Delhi's Coronation Park Highlights How Urban Governance Ignores Both History and the Public

The American Historical Association cited the park as a good example of preserving historical artefacts. They probably wouldn't have said that if they'd been there.

On August 28, 2017, the American Historical Association (AHA) issued a statement in the wake of violent protests by white supremacists at Charlottesville who opposed the city’s plan to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most important general.

Emphasising the importance of history to public culture, the statement argues that the proposed removal of Confederate statues would “neither…change history, nor erase it” but was a reconsideration of which memorials, and which histories embodied by them, were worthy of civic honour.

The AHA proposed that the Confederate statues needed to be preserved as historical artefacts. Ideally, they should be moved to other spaces, for example museums, accompanied by records of their original location and significance. Two examples from other parts of the world are cited approvingly by the AHA: Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary, which houses old communist statues and plaques, and Coronation Park in north Delhi.

State of George V under a canopy at India Gate, circa 1952. The statue was removed in 1960 and eventually relocated to what is now Coronation Park. Credit: Inger Schulstad/Trondheim Municipal Archives/Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Coronation Park was conceived in 2011 as a public park that would foster a new relationship between imperial artefacts and public space. The site already contained an in situ obelisk marking George V’s Indian coronation at the site in 1911 and had been the location where a number of other statues of imperial dignitaries, removed from their original positions in other parts of the city, were dumped soon after independence.

The vision of the park’s design, created by landscape architect Mohammed Shaheer, is striking in its ability to invoke the original context of the statues while leaving the visitor in no doubt that the park is a different, new space. For instance, the structures of red and white stone and almost stately pathways that are lined with tall street lamps are fleetingly reminiscent of Lutyen’s Delhi. These stylistic touches conjure up, but do not recreate, a sense of imperial grandeur that itself drew on design elements of the city’s Mughal and Sultanate past.

At the same time, the park contains clear iterations of its own time and diversions from the statues’ pasts. In contrast to the pedestrian-unfriendly avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi, small follies in red sandstone offer shelter to the park goer. The steps of an elegant sunken amphitheatre mark the amenable nature of the space. The stepped plinths below the statues, each contained within a small enclosure, offer seats and encourage a physical and visual intimacy to the visitor that is the antithesis of the statues’ original embodiment of the physically remote and culturally aloof nature of imperial power.

Perhaps nothing speaks to the very different political context in which Coronation Park was planned as much as an enormous flag pole (currently sans flag) intentionally and significantly taller than any of the statues, in front of the amphitheatre.

In 2011, A.G.K. Menon, the head of the Delhi chapter of INTACH, emphasised that the flag was meant to dominate the space as a clear marker of the Indian nature of the park.

Our visit to Coronation Park took place on a warm September evening. Despite its youth (it was completed only two years ago), the park has fallen into early decrepitude. The monuments are covered with graffiti and the gardens are untended. The lamps that dot the park do not light up in the evening and vegetation is undermining the stone walkways and enclosures.

The Interpretation Centre, intended to explain the history of the park and its statues, was never completed and the buildings designed to house it stand empty. It is clear that none of the members of the various historical associations who signed the American statement have visited the park.

However, Coronation Park bristles with activities – yoga, badminton, running, the ubiquitous pastime of selfie-taking, romance and play. It is now a local, north Delhi park, clearly popular and valued, its ambience a far cry from rather somber descriptions usually accorded to it by academics and planners. For the crowds that throng the park in the evening, the statues provide visual backdrops and sheltered spaces for rest and socialising.

Beyond the provision of props and shelter, the statues are regarded with benign indifference. When asked about the statues, a group of boys emphatically told us they were of Indians, not British. Another park-goer told us that the park in its entirety was created was created by the British. It is noteworthy that nothing in the park contests these readings. Whether by accident of design, the plaques below the plinths are blank and no museum tells the story of the statues’ changed fortunes. Only George V, whose name is carved into the original plinth on which the statue stood at India Gate, is identified.

Obelisk at Coronation Park, Delhi. Credit: Hemanshu Kumar/Flickr CC -BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The AHA’s laudatory comments about Delhi’s Coronation Park imply the statues have been preserved as a corrective, but not iconoclastic, rebuttal to a repressive imperial past. We would argue that the fate of the imperial statuary is something of a footnote in a set of very different urban politics.

The current condition of the park is testimony to more significant tensions between, on the one hand, urban development and heritage protection and, on the other, the city and its publics.

The park was designed to form the northern-most point of a heritage corridor that would end at the Qutab Minar in the south. This corridor was central to a proposal to make Delhi a UNESCO World Heritage city, a proposal that was unilaterally withdrawn by the government of India in 2015 without consultation with either the Delhi government, who initiated the proposal, or the INTACH, who prepared it.

The reason for the bid’s abrupt withdrawal is not mysterious. World Heritage City status would have provided substantial armoury for the city’s vast and diverse physical heritage and, in doing so, would have blighted urban infrastructural development of the kind the government currently favours for the capital.

At play in Coronation Park. Credit: Carol Mitchell/Flickr CC-BY-ND 2.0

On the question of the city’s publics, it is significant that the park is not deemed worthy of continued support on its own merits; as a large, enclosed, landscaped space of leisure in a part of the city that enjoys few such amenities. That none of the state and non-state agencies involved in the conception and partial completion of the park as a heritage space has supported the park as a local, north Delhi resource attests to the alienation of these agencies from the city’s public. This distance is not new. The city of New Delhi was built amidst the collapse of the imperial state’s credibility and in proximity to the epicentre of the most significant rebellion the British Empire ever faced.

The imperial city’s architecture – of which the statues at Coronation Park formed a part – is a physical memorial to a government regime that regarded the Indian public with indifference, suspicion and antagonism. The dilapidated state of Coronation Park commemorates two realities of contemporary urban governance. Firstly, the abandonment of the park as it was originally conceived marks the ascendancy of rapid infrastructural transformation over heritage conservation in the city. Secondly, and arguably more significantly, the park’s trajectory of decline exhibits the indifference of the government to the maintenance of local infrastructure and, in particular, places of public leisure.

Without some properly resourced maintenance, it is not clear how long the park will remain attractive and amenable to visitors. The story of the park is the story of a bureaucratic regime that refuses to allow the city’s past to offer cautionary wisdom to its present and a city public that is not deemed worthy of recreational spaces.

Aparna Balachandran teaches modern history at Delhi University and Deborah Sutton teaches at Lancaster University.

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