New Delhi: the changing city on the hill


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PLACES are spaces for the performance of power in a polity. From shared courtyards to city squares, places give the dramatis personae of any polity (families, kinships, societies universities, big business or the nation state), a stage to enact and reaffirm the relationships of power that bind them together. ‘Setting the stage’, in other words, placing (or displacing) edifices in places, is the scenographic privilege of the powerful in the polity and the manner in which this directorship is wielded shows the agency of governance and the sovereignty of the governed.

If a theatre is understood to house the dramatics of performer-audiences, where the actors and the galleries respond to each other, then the performance of power between the body corporate and the body politic of a polity is similarly mounted in significant places. Without one or the other, the theatre is diminished to the mechanics of a dress rehearsal or the empty stage of a cancelled show.

From the Citadel in Mohenjo-Daro to the Central Axis of Amravati, for the state, place-making in a capital is… well, capital! Whether empowered by mercantile hegemony, military might or public mandate, the state sustains its seat of government by concentrating centres of power near itself, in its capital. And in capitals, the capitol (from where legislative powers emanate) consolidates the polity’s other proximous poles of civic, cultural, legislative, judicial and administrative power, in a tight clutch around itself. In making capitols and their complexes, the state seeks a theatre of stature and of stasis: an enthralling impassive stage to accommodate the regimented parade of state pageantry and the throngs of citizens in solidarity.

Ultimately, the place of the capitol complex itself emerges from the setting out of a scenography of institutions, landscapes and symbolic edifices marking the script’s epochal alignments, orientations and distances, scoring the space between the state and their citizens. The citizenry is the most animated protagonist at the place of the capitol complex, and it brings the eyes, voice and body of the governed to the theatre. Capitol-making, thus, offers the state an opportunity to orchestrate mise en scènes, as much for the delivery of rousing operatics as for opiate rhetorics.

From this conceptual level we now shift the narative to Delhi, to a time when the vitals of the British Empire plummeted sharply. The distracted handling of social affairs, by a Company Raj beset with blind hubris and craven greed, led to an outbreak of revolt from within the native ranks of the army and the princelings in 1857. It quickly ravaged the dusty flatlands of Delhi, the North Western, United and Central Provinces. The insurrection sought a resurrection of the Mughal state, carefully kept comatose in Delhi by the Raj. Once the contagion was quelled, the empire needed to be nursed back to health. With the prescriptive alacrity of a Victorian physician, the Crown felt a purge of immoralities and an injection of fealty would suffice to protect its empire.


And so, a year later, the British East India Company was liquidated, and the ageing Victoria Regina stepped into the limelight as Queen-Empress, trailed by a cadre of technocrats and bureaucrats in ‘civil’ service to her Indian Empire. These genteel Oxbridge Old Boys of the Imperial Civil Services (ICS) disdainfully replaced the raucous Company’s Frontier Boys to show the natives what Pax Britannica looked like. But they too retained the services of the Indian subordinate bureaucracy to translate the bewildering subcontinent and to transmit the way they wished to set it in order.

The executive Governor-General of India who led these civil servants would also be the legislative Viceroy of the subjects of the feudatory princely states and the citizens of the presidencies and provinces. In a massive displacement of power, the ultimate cynosure of the loyalties (or ire) of an entire subcontinent would now be the Empress with her paternal constitutional governance flowing from the pen of her India Secretary, both sat safe, an unassailable five thousand miles away. In those times, this was a distance that verged on the divine.

The Raj opted against the occupation, even symbolic, of the Lal Qila, the vanquished Mughal citadel of Shahjahanabad. Preferring to continue to live in aloof appendages, the engineers of the PWDs and Military Engineering Services (MES) rapidly and strategically expanded the regimented civil lines and manor-like bungalow estates outside the city, on higher ground. They controlled the city from the outside. Their deep discomfort in living amongst the people they ruled, and their total military dominance of the countryside meant safety and security was now, ironically, found outside indigenous fortifications.

Their racist vexations were further aggravated by exposure to sharply violent skirmishes in the serpentine streets of Shahjahanabad and to awfully virulent diseases in the tropical climate. To them, the city was malodorous and the citizens malafide. The vast fields of Delhi were used for mounting massive troop movements and the imperial Delhi Durbars, to keep suitably impressed, the bellicose farmer-soldiers living outside the ramparts of the citadel. Their disdain for their subjects was most apparent when Victoria called for a pompous Delhi Durbar in 1877 at the peak of the devastation of the Great Famine.


Intent on dismantling the regional, linguistic and communal hierarchies that emboldened the intermediary bhadralok, the Viceroy, George Curzon, declared the partition of Bengal in the name of a freshly minted but short-lived Emperor, Edward VII, in 1905. Ostensibly to improve efficiency of governance, the partition was clearly intended to upend old social power structures. The nationalist native press broadcast the indignation caused by this blatant policy to divide and rule. This enflamed a solidarity of revolutionaries across the provinces.

Curzon’s legislations of 1904 (the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act – AMP Act; and the Indian Universities Act) seemed designed to allow the Raj to take over sites of socio-cultural significance in the name of their preservation and assert control over the noisy students unions in the name of regulating their pedagogy. The peace within the presidency and provincial towns was disrupted sporadically and violently enough to cause panic. In particular, the capital’s province of Bengal, saw members of the rich, the landed and the educated actively turn vehemently hostile toward the Viceroy and British officers of the Raj.


In the few, among the subsequent, trials of the revolutionary acts, that allowed it, the revolutionaries themselves built a stout defence of nationalism on principles of natural justice. It was scrupulously couched in constitutional vindications by their Indian advocates in rhetoric learnt in provincial law colleges and at the Inns of Court. The gulf between the professed ideals of jurisprudence and the state’s utter impunity in brutal subjugation by law were laid bare and widely reported by the nationalist press. The Crown was taken aback at how quickly the hiss of dissent among their captive audience became catcalls and projectiles of sedition.

To smother the agitations, it quickly enacted the India Councils Act in 1909, nominally increasing Indian political representation. A new King, George V, stood in the wings awaiting coronation. The egg on the face of the Raj needed a quick mop-up and its face-paint, an urgent touch-up. An impetuous way out was conceived by the incumbent Viceroy, Charles Hardinge: Bengal and its bhadralok must be abandoned in Calcutta and a new proscenium of power, unbesmirched by the humiliation, must be located elsewhere.


On 12 December 1911, during the pomp of the Delhi Durbar, George V, announced the reversal of the Bengal partition and, to save face, his imperial desire for a new Indian capital at Delhi. His Viceroy, looked to carve a New Delhi in the fields south of the Mughal citadel. Having successfully bludgeoned armed revolt in this hinterland barely four decades back, the citadel was redundant to the Raj. Smarting at the treacherous babu and the insubordinate factotum in Bengal, all existing settlements that did not conform to the geometrics of the citadel of the ICS would be ghettoised or erased. The city would be exclusively occupied by the most loyal: the Viceroy, a genuflection of loyal princes and businessmen, a bevy of debutante Indian legislators, a shuffle of British bureaucrats and their coterie of native retinue staff.

Specifically, the upstart neo-elite middle class would be relegated to living cheek-to-jowl in jaded Mughal urban remains and the festering suburbs, allowed access through ritual displays of fealty and inclusion only when loyalty was proven to be unquestioned. Unlike the predecessor citadels of Delhi that rose to prominence only to inevitably implode in intrigue, New Delhi would be an imperious theatre, infinite in its open-endedness.

The Raj was now armed with a tested triumvirate of Haussmann-ian genies out of new technological lamps to kettle the grumbling djinns of Old Delhi. Although theoretically rational and apparently well intentioned, town planning, horticulture and centralised sanitation systems, were deployed with an arrogance and self-indulgence that was an aria of colonial assertion. New Delhi’s plan was a breathtaking matrix for segregation, control and social re-engineering.

Based on the aesthetics of a European ‘Garden City’, New Delhi was a network of tree-lined boulevards and manicured gardens filled with transplanted exotic species of flora. In order to prevent the rousing of mass action against the state, it contained no Indian socio-cultural anchors or places for public congregation or festivities. Precincts in New Delhi that segregated its population based on race, trade and social station and any organized unrest could easily be segregated and quelled in separate sectors. True to the Raj’s extractive intentions, its new capital consumed money, land and water resources with gluttonous depravity. Acres of plots housed low slung manors setback from empty roads where vehicles took precedence over pedestrians.


The Public Works Doppelganger – the Lutyens’ Masterplan – offered a new language of grandiose city making, steeped in colonial intent and racially prejudiced geometry. It imagined as grand vista of state residences (but for the Imperial Legislative Council that made an appearance a decade later), it centred around an axis of government that began atop Raisina Hill in the Viceregal Palace and ended at the assembly of the state mansions of the feudatory princes. Set out as a repetitive geometric lattice of straight roads connecting ordered roundabouts, the scheme offered an unending number of potential sites for place-making amidst hierarchical housing for the British civil service of India. The visiting Indian subordinates could visit but never hope to live there. A techno-bureaucratic tongue so full of obfuscations and qualifications that it made an open-plan city the most exclusionary.

To pave the way for New Delhi, the Raj gave itself sweeping powers to acquire land by doctrine of eminent domain (through nominal compensation or else, excessive force), assign speculative value to it and erase the historicity of the site. The consolidation of land for the capital was vested in the Delhi Improvement Trust as the Imperial Delhi Estate and land of its capitol complex as the Government of Raisina Estate. A rigid system of statutes and sanction was put in place ostensibly to tightly control the quality and quantity of architecture and urban life but it delegitimised many indigenous places, settlement patterns and disqualified architectural typologies and practices.


Independence was baptism by fire for the Indian state that arrived on the stage as a Fabian ingenue. It was clear that the transfer of political power could not sustain if the administrative scaffolding of governance, urgently needed to provide succour and unity, was dismantled. But even with the nation and its people in disarray and the British being pushed off-stage, not much had been disturbed in New Delhi or at its Central Vista, thanks to Gandhian non-violence. The founders of the Indian Republic did not need a new stage, as much as the script left behind by the previous regimes needed overhauling. The Constituent Assembly convened for three years of deliberations, decocting all British Indian governance legislations enacted since 1858, to give the nation a constitution, bristling with idealism but tempered by the unbending Indian Administrative Services, Vallabhbhai Patel’s famous ‘steel frame’ forged in the foundry of imperial enterprise.

New Delhi thus became the capital of the self-governed. The Delhi Improvement Trust (DIT) was replaced by the Delhi Development Authority, whose writ as master-planning authority flowed from the delegated legislation of its Delhi Master plans and byelaws. Curzon’s AMP Act of 1904 was repealed by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958 through which it not only continued to inherit control sites of Indian socio-cultural heritage from the colonial act, it asserted a moratorium on construction in a hundred metre radius around it and restricted building activity for a further 200 metres. Cunningly, the new law excluded any building undertaken less than a century ago, i.e. the colonial infrastructure of the British, built after the Revolt of 1857, with which they would now govern the new democratic state.


But a few hard choices needed to be made to make space for the governed. Between the feudals, the capitalists, the intelligentsia, the Indian state, now committed to democratic pluralism, naturally chose to evict the former two from the Central Vista and attempted to coopt the latter. Four plots at the central intersection of the Queensway (now Janpath) and Kingsway (now Rajpath), that stepped out of the strict flanks of Rajpath, were originally meant to display the expropriated cultural assets of the subjects as trophies and the records of various empires that preceded the Raj. The socialist state chose to convert these into the permanent homes of national cultural and archival treasure, making this intersection the threshold of trust between those who govern and the governed.

The glorious lawns of the Central Vista from the Grand Place (Vijay Chowk) to the India Gate once exclusively the stomping ground of the colonial elite would be open to the people for unhampered frolic or untrammeled protest at the threshold of governance. However, the Fabian state too wished to build a new city to showcase its values. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, a legal pundit turned politician, used this desire to plug the hole left by the loss of Lahore to Pakistan. A new Modernist capital of Punjab was his ‘pet project’ and his unassailable popularity among the people left the choice of the architect to his discretion.

Nehru’s chose an idiosyncratic Swiss who idolised Haussmann’s penchant for light, ventilation, sanitisation and unsullied cityscapes, over the British trained Indian architects of his Central Public Works Department (CPWD), who he felt were too traditional for his iconoclastic motivations. Nehru was fascinated by Le Corbusier’s Modernism recently tailored to suit the socialist tastes of the now global, post-colonial intelligentsia that he was a part of. He felt it ‘hit you on the head… and made you think.’ It was in his architecture that Nehru dreamt building new national institutions, free from the encumbrances of past social hegemonies: the cornerstones for a fragile fledgling democracy.


Over time, by 1960, other than the nominal opulence of the President’s palace, the Central Vista was scrubbed clean of all the self-indulgent residences and replaced by a few government offices but mostly by national, civic, and socio-cultural institutions. This was the hardest to swallow for the babu. Having trained under the colonial precepts of the ICS and patiently awaiting their rise to the top for nearly ninety years, the cadres of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), were now elevated out of subordination and briefed on the declared agenda of the state to empower the disenfranchised gradually while maintaining stability.

Jawaharlal Nehru led a socialist India for its first 17 years. Under the leadership of his successive governments, the legislators in the Sansad Bhavan, the appropriated Imperial Legislative Council House, each elected due to their heroics (mythified or genuine) in the freedom struggle or by virtue of age-old community leadership, indulged in reasonable multipolar power play to make for compelling democratic debate.


The techno-bureaucrat, however, knew that there was little between slothful change and no change at all! The practice of a century of benign neglect came in handy, especially when the oversight by the people’s representatives was distracted by self-enrichment. Vestigial colonial powers still remained in the hearts and hands of the civil services. These laws of the empire were ideal for maintaining status quo ante with mild obfuscation when questioned and greedy capture when possible. Theatre after all is all about timing. The pendulum of power that seemed to have swung toward the people and their legislators in Parliament at independence could easily swing back to the bureaucrat and the plutocrat.

As the theatre of democracy enlarged in India, the Indian state shed its socialist costume and its extravaganzas of power became linked to securing better prospects in electoral cycles. With each successful campaign to power needing incumbency for an ever-greater illicit financial thrust at the next hustings, and with economic liberalization continuing to erode the state’s welfare ideals and the politician’s ethical commitments to public interest, could big business be far away?

On 05 September 2019, the CPWD issued an impetuous tender seeking interest from private technocrats and contractors on the master planning, architecture, engineering and construction for the ‘redevelopment’ of the Central Vista. The tender is replete with half-truths, hyperbolic gaslighting, smoke and mirrors. After more than seven decades of independence, a new Indian public works doppelganger, emerges onto the New Delhi stage, stepping out from the colonial shadows and feudal fogs still obscuring it.

In 2017, drawing on colonial authority from the Governments Building Act 1899, the state empowered the CPWD to bypass the municipal authority of the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) to strictly regulate construction at the Central Vista, to self-sanction changes to the Grade1 protect heritage precincts. It also amended the AMASR Act of 1958 to allow itself to undertake construction within the 100 metre protection zone with impunity. The Central Vista Redevelopment Project swings into unseemly action without legally requisite overview by experts and the public, with a gargantuan change in the land use of more than 100 acres of land from Public Use to Government Use by the DDA.


With the reticence of a sledgehammer, the CPWD proclaims its intention to execute a project that intends to demolish 450,000 square metres of existing buildings and build anew more than four times that area. It defends its motivations as ‘public interest’ while pursuing the project as an essential service during a lockdown meant to take the edge of a devastating surge in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Taken to court in public interest litigations, its officers and those of the CPWD, the DDA and the Heritage Conservation Committee file blatantly misleading affidavits that the courts avoid examining on merits, purportedly to maintain judicial restraint. The Supreme Court bench of three delivers a verdict, split two to one. The majority judgement, contriving to rely on irreconcilably conflicted and factually erroneous averments by the state before it clears government action in procuring the sanction to construct a New Parliament in violation of delegated legislations, and environment and heritage regulations. The minority, rejecting to give the impunity the state sought to circumvent public consent and public knowledge on the Central Vista Redevelopment project, quashed it in its entirety.


Once again, the Central Public Works Department serves the political masters unprecedented ambitions and seemingly untrammelled powers with as yet unrevealed plans to consolidate power into a capitol citadel. In a theatre of the absurd, beyond even Beckettian imaginations, it reduces access and territory for the citizenry of the nation to the national space where they have witnessed the entire history of their democracy. It grabs land away from the people while shamelessly invoking their name and interests. It counts on hushing protests from legislative representatives of the people through their need for self-aggrandisement with the gift of a gilded gag: a swanky new Parliament to legislate from instead of the hoary birthplace of their constitution. Their previous wishes for one were thwarted by institutional alertness and bureaucratic weakness until the Sansad Bhavan’s sanctity was formally protected by Delhi’s heritage byelaws only in 2009.

The CPWD proposes a spanking new and ‘improved’ capitol complex for their bureaucratic brethren to cement their control over the power axis that will start with an oligarchical enclave of the state homes of the President, the Vice President and the Prime Minister atop Raisina hill, jealously clutching the cultural artefacts of the entire nation, slated to be mummified in the Old Secretariat’s North and South Blocks. The banal, overbearing monolithic government offices will tower over and crowd out the singular majesties of the India Gate and Parliament.

Without a thought to their safety and integrity, the artefacts themselves appear to be on an unplanned shunt between temporary accommodations far removed from the threshold of thrust between the state and its citizens at the centre of the Central Vista. The power corridor will end in a wreath of public space around the War Memorial, a symbol of unnamed, unquestioning and ultimate sacrifices by the ranks of the Indian military on orders of the Indian state in the name of the people.


As more features are revealed, the doppelganger is indistinguishable from its colonial past. It proclaimed the Central Vista project as one improving the quality, efficiency, and frugality of governance however untenable, impractical and pharaonic it may actually be. The state’s professed urgency to execute the project belies an unabashed desire to beat the centennial clock of the AMASR Act of 1958 that prevents the haphazard or arbitrary modification, displacement or replacement of monument held in fiduciary responsibility.

On 10 December 2020, just two months shy of the centenary of the Sansad Bhavan’s foundation as the Imperial Legislative Council and a century and a decade since George V’s face-saving attempt at renewing the power of empire, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, laid the foundation stone of a new capitol ‘for a new India’. Driven down the hill, the citizens of India, new and old, bide their time under the shadow of India Gate.