In 1911, when Delhi, to its surprise, found itself honoured with the title of capital of British India, it was evident that national politics would become a real presence in the city, not just a long shadow. The open space outside the Town Hall in Chandni Chowk became a piazza for protesters. The new city was designed to ensure that such gatherings would not take place in New Delhi. Like most planned capital towns, the government offices were at the centre, surrounded by a protective swathe of open land. Kingsway matured into an expanse of green and water. Even in the 1950s, its two kilometres saw little traffic and few people, except at 9 in the morning and 5 in the evening when serried rows of bicycles flowed down, bearing babus big and small to work and then homeward.
Protest marches come in different lengths — some start at the Red Fort, others at ITO, some only the distance between India Gate and Krishi Bhavan. Their destinations have varied. The most defiant was that of December 2012 when crowds swarmed up Raisina Hill. (What an opportunity the President lost when he refused to come out!)
In the 1950s people could go up to Parliament House and shout slogans. I recall admiring my college-going sister who, with other students from Delhi University, assembled there and sang out, “Purtgaali, Goa Chhodo!” But the agitators-turned-legislators wanted a greater distance between themselves and the people. An invisible cordon was thrown round Parliament House, and the “Boat Club” lawn on Rajpath was approved as an Indian Hyde Park Corner. This lasted till farmers’ leader Mahendra Singh Tikait and his supporters in 1988 turned the lawns into a lively village (similar to protesting French farmers in 2010 turning the Avenue Champs Elysees literally into a champ/field). The venue for protests was moved to the Jantar Mantar crossing. At that time I wondered whether the Mandi House roundabout would be next, followed by the Ramlila Maidan. Sure enough, the National Green Tribunal has suggested just this.
For the three generations from the 1940s, nostalgia is about different public places — the kabab-ery on the India Gate lawns cheekily called “Gayladies” (Gaylords was THE posh restaurant then) which was banished to Pandara Road; the Connaught Place Central Park coffee house which exuded fumes of political dissent, and which vanished during the Emergency; the gulmohur-studded Central Park for a still older generation; open-air film shows in neighbourhood parks… and it is but natural that if Jantar Mantar were to return to the anonymous sleekness of a New Delhi landscape, there are many who will feel a sense of loss.
The Jantar Mantar site links Jaisinghpura of the 1730s with Lutyens’ city centre of the 1930s. The Ramlila Maidan links 14th century Tughlaq Delhi with Shahjahanabad and with the New Delhi of the 1960s. The Ramlila was enacted there in Mughal times and to the south were forests (jungle baahar), the shrine named for Mata Sundri, and the endless ruins of older cities (khandraat kalan). When the Lutyens team prepared a plan for New Delhi, they left the area from Dilli Gate to what we call ITO un-designated. This grew into a landscape of modern Delhi, with newspaper and administrative offices and educational establishments. The east-west boundary has two parallel roads, each named for a nationalist leader, Jawaharlal Nehru and Asaf Ali. The former is lined with hospitals and a college, the other curves along Shahjahanabad’s southern boundary, lined with business establishments. Between them lies the Ramlila Maidan. Here, in a moment of silence, the memories of Jayaprakash Narayan’s rally in 1975 come crowding back, and the optimism of the swearing-in of the AAP government in 2015.
Jantar Mantar, with its shady full-grown trees, has a pleasant ambience, as has much of Lutyens’ New Delhi. But an equally pleasant landscape can be generated on the frontier between the two Delhis. This area could be made into a dedicated public space, organised at different scales depending on the number of people to be accommodated, kept scrupulously clean, with provision for shade, for refreshments, and for people to stay overnight. A tribute to democracy, and a way to integrate the two cities in Delhi.
To the north is Ajmeri Gate, a densely-built neighbourhood, to the south, in counterpoint, the towering Civic Centre, depressingly gigantic, looming over the Mughal city. In 2004, when it was under discussion, it had been suggested by the Delhi Urban Art Commission that the Civic Centre be faithful to its name, and create an atmosphere which welcomed its citizens, with open access to a good library, a museum, a restaurant serving simple clean food, and extend landscaped spaces to link New Delhi with Ajmeri and Turkman Gates, an area which carried memories of the brutality of 1975. This would bridge the gap between “Old” and New Delhi. Need I say that earnest assurances were given that this would be done, and none of it was. What a pity that the designing of public spaces in a city like Delhi is not seen as an opportunity to create an inclusive society.
To argue that the Jantar Mantar venue is more effective because it is three kilometres closer to Parliament House does not convince. I am not sure that the speeches reverberate inside Herbert Baker’s circular building or his secretariats, that MPs and officials pay any attention to the gatherings. The mental distance is as great at Jantar Mantar as in Ramlila Maidan. It is not measured in kilometres, it lies in the minds of men.