Celebrating 100 years of New Delhi: Absurd, ahistorical and unseemly

By Shivam Vij

There was no one celebrating New Delhi's 100th anniversary yesterday, not people on the streets, not the New Delhi Municipal Corporation, not the Delhi government, not the picnicking families at India Gate, and certainly not the Union of India. But, never mind, since the undaunted Delhi media certainly made up for this dismal lack of enthusiasm.

Last year, on 12 December, Time Out Delhi did a cover story to mark the fact that New Delhi was to enter its hundredth year as the nation's capital. Since then the Delhi media has been beating the anniversary drum over the course of the year.

So, after twelve months of eager preparation, here's what we were treated to yesterday. Shots of youngsters eating gol gappas in old Delhi. Yes, in old Delhi — to celebrate New Delhi. Shots of India Gate followed by Qutub Minar. Yes, Qutub Minar which is more than 800 years old.

CNN-IBN's special show talked about Jama Masjid as a sufi shrine, while the movie Rockstar's music —  originally shot at the Nizamuddin dargah — played in the background! NewsX limited itself to archival images, half of which were Margaret Bourke-White's iconic photos of the Partition!

The Indian Express devoted most of its Sunday magazine to the anniversary with relevant articles about Delhi campuses, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University that was established in 1969. Another piece on architecture spoke mostly about south Delhi. Also included: a guide for expats telling them how to 'survive' Delhi — which is surely how we ended up with Lutyens' Delhi in the first place.

The foreign press was no less confused about the nature of the anniversary. The Wall Street Journal's India Real Time blog had the standard Punjabi refugee's rags-to-riches story, using the equally predictable example of Bahri & Sons booksellers. Never mind, dear friends that the Partition happened in 1947, not 1911.

 Celebrating 100 years of New Delhi: Absurd, ahistorical and unseemly

The 1911 Delhi Durbar in this archival image. Wikimedia Commons.

It may be passe to indulge in post-colonial whining these days, but surely its appropriate on this most imperial of anniversaries. And if we must celebrate the past, it behooves us to get our history right.

One year after the 1857 mutiny — or "First war of Indian Independence" — the fig leaf of the East India Company was replaced by direct British rule. The British shifted the capital to Calcutta.The shift of the seat of power back to Delhi 53 years later strikes you as something to celebrate?

If so, consider what this historic move entailed for Delhi. Rakhshanda Jalil writes in The Hindu:

While the new city north and west of Shahjahanabad continued to grow into a modern metropolis and a showcase for rising western architects out to display their talent and ingenuity, the old city of Delhi disintegrated after the Durbar of 1911. No attempt was made to restore the buildings that had been destroyed or razed during the Revolt of 1857, nor was any effort expended on linking the old city with the new. An invisible cordon sanitaire divided the two: the old was cramped, diseased, decaying and poorly-serviced whereas the new was spacious, sanitised, well planned and well laid out. In a word, while the new was “organised”, the old was “unorganised”.

This New Delhi was not made for the native masses — or its flora. Anand Vivek Taneja in Time Out records how all fruit trees in Chandni Chowk were cut down in 1912 after a failed assassination attempt on Viceroy Lord Hardinge. And in 1913, a report of the Imperial Capital Committee listed the names of trees to be planted in the new city that was yet to begin construction. The list did not include any species native to Delhi.

As Taneja notes, New Delhi was built by literally erasing the old:

Bashiruddin Ahmed, writing on the monuments of Delhi in a book published in 1919, the Waqiat Dar-ul-Hukumat Dehli, documents how the progress of the building of New Delhi systematically erases the past and makes what remains ruinous:

“The road that goes from Delhi to Nizamuddin, the measure of which is about four miles; on both sides of it, far on each side, even the smallest bits of land are now empty of graves, towers, mosques, homes, wells. The plain on the right side was cleared on behalf of the GIP [Great Indian Peninsular] Railway and Raisina (New Delhi). That leaves the plain on the left side, in which there is the Khas Mahal, the Sarai of Azimganj, etcetera. It is in the same condition, that till Arab Sarai and Humayun’s Tomb — actually it should be said that till where the eye travels – an absolutely clean, flattened plain can be seen and only one or two ruins or a broken, fallen dome has remained, if at all. In this flattened plain, the plough has come in, crops are waving. Where buildings with their heads to the sky once stood, there is now jungle.”

During a television break, writer Sadia Dehlvi asked a fellow NDTV panelist, a Delhi University youth Congress leader, why she was celebrating the imperial capital shifting to Delhi when the city had long been the capital before the British arrived.

"Really?" the student replied, "I didn't know that!"

She also didn't know that the inauguration of this imperial New Delhi marked the decline of the local culture of Dilli and Shahjahanabad, which suddenly became 'old' Delhi. "I was born in Lutyens' Delhi, I love Lutyens' Delhi," says Sadia, "but I cannot forget it was built by those who colonised us, divided us and destroyed the beautiful Red Fort."

If the reasons to celebrate 12 December, 2011, are suspect, so is the very date.

Sohail Hashmi has written extensively about the absurdity of celebrating the Delhi Durbar of 1911 when New Delhi was not inaugurated until 1931, he says. The British in 1911 had not even decided on name for the new city. Until 1927, Georgetown and Georgabad were amongst the names under consideration. As late as 1920, the British were considering other sites for building their Imperial Capital, including Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, Nasik, Ranchi, Poona, Pachmari, Allahabad and Jabalpur.

All the historical facts add up to one inescapable conclusion: what the Delhi media celebrated yesterday was not New Delhi but the Delhi Durbar. A coronation durbar, in Jalil's words, "where, with great pomp and ceremony, King George V and Queen Mary were proclaimed the Emperor and Empress of India. Princes, noblemen, landed gentry and persons of rank and repute sat under a gilded canopy, each according to his stature in the colonial pecking order, to hear His Royal Highness address His subjects." What is missing in the celebrations of that day — you can see the footage here — is the silent gaze of the lowly native, who speaks in the words of Akbar Illahabadi: "They are favoured with rising fortune/ The seven-fold heavens belong to them./ Theirs is the cup and theirs the wine/ Only the eyes are mine: the rest belongs to them."

Happy 100 years of the Delhi Durbar!

Updated Date: Jan 05, 2012 11:23:24 IST