'Compromise of Democracy': How the Govt's Central Vista Revamp Plan Ignores Heritage

Many countries in the past have tried to safeguard heritage by 'relocating' and not replacing.

The controversy about re-designing the Central Vista reflects the ruling party’s idea of cultural nationalism. This step also at once ruptures the ‘global advantage’ India enjoys when it comes to international heritage diplomacy, the tourism industry and most of all, the collective memory of the creation of a republic and a democracy.

Politics of architectural symbolism are continuously echoed in historical processes. Politicised architecture presents a lens for perceived national or community identity by a political regime, as was seen in the ‘Mayawati parks‘. Capital cities, specifically, are intersections between power and architecture, feeding the vision of a political agenda of a single nationhood.

However, the central government’s hurry to  on ‘replace’ the identity of Delhi, the capital city of India, takes spatial politics to another level. After all, Delhi has its history of power territories represented in historic cities.

The 1985 Delhi NCR Act states that no additional government buildings should be constructed within Delhi. The proposal being pushed by the government cites for lack of office space and modern facilities.  The upgrading of heritage spaces can be done by following rules and by bringing people into the debate of preserving, not replacing, heritage-scapes.

The strategy must aim to conserve the cultural, historical and humanistic values that are part of the collective narrative of Delhi’s urban spaces and that of the people of India.

A visual canvas for the republic 

The entire heritage zone of the Central Vista represents the space where India presents itself as a republic and as a democracy.

Also read: Leading Architects Concerned About Central Vista Revamp Plan for New Delhi

It is the location for national celebrations of the Republic Day, ending with the Beating of Retreat. It is the space where the democratic republic reclaimed the King’s Way as Rajpath (‘the rulers’ road’), which meets the Queen’s Way as Janpath (‘the people’s road’).

The people of India have the right to assert preservation of the visual quality of the heritage zone that marks their political identity of world’s largest democracy and republic.

Relocate not replace

It will be appropriate if the present regime chose to ‘relocate’ instead of replacing heritage architecture. There are several other examples all over the world for relocating and incorporating their specific design of power centres. Even Myanmar’s military rulers in 2005, while choosing to move the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw did not pull down the colonial heritage.  Security and national identity were reasons cited for moving their capital.

The Delhi skyline with India Gate visible. Photo: Jaskirat Singh Bawa/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nigeria, yet another post-colonial country, shifted its capital in 1991 from Lagos to Abuja citing security, modernised requirements, accommodating additional government machinery, neutrality and establishing their version of a national identity.

Russia quoted maritime security reason in 1918 for relocating its capital city from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Similar reasons explain Shahjahan shifting the capital from Agra to Delhi, and the British moving from Calcutta to Delhi.

Breach in heritage diplomacy

Heritage diplomacy provides a common ground for conserving the best of cultural expressions by humanity. These are nodal spaces for nationalism and internationalism.

Heritage diplomatic programmes unfold histories of international engagement. The Central Vista Heritage Zone in Delhi is one such space. Herbert Baker, the architect who designed the Secretariat blocks in Delhi, made them in his distinct style similar to the design of the Union Buildings in South Africa.

The design of the Mall from the Raisina Hill to the India Gate and the eternal flame for the ‘Unknown Soldier’ is similar to the plan in Washington D.C. in the United States from the Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument.

Also read: Lutyens’ Delhi Set to Undergo Massive Changes As Part of Govt’s Revamp Move

The Central Vista, Parliament and Secretariat complex are significant components for Delhi to apply for the tag of World Heritage City.

This status locates a city within the frame of International Heritage Diplomatic discourse. The Central Vista heritage zone along with a contrasting experience of the Mughal boulevard in Shahjahanabad in Old Delhi tops the ‘must see’ list of most travellers.

The spatial display of multiple power-public architectures provides a fascinating insight into the existent living heritage of coexistence and the idea of diverse India in a democratic frame.

The idea by the Dutch concept of ‘mutual heritage’ launched in the 1990s, is yet another dimension of heritage diplomacy. It opens lines for cross-cultural people to people dialogue and shared history for future engagements. Mutual heritage programmes serve to build a contested past for a constructive present and future.

Another example of heritage diplomacy is the American Embassy’s Ambassador’s Fund. By replacing the Central Heritage Zone in the capital of India, that represents the Indian republic and democracy, the argument of Cultural Nationalism trivialises history and the latitudinal space to assert global leadership in heritage diplomacy.