Let's Reclaim Delhi's Public Spaces to Celebrate in Diversity

Stop looking at the festivities as a law and order problem and throw open the community centres and the stadia, and create thousands of celebrations all over the city.

For some time now, the first day of the year seems to be growing into a bizarre ritual for Delhiwallahs. Droves of people people from all parts of the city begin to gravitate towards the central vista in New Delhi from around mid-day on January 1. It’s as if some primordial instinct, buried deep within their DNA, compels them to hurry through their morning chores and rush out in search of any available locomotive to reach the lawns on either side of Rajpath.

Those unable to reach the coveted open space around India Gate – in fact a poor imitation by Mr Lutyens of the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe of Paris – satisfy themselves with ice cream, popcorn and balloons, convincing themselves that they’re having a good time.

Those unable to find even standing space on these haloed grounds, trudge their dreary way to Connaught Place for an afternoon of window shopping, or clog the traffic roundabouts of Patel Chowk, Mandi House, Hyderabad House and elsewhere. They walk up and down in the most desultory manner till they’ve had their fill of the New Year celebrations and head home.

Given the diversity of the population inhabiting this megalopolis, one can easily dismiss the idea that there is something in the genetic make-up of the Delhiwallah that compels him to move towards Rajpath in a manner not dissimilar to ants gravitating towards treacle. One needs, therefore, to look at other explanations to understand this phenomenon that gives sleepless nights to the city’s cops as the end of the year approaches.

So here it is.

Excluding August 15 and January 26 – the two secular festivals that should be occasions for great celebration, but have turned into rather uninspiring events marginalising the people thanks to bureaucratic ritualisation – almost all the other festivals we celebrate in this country are grounded in religious or harvest related quasi-religious traditions.

Pigeons fly as clouds gather over New Delhi’s Connaught Place. Credit: Reuters/Buddhika Weerasinghe

Festivals like Dussehra, Durga Puja, Vishu, Diwali, Eid, Bihu, Holi, Ugadi, Baisakhi, Christmas, Onam, Eid-uz-Zuha – now in a strange imitation of the Arabic pronunciation known as Eid-ul-Adha – Nau Roz, Easter, Janamashthami, Ganesh Chathurti, Pongal and many others including the birth anniversaries of different Gods and founders of different religions fall in this category.

If we recollect how these festivals are celebrated, we see a common thread that runs through all of them. There is the celebratory aspect, including activities associated with cleaning and decorating the house and workplace, cooking special dishes associated with the festival, visiting friends and relatives, receiving guests, sharing a meal together and enjoying the company of friends and relatives.

Aside from the celebratory aspect of the festivals, there is also the religious, ritualistic aspect of worship – individual, familial or congregational – in most cases the basic, though in many not necessarily the most obvious or visible aspect of the festival.

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The very nature of these festivals ensures that both the the celebratory and ritualistic activities are dispersed in private spaces – in homes and workplaces. Another aspect of these celebrations is the sectional nature of the festival; the entire population of Delhi is not involved in all of these celebrations simultaneously.

For example, the Jagannath Yatra is a major event at Puri, but not all over Delhi, except near the Jagannath Temple in Green Park and a few other areas with a concentration of people from Orissa. Similarly, Durga Puja is not a major event all over the city and is confined to specific areas scattered through the city. Hundreds perhaps thousands of Ram Lilas are performed all over Delhi during Dussehra, cumulatively involving tens of thousands of people, but none of these create massive traffic jams in the heart of the city.

Indian army officers stand on vehicles displaying missiles during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, January 26, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Altaf Hussain

The same can be said of all religious festivals. Despite the fact that Hindus constitute the single largest denominational category, the phenomenal diversity of ritualistic practices ensures the dispersal of celebrations, and despite a large number of people taking part in occasions like Dussehra processions, Chhath Pooja, Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Visarjan, etc., one does not see the January 1 kind of crowds getting together at one site.

The universal nature of New Year celebrations places them in a unique category. Celebrating the dawn of a new year is an absolutely secular festival, it is devoid of any religious or ritualistic trappings, it is the kind of celebration that August 15 and January 26 should also be associated with.

Also read: Delhi – A City for Cars, Not Pedestrians

Unfortunately, these two occasions have been squeezed dry of all joy. Political speeches made by unimaginative stick-in-the-mud speakers who love to hear their own voices coupled with a display of weapons of mass destruction has taken away all agency from the people and vested it now within the hands of those who played no role in this hard-fought struggle for freedom.

New Year is an occasion where people have begun to take to the streets, cutting across the religious and caste divides.  This is what needs to be encouraged, so that more and more people come out and join the festivities.

The reason these celebrations have become a problem is because our cities have no spaces for secular celebrations. That is why everybody rushes to India Gate, one of the few spaces reserved for a secular festival, India’s Republic Day; and the other which is a symbol of the secular freedom struggle – the lawns in front of the Red Fort, the site of the first public unfurling of the flag of free India has been fenced-in and is available only for the speeches of the prime minister, Ram Lila shows and travelling circuses. We need to create more such spaces, instead of taking away what little remains to build memorials.

Credit: PTI

We need to create promenades, avenues, play grounds, roadside kiosks, open-air restaurants, cultural centres and hundreds of open-air theatres all over the city. We need to create spaces where the young can go and perform – to sing, dance, act, create, paint, draw, and sculpt.

We need to set up infrastructure and encourage the Mohalla committees and RWAs to allow young women and men to set up their own cultural clubs, organise their own new year celebration and turn them into one that the entire city participates in.

Can the Delhi government take this up as a project – as a true people’s project – and provide infrastructure, give financial support but let young people plan and run these clubs, restaurants, theatre groups, song squads, dance ensembles?

Throw open the community centres and the stadia, stop looking at the festivities as a law and order problem, use it to turn them into an opportunity for creating thousands of celebrations all over the city. Maybe if we succeed, we will have a model that will help us liberate all our secular festivals like August 15 and January 26 from their existing dreary avatars.

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