Colonial past puts leaders off centenary party in Delhi

By Rahui Bedi

India's federal capital New Delhi has marked its 100th birthday, but without any official celebration of a day that reawakens unpleasant memories of over two centuries of British colonial rule.

The centenary of the 1911 surprise decision by King George V at an elaborate Durbar (royal court) on the outskirts of Old Delhi to shift the Imperial capital from Calcutta on the east coast back to the Mogal capital in the north has been the subject of public lectures, discussion seminars and historical and nostalgic accounts in newspapers and on television.

But no official programmes, parades or functions were organised by the authorities for the city's over 17 million inhabitants to celebrate the historic event.

"India's ambivalence about celebrating the founding of its capital New Delhi by the British Raj underlines the pathetic hypocrisy of our political class, which feeds off the empire's legacy but is unwilling to acknowledge it" declared columnist C. Raja Mohan in the Indian Express last week.

The only ceremony marking Delhi's founding date was the one in which Sheila Dikshit, the city's chief minister, presided over the launch of an elaborate book detailing the several cities built over centuries in the same area.

"There is ambivalence on what to celebrate and how to celebrate it," Dikshit said enigmatically as India determinedly disregarded its colonial past.

According to folklore, Delhi was the site of the magnificent Indraprastha kingdom founded in 2500BC, capital of the Pandava rulers of the Mahabarata, the glorious Indian epic.

Thereafter, New Delhi was the eighth city that served as the capital of successive rulers and conquerors between the 12th and the 19th centuries that included Mongols, Turks, Afghans, Moguls and eventually the British until independence in 1947.

Over 1000 years Delhi was destroyed and rebuilt several times, often razed to the ground by conquerors such as Tamerlane who killed tens of thousands of its residents in one day in the late 14th century.

Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens on a grand and opulent scale with tree-lined boulevards overlooked by the imposing, 340-room red sandstone British vice-regal palace and surrounded by grandiose elegant buildings - all of them intact - New Delhi showcased untrammelled colonial grandeur and power.

The Imperial capital inaugurated in 1931 was intended as a city for around 500,000 residents.

Today it is overcrowded, crime-ridden, polluted, buried deep under garbage and teeming with frenetic, smoke belching traffic and plagued by real estate prices surpassing those of Manhattan and Tokyo.

And the picturesque Jamuna River on whose banks the city was built and which for centuries was its source of life and sustenance, now resembles a stinking drain choked full of industrial effluents and sewage.

On December 12, 1911, in the tented city for 25,000 people erected in north Delhi, the newly ascended King George V mingled with over 560 grandly accoutred Indian princes and maharajahs, native soldiers and solemn civil servants at the glittering Durbar meticulously organised by Viceroy Lord Curzon before making the announcement regarding New Delhi.

Curzon had spent a year fine-tuning every detail to ensure the pomp, splendour and protocol for the landmark event.

Newspaper accounts of the Durbar depict a 40sq km luxurious camp with temporary palaces erected by local rulers, some with silver pillars inlaid with gold leaf and precious stones.

It had a postal system, electricity grid and a small-gauge rail network with 18 stops. No luxury or artistic licence was withheld with exotic carpets and silks, rare artefacts and exquisite furniture all tastefully blended to form an opulent but classy setting.

The King and Queen, draped in furs and jewels, greeted their Indian subjects from an immense throne in a cleverly choreographed ritual aimed at asserting British supremacy and resurrecting long faded Mogal grandeur.

When the King announced on that freezing afternoon that New Delhi would be the new capital of its Crown Jewel colony - built alongside the old - there was a moment of stunned silence followed by wild cheering.

Not even his Queen knew about this tightly guarded secret to shift the capital from Calcutta, where the British increasingly feared rising Bengali nationalism.

The smug British believed they were building a city where they would live forever, but they lasted only 16 years after New Delhi was completed and became free India's capital.

At the country's 1947 partition into a secular India and a Muslim Pakistan following cataclysmic events in which over one million people died in sectarian clashes and 10 times that number were displaced, New Delhi turned into a massive refugee camp.

Over the next three decades these refugees, mainly doughty and entrepreneurial Punjabis and Sikhs, turned New Delhi into the frenzied city it is today where modernity and commerce melds effortlessly with the historic.

But as New Delhi observes its 100th birthday, remnants of its colonial past - a stone obelisk proclaiming the spot where the king received homage from his Indian subjects - lie scattered in a dirty, unkempt park, known locally as the graveyard of the British Empire.

Overgrown with grass and weeds, Curzon's once grand Coronation Park is a dumping ground for defaced statues of British royalty, including Queen Victoria and viceroys, a private enough spot which nearby slum dwellers use as a public lavatory.

- NZ Herald

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