Ripping Apart the Central Vista Is Nothing Short of the Reconquest of Delhi

The pandemic has sent the regime into disarray however and this is an opportunity to build up resistance.

The Central Vista project reveals the desire of the current regime to permanently bury the years of the long 20th century (until the elections of 2014). It mirrors the Babri Masjid destruction project that was intended to entomb Indian history before the British and replace it with the Ram Rajya remake of modern Hindutva historiography. In this instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) hatred for Islamic India, its contempt for the cultural West, and its loathing for anything to do with Jawaharlal Nehru or the Gandhis adds a special flavour.

Indeed, I have never seen a regime that hates the political Capital so deeply while also desiring its political capital. This is not surprising given the beautiful geography of Delhi, with its remarkable layering of monuments, gardens and heritage markers of centuries of Islamic art, architecture and culture. What is worse is that this culture lives on, in the massive presence of Muslim festivities, foods, prayers and political mobilisations, most recently those of Shaheen Bagh. The Central Vista project is the mausoleum of the spirit of Shaheen Bagh.

This is the behaviour of conquerors, and not of democratically elected leaders. And that is how the leadership of the BJP sees itself. The wearing down of the women of Shaheen Bagh, the stubborn refusal to listen to the farmers on the outskirts of Delhi, the blatant lack of compassion towards India’s migrant workers as they ricochet between city and country, the coup d’état against the Aam Aadmi Party through the role of the Lieutenant Governor, and now the grand climax: the cutting down of trees, the destruction of major archives and museums, the crushing of living memories in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi.

Conquerors, throughout human history, have shown no sense of obligation to the laws, customs, values or norms of the society or polity they conquer. At best, they are gracious, at worst they are genocidal. And this psychology of conquest is what explains the utter contempt of the BJP regime for the law, for the press, for honest elections, for elementary protections from the Constitution, and for any form of dissent whatsoever.

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And what is the political vision behind this conquest, apart from a simple desire for expansion, power and macho glory? The answer to this question is that this conquest is a re-conquest, a reclamation, a restoration and a reformation, all at once. And Delhi is its most precious prize. For a democratic party, it would be sufficient to capture power over the nation and to control the national cabinet. But this re-conquest requires humiliation, destruction, ethnocide and pillage. The conqueror is permitted to rape the women, destroy the monuments, spit on the shrines and terrorise ordinary members of the defeated population.

This Hindutva re-conquest of India, crystallised in the reconquest of Delhi, requires Lutyens’ Delhi to be destroyed and to organise this destruction in public view and in broad daylight. After all, is any conqueror ashamed to display their newfound power? And the total subversion of every law, regulation and norm which governs urban design, construction or environmental change in Delhi is not a hidden means of slipping through the cracks of India’s legal provisions. It is a naked assertion of the death of both the Constitution and of Lutyens’ Delhi, in one reciprocal act.

In my view, that is why the recourse to the courts is unlikely to work, because to admit any legal obstacle would be to question the whole logic of the Hindutva re-conquest of India’s capital. It is as unthinkable for these conquerors as the idea that Delhi’s historical architecture and archives have any meaning or value. As goes the law, so go the monuments.

There has been a tendency to compare Bimal Patel (the chief architect of the Central Vista project) to Albert Speer (Hitler’s star architect), just as the current BJP regime has been compared to Nazi Germany. No doubt, the magnetic attraction of some architects to schemes for remaking large public spaces and dreams of grandeur by imperial association, is worth notice. It is also true that monumental public architecture has accompanied all great powers that had access to stone, labour and engineering, from the pyramids and the Great Wall, to the Brandenburg Gate and the Red Fort.

But Patel and his enablers and co-workers belong to a slightly different category, for which I would use the term the “architecture of signalling”. “Signalling” is a term used by economists who study market dynamics and in particular the mechanism of contracts to refer to the capacity of one agent to send a signal which conveys information to the other party in the contract, in a situation where information is not equally shared. The Central Vista project is a massive signal to the population of Delhi, India and the world that there is a new conqueror in the Capital and that this conqueror has infinite time, money and power in its hands, an infinitude that is signalled by the scale of the project. The destruction of Lutyens’ Delhi and of the historical Rajpath in particular is just collateral damage in this signalling exercise. And in relation to this signal, COVID-19 is just noise.

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There is one fly in the ointment though, for the conquerors. And that is the timing. They thought they were beginning a thousand-year Raj or at least a 50-year Raj and that they had sufficiently silenced dissent, bought the most important capitalists to their side, bamboozled the Western media and bullied their neighbours in the region (except for China), to buy indefinite impunity. And then the current COVID-19 wave swept India and brought all their plans to a grinding halt. They ran for the bunkers, vanished from public sight and are waiting for COVID-19 to pass. They had not planned on Nature and its viral emissaries to stand in the way of their plans. They know how to handle students, women, Dalits, Muslims and Sikhs, but COVID-19 cannot be bought, bullied or wished away. Hindutva science (the physics and chemistry of cow urine, group baths and mass festivities) fell on its face. The only physics that remained, was the physics of combustion on India’s thousands of cremation pyres.

Thus, there was a huge error of timing in the Central Vista Project. The BJP regime is on the defensive. The leader seemed to have taken a vow of silence and his minions, already bruised by the election results in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are now busy stockpiling doctors, oxygen and social distance. The plague puts both conquerors and conquered at risk. The point now for the rulers is to regroup, recover and resume the work of the conquest. Modi’s recent televised tears are part of the fog of distraction.

Hence this is also a moment of opportunity for all forms of resistance to this regime, both from within and outside the nation. This needle is extremely difficult to thread. Every sane Indian citizen is busy taking care of their ill family or friends, mobilising oxygen, hospital beds or vaccines, keeping themselves out of the way of the virus’ unpredictable path and waiting, breathlessly, for the slowing down of the scourge of COVID-19. These are hard times for organised protest, legal campaigns or physical resistance to the new conquerors of India. Both sides are waiting for the viral fog to lift, so that their projects can resume. On the one side the projects of dissent, resistance and disobedience, and on the other side the projects of repression, power display and ersatz royal ritual. Viral nature has declared an indefinite time out.

This emergency time out must be seized by the forces that stand for constitutional democracy, media freedom and an end to state-sponsored violence. But what is to be done? What can be done without further risking the life and limb of dissenters? My own recommendation is for a massive and stepped up media and education campaign. When we look at the number of brave journalists, media platforms, stringers, anchors and commentators, and their allies in the world of education, arts and culture, the battleground for pushing back the re-conquerors of Delhi and of India is clearly in the digital sphere. This is where hearts and minds are shaped, won and lost. The BJP understood this long before the rest of us. But we need catch up. And we need to launch an unrelenting campaign at every level, from the smallest regions of India to the platforms in which global audiences and players function, which can also sanction, shame and pressure India’s rulers.

We are already doing this in hundreds of letters, analyses, arguments and reports in both the vernacular digital media and in English, as well as in college classrooms and in hostels. We do have groups like the Constitutional Conduct Group, composed of senior retired civil servants, military officers and other bureaucrats, as well as numerous famous and less famous scholars, journalists, artists and writers, who have spoken up at significant risk against the scandals of the reconquest.

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These and myriad other brave individuals and organisations, as well as politicians like Mamata Banerjee, Pinarayi Vijayan and M.K. Stalin, remind us that India’s progressive public sphere is neither dead nor silent. And deeper than these voices are the thousands of farmers who have lent their support to the gherao of Delhi by their Sikh and Jat comrades, the massive rural support base of the Trinamool Congress that bashed the BJP in West Bengal as their counterparts also did in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These individuals, organisations and movements all thrive in the domain of knowledge, information and communication, where the BJP managed to steal a march on them by their intuitive grasp of photo-ops, Twitter demagoguery, fake news and political photoshopping. But the control of the means of production of knowledge, information and news is by no means entirely in the hands of the current regime, in spite of its wholesale efforts to buy such control.

This regime by conquest is above all about the capturing of the Indian narrative, of the burial of the secular, socialist, scientific narrative of the period from 1947 to 2014 (however tattered and compromised it had become) and its replacement by a narrative of majoritarian domination, Swatch Bharat and klepto-baniyaism. The success of this effort showed itself in both 2014 and in 2019. But the forces and voices that represent an alternative narrative are by no means all dead, imprisoned or muted by terror. What is need is a counter-narrative to defeat this regime in this moment of emergency viral pause.

The building of this narrative will be hard. It cannot be built on nostalgia for Nehru, big dams, clichés about Indian diversity and knowing editorials from alumni of our elite schools and colleges, outdoing each other in their feats of Solonic wisdom and Augustan nostalgia. It must draw on the energies of those crucial segments of the Jat and Sikh populations of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh that have nothing do with bhakti or yoga. It must draw on the experiences of Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, part of what I think of as India’s Dravidian arc. It must listen to Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray and their anti-Modi allies in Maharashtra. It must capture and reflect the energies of Bhima Koregaon and Shaheen Bagh. It must learn from those groups in the non-Hinduised North-East that have always been suspicious of Delhi’s armed terror. It must be attentive to the tribal communities of the belt running from Telangana to the borders of Nepal, who have conducted a massive resistance for decades against the destruction of their rivers, forests and mineral resources. The weaving together of these elements is the biggest challenge for those of us who wish to save Lutyens’ Delhi, but who also hope to restore a semblance of light to what has become an area of darkness.

The reconquest of India by its current Hindutva rulers is part of a battle of ideas, ideals, news and narratives. It must be fought and won in that battlefield.

Arjun Appadurai teaches in New York and Berlin. His most recent book, co-authored with Neta Alexander, is Failure (London: Polity Press, 2019).