In Connaught Place and The Making of New Delhi, Swapna Liddle says one of the arguments put forward against moving the capital from Calcutta to Delhi was because “it was a lifeless backwater of the Punjab Province – remote from the major centres of commerce, Calcutta, Bombay, and Karachi and therefore the capital and the officials would end up in a bureaucratic enclave.”
That was about all that Delhi was when I first arrived there 54 years ago. The population then was under three million, now it is the centre of the world’s third largest conurbation in which over 25 million people live.
Liddle describes how this extraordinary population explosion started. Her story begins with the imperious Viceroy Lord Curzon’s decision to partition the troublesome province of Bengal. This autocratic decision only made matters worse and so it was decided that the policy of the government of India should change from autocracy to seeking the cooperation of Indians. Liddle sees the decision to move the capital to Delhi as part of that policy rather than ”the articulation of imperial authority.” The decision was announced by George Fifth, at the 1911 Durbar in Delhi, the only reigning monarch to visit India when it was under British rule.
Many have seen the construction of the vast palace for the Viceroy and the imposing two wings of the secretariat, perched up above the rest of New Delhi on Raisina Hill, as a continuation of the Raj’s policy of building magnificent public buildings to overawe its subjects. But Liddle describes the debates over the extent to which those buildings should have an Indian motif to emphasise that New Delhi was to be a capital Indians could regard as their own.
She quotes Herbert Baker, one of the two leading architects of New Delhi, as saying that although the foundation should be European classical architecture “we must try to graft on all that we can accept of what is best in India sentiment, and achievement, and architecture.”
Baker’s enthusiasm for Indian art and architecture was not shared by the other leading architect, Edwin Lutyens, and this brought the two architects into conflict with each other. There was also the better-known conflict between them over Baker’s secretariat obscuring the view down Raj Path of the palace Lutyens built for the Viceroy.
Liddle supports Baker. She believes Lutyens’ role in the construction of New Delhi has been exaggerated and that we shouldn’t be speaking of Lutyens’ Delhi. To justify that view, she points out that his plan for New Delhi was rejected.
There is a chapter in the book dedicated to Connaught Place, which was planned as the shopping and leisure centre of New Delhi. It was a decidedly up-market shopping centre. There were food shops catering specially to British tastes, and there was a hairdresser described as “qualified London trained”. Liddle suggests that the architect was influenced by the The Circus in the British Town of Bath or Park Crescent in London. Certainly, its design shows little sign of Indian influence.
In the end, Liddle argues, New Delhi was a failure from the British point of view, saying, “In 1911 the idea of the new capital held the promise of a renewed empire that would enjoy the support of the Indian subjects. At its inauguration 20 years later all that was left was a grandeur that signified the profound inequality of colonial relationships.”
The author tells a compelling story about what could be called a cul-de-sac in history – Britain’s failed attempt to find a different way of ruling this country by co-opting the support of its Indian citizens. Eighty-eight years from the inauguration, controversy still rages over whether this grandeur should be preserved. Liddle says that “there is no doubt that it needs to be preserved”. I hope her book will persuade many others to share that view.
Mark Tully is an author and the former BBC correspondent in India.