A City or a Capital? The Trouble With New Delhi's Identity

You can build structures, palaces, offices, streets and residential localities, but you cannot build a city.

We keep talking of the ‘Seven Cities of Delhi’. In fact, it has been suggested that one should also add Kilokhri, the capital of Qaiqbad, and Mubarakabad, the capital of Muiz-ud-Din Mubarakshah that some identify with Kotla Mubarakpur, to the list and come up with the nine cities of Delhi.

There are others, especially those who live in the administrative zone of India called New Delhi, who insist that New Delhi is also a city. It is this insistence on calling New Delhi a city that has prompted us to look at the idea of a city and to share some stray thoughts.

Qaiqbad built his capital at Kilokhri, Muiz-ud-Din Mubarak Shah built his capital at Mubarakabad and the British built their capital at New Delhi.

All of them built capitals, none of them built a city.

Just as the three Tughlaqs built three capitals – Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah and Ferozabad – none of the six grew into a city. Five of them do not, now, have a chance of ever growing into a city.

The sixth, New Delhi, might one day grow into a city, but it has a long distance to travel before it becomes a city and one notices few signs that it is making any serious effort at becoming a city, but we will return to that a little later.

Let us first layout our idea of what constitutes a city. The point we are trying to make is the following: you can build structures, palaces, offices, streets, residential localities, but you cannot build a city. A city is something that grows and develops; it cannot be constructed. And because it cannot be constructed, it is not easy to destroy a city or to rename it, as has recently been done to ‘Ilahaabaad’, that the English had as usual mispronounced and turned into ‘Allahabad’.

So strictly speaking, there have been eight or nine or 12 capitals in the territory known as NCR today, but there have been only two cities – Mehrauli and Shahjahanabad.

So how does a city come into being?

Let us start from the very beginning. Cities do not have native populations. Cities are made by migrants. A place that is populated only by a native population is a village, regardless of its size it will only remain a village, it may grow from a small village to a very large village, but it will only remain a village. People will build the same kind of structures, have the same kind of biases, eat the same kind of food and sing the same songs.

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Try to imagine Delhi without its migrant populations – migrants who came and began to settle here about a thousand years ago and the subsequent waves upon wave of later migrants that made this region their home. If all of them were to disappear with everything they brought with them, what will remain? The Jats and the Gujars, their cattle and their fields. The Jats and Gujars are the natives of this region, everyone else is a migrant. Had the migrants not come, this region would have been a large number of scattered villages, big, middling and large, but only villages.

It is migrants who turn a village into a town, a city, a metropolis and a mega polis. The migrant brings in new technology, new spices, new crafts, new techniques of grinding, crushing, kneading, cooking, weaving, singing, dancing, building; introducing new fables, stories of lands left behind and lands traversed. The migrant brings in new languages, adds to the vocabulary and expression of the native and also to his/her own expression and vocabulary. The exchanges, diverse and myriad, enrich the culture and life of both the native and the migrant, creating a new synthesis, inclusive, open.

The village is by definition closed and exclusive, wary of outsiders. The city is by definition cosmopolitan, inclusive and open. And so when a city begins to tell people that they do not belong, that they are not welcome that they are outsiders then that city places itself on a regressive course it begins to lose its cosmopolitanism it begins to become narrow minded, moribund and sets itself upon an atavistic path. Fortunately we do not have too many cities behaving like this, unfortunately we have a few and that is very scary.

A city has to have its own specific food, a food that is unique to the city but is never static or unchanging, it constantly re-invents itself adding new elements discarding some older skins, acquiring new and yet retaining something that separates it from the food of other cities. The Bedmi Puri, Halwa Nagori, Kachori and Aloo-Puri of Shahjahanabad for instance is different from the way the same dishes are cooked in Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra and Mathura. Similarly the Biryani and Quorma of Shahjahanabad is different from the same dishes from Bhopal, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Rampur.

Bird’s-eye picture of the Shahjahanabad (today’s Old Delhi area.

A city has to have its own crafts, crafts that are unique to the city, like the metal crafts of Moradabad, the bangles of Ferozabad, the quilted jackets of Mirzapur, the mojhris of Jaipur, the locks of Aligarh, the embroidered jutis of Shahjahanabad.

A city has to have its working class, it has to produce something and it is the crafts, guilds, apprentices in earlier times and the factories and the working class, their work cycle, their leisure activities, the areas where they lived and worked, in the present, that gave and give character to the rhythms of the city.

A city has to have its unique architecture, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Shahjahanabad, Old Lucknow, Old Panjim, Kochi, Baroda, each has a look and feel that is unique to the city.

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It has to have its own music or dance, forms of expression that are unique to the city, the Dehli gharana, the Gwalior gharana, the Benaras gharana, the Jaipur gharana and other such similar institutions.

A city has to have its own night life, not necessarily restaurants, bars, cabarets and clubs but places where the writer and his reader meet, places where poets meet poets, places where families can go out, places where you can go out to eat and are not robbed, places where one can relax, enjoy and have entertainment and places where the young and restless gather to pass time, to debate and argue to exchange ideas and places where the old meet and talk about the life that was.

A city has to have its centres of education, its libraries, its concert halls, its museums, A city has to have places which the people, that make the city, can call their own. A city has to have people living in it.

The six capitals of Delhi and many other cities built as new capitals lacked most if not all of these elements, think of Chandigarh, think of Gandhinagar, think of the new capital being built for Andhra Pradesh. Think of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. None of them are cities, they are capitals. To give a different example, the difference between a capital and a city is the difference between Washington and New York. The latter is a city the former is a power centre.

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Shahjahanabad is a city, New Delhi is the capital. Shahjahanabad is a place where people live, New Delhi is a place where power resides. New Delhi lacks everything, well almost, that turns a place into a city and New Delhi, like a village, does not welcome outsiders.

New Delhi was not designed for people, it was designed for administrators. Those who worked in New Delhi, did not live there, initially they came from Shahjahanabad, Karol Bagh, Anand Parbat, Paharganj and from the villages that lay scattered in the vast plains that dotted the landscape and now they come from Lajpat Nagar, Mayapuri, Janakpuri, R.K. Puram, Rajinder Nagar, Malviya Nagar, Tilak Nagar, NewMultan Nagar, Kamla Nagar and what have you.

New Delhi was only offices and ministries, those who lived and live in the massive properties and high end flats on Akbar Road, Aurangzeb Road, Tughlaq Road, Safdar Jung Road, Ashoka Road, Pandara Park, Ravindra Nagar, Bharti Nagar, Kaka Nagar, Bhapa Nagar, Hardinge Avenue (Tilak Marg), Queens Avenue (Janpath), Windsor Place, Satya Marg and elsewhere were all and are on fixed tenure or transferable postings.

Senior bureaucrats, top brass of the armed forces, members of parliament, ministers – they are not residents of Delhi; they are birds of passage, seasonal migrants. Some come and go, never to return, others nestle here and try to dig in their heels till the electorate sends them packing or are evicted under judicial supervision.

The only permanent residents in these habitations are their support staff, cooks, maids, gardeners, the general ‘koi hais’ and they too return to their villages post retirement.

New Delhi, unlike any city, does not produce anything, not unless the voluminous government reports can fall in the category of ‘products’. New Delhi does not have its wholesale markets, crafts, mandis, working class, artisans, its own cuisine or its own music or a culture, a way of life, that typical dialect, the lilt in the spoken tongue, the peculiar turn of phrase, like Jaipur has, Lucknow has, ‘Illahabad’ has, Bhopal has, Patna has, Hyderabad has, Trivandrum has, Chennai has, Srinagar has, even Calcutta and Bombay have and of course Shahjahanabad has.

New Delhi does not have its own library, no institute of higher learning, Jamia, Delhi University, Ambedkar University, AIIMS, MAMC, IP University, they are all outside the charmed circle of the 43.5 Sq km of land under the nominated New Delhi Municipal Council. New Delhi does not even have an elected municipal authority and it insists that it is a city.

And this they tell us is going to be made into a smart city. Before it begins to preen and strut as a smart anything, it has to acquire the basic accoutrements that can equip it to be considered a city. It could make a beginning by starting to acquire a resident population and then perhaps in the next couple of hundred years it could hope to become a city.

Sohail Hashmi is a filmmaker, writer and heritage buff. He organises regular heritage walks in Delhi.