It’s a muggy afternoon in Delhi. Cloudy with a chance of a studio war. The Prime Minister has called a meeting of his inner circle at his residence in the heart of Lutyens Delhi. News crews are stationed on the parking lot adjoining the Delhi Race Club — the only convenient vantage point in this finicky, high-security zone that has housed, for close to 20 years, the most powerful address in the country.
Ever since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi moved to an official residence in 1984, the track at the adjoining Delhi Race Club has bathed in the reflected glory of being close to 7, Race Course Road. Until now, that is. On September 21, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) decided to rename Race Course Road (RCR) as Lok Kalyan Marg, stating that the former does not “match with the Indian ethos and value system”. It became the second road to be renamed in the national capital after Aurangzeb Road was changed to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road.
“They’re probably referring to the betting here, but it is legal. Even the Supreme Court (in Dr K R Lakshmanan v State of Tamil Nadu) has declared horse-racing as a sport. So it’s sad that they have renamed the road citing that as the reason. It’s tampering with history. While the club has officially existed since 1940, the track has been here since the 1930s. So the road must have been named around that time,” a senior official at the race club says.
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Unlike other race courses, the Delhi Race Club is a grey, colourless place. There is no baroque fashion, nor quirky hats associated with race days. In fact, women are rarely spotted. “It is comparatively smaller. Most tracks around the country — Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai and Pune — are 2,400 m. Ours was shortened (1,600 m) because we gave up much of our land to the Air Force in 1962. This limits the type of horses that can race here as those trained for endurance cannot compete here. We also do not have the kind of investment and the number of horses that the other centres have,” the official says.
But what it lacked in pedigree, as compared to its cousins in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai, the Delhi track made up through its association with power. “The next generation will not even know that a race track exists right beside the Prime Minister’s official residence,” says another official.
Some like 76-year-old SA Khan say the Race Course Road was a landmark even before it became home to India’s most powerful. “In those days, no one knew where the Prime Minister’s residence was but everybody knew Race Course Road. Even today, whether you come to Delhi by air or by train, the taxi drivers always know where Race Course Road is. It’s ridiculous that they have changed the name of the road that has been an integral part of the city even before I came here in 1951,” says the Lucknow native, a horse trainer at the Delhi Race Club.
Khan has seen up close the metamorphosis of the road to a high-security zone. “Back then, wherever you went, you had to come back home through the Race Course Road. Buses used to ply here and would go through the road and come out at the Teen Murti roundabout. This was stopped only after Rajiv Gandhi moved here in 1984,” he says.
“When I came to Delhi from Meerut in 1960, all I knew was the Race Course Road. I managed to reach here by just asking people. By 1962, I got my racing license. My father was a jockey and my uncle was my village’s first jockey. While both of them raced in Mumbai, I came to Delhi,” says former jockey Bhagat Singh (70), whose son, Magan Singh, is one of the club’s most successful trainers.
For Saurabh Singh, a horse owner at the club, the name change is “an attempt by the government to show its importance”. He says that across the world, roads surrounding race courses have always been named after the tracks. “If the government had an issue with the name, why couldn’t it change the name of the PM’s official residence instead?” he says.
Historian Narayani Gupta says RCR has survived earlier renaming drives. “The names of roads in New Delhi were based on a list of names of rulers compiled by historian Percival Spear. The roads were named after governors-general, or officials involved in the building of New Delhi. They were all renamed from the 1980s onwards. Some new names do not seem to be used, like in the case of Garstin Bastion — GB Road — named after a military bastion in the city wall, which was renamed Shraddhanand. Near RCR was Roberts Road (named after General Roberts who fought in Afghanistan), which was renamed Teen Murti. King George’s Avenue became Rajaji Marg,” she says.
Gupta finds the most recent change unimaginative. “Over time, one gets attached to names. I am sure I am not the only one who will feel sad that RCR has become a vague aspiration. Imagine the British PM’s house being 10 Public Welfare Street. And that too for a road which the lok (people) cannot enter,” she adds.
For historian Sohail Hashmi, who grew up in Delhi, the road is associated with many memories. “It was the way home to Sarojini Nagar. The bus would pass through Race Course Road, come out at Ataturk Marg, then turn right towards the Samrat Hotel roundabout. It was a very small road but on Sundays, you would see kids playing tennis at the Gymkhana Club,” he says. “The day Pandit Nehru died in 1964, we had come to the watch the funeral procession. But RCR was packed and so we couldn’t cross the road. We were terrified there would be a stampede because of the huge rush,” he says.
Hashmi believes renaming Race Course Road is part of a larger political project. “The Race Course Road evokes memories of Rajiv Gandhi. This name change is part of the present government’s efforts to airbrush the memory of the Gandhi family. Those saying that gambling and racing aren’t part of the Indian ethos have no sense of history. Didn’t the Pandavas gamble?” he adds.
At the race club, there are more pressing concerns. Narayan Dutt (48) has been a regular at the club for 24 years but is not a member. On this race day, he keeps a close eye on the horses warming up at the paddock as he continually refers to his booklet, which contains details of the odds that the bookmakers are offering. “The races are rigged,” he alleges, after another of the horses that he has backed falters. It’s a common refrain in the crowd, made up of only men. And with a 30-minute interval between races, there is enough time for conspiracy theories, intrigue and the odd brawl at the ring where the bookmakers have set up shop. No one’s willing to bet on whether the race club will see better days.