Decolonizing Delhi via the Central Vista Project

Lutyens Delhi has far outlived its expiry date. At most, it should have been dismantled within a decade of Independence.
Decolonizing Delhi via the Central Vista Project

Even as our Covivultures—that familiar, hydra-headed breed of alleged editors and journalists, pamphleteers, clutter-cutters and Covid-gravediggers—are circling our national airspace, busily sniffing for and hungrily engaged in carcass-hunting to show India in poor light, their cousins on the earth have simultaneously launched a similar project. These cousins are Vistawolves, now reduced to the status of power-deprived pack-hunters feeding off earthworms and roaches and rodents ever since their substantial flesh-supply stopped in 2014. While it’s already clear to non-psychotic observers of current events, the point still needs to be made explicit: Covivultures and Vistawolves have struck a deal after the second Covid wave struck the country. Let’s put it this way: exactly how many Covivultures have contributed positively in the efforts to contain the second wave of Covid? They haven’t and they won’t because they’ve never put in a single hour’s worth of honest labour. Why lift bricks and dig when you can get rich by demolishing somebody else’s house? Except that that house happens to be their own country.

Oh, and the deal between Covivultures and Vistawolves is straightforward: Covivultures will photograph Indian graveyards and burning pyres and sell it to the highest-bidding international pimp and trade their own fathers’ death to “prove” that Modi’s India is evil while Vistawolves will wail and yelp about how the Central Vista project is a national waste, how it is a symbol of Modi’s vainglory.

The Enduring Victory of the British

Roughly until the 1980s, Hindi cinema used a stock phrase: angrez chale gaye lekin tumhe chhod ke chale gaye – The British have left, but they’ve left you behind. Except that no filmmaker thought that this quotable phrase eminently and most accurately applied to Nawab Nehru, the first English Prime Minister of Independent India.

Seventy-four years later, our Covivultures and Vistawolves are so far down the unclimbable bottom of deracinated darkness that they don’t even realize that they’re the indirect spawns of absentee Nehruvianism.

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Decolonizing Delhi via the Central Vista Project

The greatest success of British colonialism is not the creation of Nawab Nehru but an Indian democracy which works by waging war against its civilization. Think about it.

An Everest view of the British colonial history of India reveals that its foundations were laid by several key people in crucial realms whose far-reaching consequences we’re suffering even today. William Bentinck who ruthlessly uprooted Sanskrit education. Cornwallis who destroyed our ancient institutions of food sharing and charity thereby permanently altering our cultural psyche. Dalhousie who swallowed scores of our Princely States, then the backbone and the preservers of our civilizational and cultural continuity. Macaulay…well, enough said.

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Decolonizing Delhi via the Central Vista Project

These demons are infamous for the lasting damage they did in their respective realms. A similar but largely overlooked damage was done by another such specimen: Edward Lutyens.

Think about Bentick, Dalhousie, Macaulay, et al: an influential section of our own people continues to rant against Sanskrit education. The descendants of our Princely States have become deracinated hoteliers and some have transformed the magnificent shrines of their Kula-Devatas into tourist attractions—essentially, these are ticketed jamborees. Most tragically, our education system is now an irreparable mess. All these are permanent impairments.

Concrete Faces of Colonisalism

Lutyens Delhi is simply the concrete face of the same impairments. In fact, for the longest time, it was the corporate headquarters that housed the posh offices wherein plans and strategies for implementing the aforementioned impairments were drawn up.

Lutyens Delhi has far outlived its expiry date. At most, it should’ve been dismantled within a decade of Independence.

But Edward Lutyens was not alone. He was and remains both a syndrome and a symbol. And above all, the very definition of the British colonial rule in India.

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Decolonizing Delhi via the Central Vista Project

K.M. Munshi famously said that the Islamic conquest of India was the conquest of a culture by those who lacked it. At a fundamental level, the same thing holds true for the British: they were a people who were taught by Hindus a basic lesson in hygiene: taking at least one bath every day. After less than a century of cultural colonization, the British convinced the new generation of Hindus that using a spoon and a fork was one of the high marks of culture. Indeed, Lutyens Delhi will lose 90% of its market capitalization if spoons and forks go out of fashion. Ask Sanjaya Baru and Karan Thapar. This cultural colonization is the British equivalent of the notorious hoax of the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb. In the era of Muslim dominance, Hindu courtiers and the landed Hindu class aped the lifestyle of their Sultans in dress, fashion, culinary tastes and body language. Once again, the home atmosphere in Allahabad of Nawab Nehru provides the best illustration of this psycho-cultural phenomenon.

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Decolonizing Delhi via the Central Vista Project

Which is perhaps why Nawab Nehru could so easily transition from aping the thickly-Muslim milieu of the late 19th century Allahabad to the English milieu much later in his life in Delhi.

In fact, Nawab Nehru’s continuance of Lutyens Delhi after Independence is a colonial leftover’s monument to his former coloniser.

The Lutyens Phenomenon

However, the Lutyens phenomenon existed much before Edward Lutyens even landed in India. We observe it most pronouncedly in all our famed and fabulous hill stations. What is the most glaring concrete feature in places as diverse and far-flung as McLeod Ganj, Mussorie, Nainital, Doon, Pachmarhi, Kodaikanal, and Yercaud? The continued existence of the ubiquitous colonial bungalow. The annals of British colonial travel literature paint a romantically adventurous and thrilling panorama of how a certain captain or colonel or lieutenant “discovered” these hill stations and “built” these sprawling structures. But they completely omit or thoroughly downplay the other side: how this “discovery” was made possible in the first place. The answer: by “natives.” Travel back in time to more than a century ago and place yourself at the foot of these gorgeous hill stations. Now imagine the effort, manpower and cost it would take to build a traversable road to these summits, followed by the backbreaking labour to construct those bungalows. Picture in your mind the hundreds of “natives” and oxen and bulls and elephants and horses and mules and carts required for such mammoth efforts.

Edward Lutyens
Edward Lutyens

A little-known fact about these hill stations is relevant in this context: they were called “stations” for a military reason. They served as defence outposts just in case the “natives” somehow imbibed the unifying spirit of 1857 and revolted once again. In case the British force was unable to quell another rebellion, these hill stations would serve as safe havens.

Now think about the palatial “holiday home” that Priyanka Vadra “built” in Shimla using highly dubious means in “independent” India. Compare it with the aforementioned British captains and colonels. Spot the differences if any.

This is the real meaning of the Lutyens phenomenon.

Revisiting Dharampal

The pioneering and enlightened researcher of British colonial history, Sri Dharampal gives us another picture:

…[the British] Governors’ houses built at Nainital in the Himalayas occupies over 200 acres of scarce and precious Himalayan land, and the house itself, built in the style of a major British manor, about 100 years ago, has around 300 rooms counting the large bathrooms and the separate covered and partitioned verandahs. In the last 40 years, its annual occupation does not seem to have averaged more than 2-3 weeks. The sooner such buildings, including the five-star types, and the circuit houses, etc., get demolished or are put to some more plebeian uses… the better for our social health. It is distasteful that we are planning to construct yet another such building as a National Centre for Arts, in the name of Shrimati Indira Gandhi. If the arts did require a place in Delhi, the British Viceroy’s house was the obvious place for them. [Emphasis added]

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Decolonizing Delhi via the Central Vista Project

In another interview, Sri Dharampal recommended that the current Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally the British Viceroy’s House, be converted to a museum.

Generational Transformation

Which is exactly what the Central Vista redevelopment project envisages: to transform these colonial buildings to museums. They should remain. As reminders both of our past mistakes and the all-encompassing damage that colonization does, and the infinite difficulty of decolonizing the Hindu mind.

In reality, the Central Vista project is an unprecedented generational transformation. A civilisation and culture must build buildings that reflect the original uniqueness if not genius of its soul. The existing Central Vista, in fact, the whole Raisina zone and every structure associated with it is a jarring architectural reminder that we're still not decolonised. A Government independent in its name but colonised in the physical offices it occupies is a shameful national satire.

In fact, it would be a major civilisational coup if the Central Vista team undertakes a deep and well-considered study of the phenomenal wealth of our classical architectural heritage, especially of the Gupta Era, and apply the learnings to this endeavour.

In a way, the Central Vista redevelopment effort is also the continuation of a much-awaited clean-up: of evicting seven-star political squatters in Lutyens Government bungalows. The best answer to Priyanka Vadra’s Xanadu in Shimla is her eviction from Lodhi Estate.

The next step is to recover the hundreds of acres of land in Lutyens Delhi firmly under the control of Nawab Nehru’s dynasty, ostensible “memorials,” but in reality, national assets paid for by the Indian taxpayer. These lands are also perhaps the last hunting grounds cum sanctuaries of the endangered Vistawolves.

Such a national reclamation will be the crowning glory of the Central Vista project. A crowning glory of what is essentially a decolonization of Delhi. The reclamation will also be the real epitaph of the first British Prime Minister of “independent” India.

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