything brought into focus the poor state of India's public health infrastructure--for years different governments in India have allowed state run health infrastructure to atrophy while facilitating the enlargement of private, for profit, medical facilities. For years governments have promised to spend a larger percentage of the GDP on health and for years governments have failed to keep that promise. Yet the government is determined to go ahead with the Central Vista project. It is not included in the finance minister's list of schemes to be kept on hold. The estimated cost is Rs.20,000 crore. The new parliament building is to be completed by 2022, in time for the 75th anniversary of India's independence from colonial rule and the rest by 2024 in time for the next parliamentary election. It would be very surprising if there was no cost overrun.
Looked at from any point of view, this scheme is not only wasteful, but unnecessary. All the buildings which are proposed to be abandoned or razed down, and the Rashtrapati Bhavan have been constructed over the years with Indian money, Indian material and Indian sweat and blood. They are part of the fixed capital of the country, not to be destroyed wantonly. None of them, except a few remaining barracks from the time of the 1939-1945 war, north of the eastern end of Raj Path , is about to crumble. By all accounts they still have many years of life left in them. Some of them may need extensive repairs and many might need to be internally modified in order to make them suitable for today's needs. In point of actual fact, internal modification is a process all of them have continuously undergone. In other capitals of the world, of countries with much less stark, abject poverty than India, governments, parliaments and other public offices continue to function from much older edifices--they are not abandoned because current rulers might not like those historical figures who built them. In the case of India's parliament there is another consideration. In the current Lok Sabha with 543 members, in important debates, some members never get the chance to speak for more than one or two minutes and some members do not get even that much time. In a Lok Sabha with say 1100 members debates are bound to get even more restricted: a parliament that cannot debate issues in depth is as bad as no parliament at all. That those in power now will see some sense and eventually decide not to increase the size of the two houses of India's parliament is a forlorn hope.
Narendra Modi projects himself as a strong, determined leader who gets things done--that in the projection of such an image truth and facts are sacrificed is of little consequence. India's strong, determined prime minister will have his own Delhi. All the buildings that are proposed to be razed down were built after independence. Thus Modi , whose propaganda machine has for the last six years been claiming that he has been accomplishing what no one had during the previous seventy years will actually be destroying what had been built during those seventy years in the physical and psychological heart of the government in India. The Central Vista renovation will happen; any person or institution that stands in the way will be bent to the strong leader's wishes. Soon after all the construction is completed and the occupants of these buildings moved into them, the security men will take over and segregate behind a high security cordon an entire quadrangle from Vijay Chowk to India Gate enclosing the new buildings. Even now, far too many decisions are taken from inside a psychological bubble. The latest example of such a decision was the announcement at eight in the evening on 24th March that from midnight that night all trains, buses, factories shops and business establishments would shut down for the next twenty-one days. People were advised to stay indoors. Business houses were asked to continue paying the wages of their workers and not throw them out of their dwellings. It did not occur to the decision makers that businesses that had been asked to close down would have no earnings with which to pay the wages of their employees and employees who would not get their wages would have no money to buy their daily necessities with. From the 26th March onwards there started an exodus on foot, trucks, containers, bicycles or any other means of wage earners from Panjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Delhi, Mumbai, or Bangalore towards Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha or Bengal. For the next three months some of the poorest people of India were subjected to untold suffering. When the bubble will become physical too, there will be more such decisions. India's rulers will have moved further away from India's people.
Tourists who come to Delhi go in large numbers to Shajahan's Red Fort and to Qutb Minar. Not many go to Tughlaqabad, or Firoze Shah Kotla; even fewer go to Siri fort and Hauz Khas is now frequented more by those interested in its ateliers, boutiques and eateries than those interested in the tomb of Firoze Shah Tughlaq and its surrounding structures or the large public tank excavated under the orders of Alla'uddin Khalji. Very few who visit these places know or are interested in knowing much about the men who built them. In order to learn the name of the British Viceroy under whom the British New Delhi started being built, you will have to make a google search. By the time the Central Vista project is completed, Narendra Modi will have been in power for ten years. At present he looks like sure to be re-elected in 2024. In 2029 he will be 79 years old and he would have been in power for fifteen years. Assuming that he wishes to beat Jawaharlal Nehru's record of seventeen years as Prime Minister, and assuming he can still get re-elected in 2029, it is unlikely that he will be Prime Minister beyond 2034. If things turned out thus, he would be in power for ten years after his Delhi is completed, less than what the British had after they completed their New Delhi. After Modi is gone, his Delhi will be no more than a warren in which self-important bureaucrats and politicians will scurry around and into which Delhi's large tribe of fixers and middlemen will be allowed entry from time to time. If by then political power has passed to Modi's opponents of whichever political colour, not even his photographs will be visible on the walls of these buildings--for they would like to obliterate his memory just as he is intent on obliterating the memory of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. All that is far into the future. Over the next three years, a government facing severe shortage of funds will be spending a substantial amount of money on a wasteful, unnecessary project whose only purpose is to massage the ego of one man.