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Know Your City: After 1857 revolt, British considered moving India’s capital to Pune

During the British government’s search for a more centrally-located capital, Viceroy Lord John Lawrence suggested Poona as a “salubrious” option only “eighty miles distant, and connected by railway with Bombay.”

Written by Atikh Rashid | Pune |
Updated: March 23, 2022 12:42:27 pm
Pune KYC, Pune know your city, 1857 revolt, Pune history, Pune culture, Pune British capital, Indian Express newsThe revolt of 1857 made the search for the new capital more urgent.

Before he arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on January 12, 1864 as the new Viceroy of India, Lord John Lawrence put in a condition on his accepting the Viceregal office. He was to be allowed to spend the summer months in the hilly town of Simla on account of his failing health.

That year, after spending a few months in the then capital Calcutta, he left for Simla and soon was followed by 484 staff members, including senior members of the Council of Executives. Simla wasn’t yet recognised as the ‘summer capital’ and it was for the first time that the entire government had migrated to the remote Himalayan hill station about 1,200 miles away from Calcutta at a cost of Rs 4 lakh to the exchequer.

The move came under a lot of critical scrutiny – although later it would become an annual affair as Lawrence would continue to shift the government to Simla for six months – and he had to do much justifying for migration of the offices and staff to the hill station. “I believe,” he says in one of his letters to London, “that we will do more work in one day in Simla than five in Calcutta”.

But even before Lord Lawrence’s appointment, the British government was toying with the idea of moving the Government of India out of Calcutta to a more central location which would be strategically advantageous and also comparatively healthy for the Britons.

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The revolt of 1857 made the search for the new capital more urgent.

“The need for a more centrally-located capital than Calcutta had been voiced once the trauma of the 1857 Uprising had subsided. Calcutta was also regarded by Europeans as a vast pestilential vapour bath for six months in a year. A more central location would enable the Government to take swift action against an uprising in any part of the country. Calcutta was also the most distant point in India from Punjab and the north-west frontier where Russian intrusions were seen as threats to the Empire itself,” Pamela Kanwar writes in Imperial Simla: The Political Culture of the Raj.

‘Salubrious Poona’

Charles Canning, a predecessor of Lawrence, had suggested that the capital be shifted to central India. George Otto Trevelyan pushed for Jabalpore, Charles Wood weighed in for Darjeeling, others suggested Allahabad, Agra and Delhi as the most suitable locations for the Indian capital. Bombay (now Mumbai) was another strong contender.

Lawrence, an admirer of Simla’s healthy weather, proposed that instead of shifting the government out of Calcutta altogether, adding a summer capital in Simla would resolve the issue. “This,” he wrote to India Office’s Charles Wood on May 30 1864, “would prove the happiest solution of the question as to the seat of the government… Keeping Calcutta as capital and, allowing the government to come to Simla for six months, you would conciliate many interests.”

An alternative to this arrangement, Lawrence wrote, would be to transfer the permanent capital of India to Pune (then Poona). “Next to this arrangement, perhaps the best would be to transfer the Government of India to Poona, which is a salubrious position, and, practically, on the sea-coast. That is to say, it is only eighty miles distant, and connected by railway with Bombay,” he wrote.

As per Lawrence, this second-best solution to the ‘capital problem’ had its demerits. “But I am not in favour of this arrangement. Poona though is well placed for communication with England, is quite in a corner as regards India. The great block of the Rajpootana states and the Gwalior country lies right between Poona and the chief British possessions of Hindustan. In the event of commotions, the communications with Upper India would be cut off. A governor-general at Poona would be practically unknown in Hindustan,” wrote Lawrence before he reverted to Simla’s case as the ‘summer capital’.

“… A governor-general who was half the year in Calcutta and the other half-year in Simla, would be seen and known throughout our chief possessions. From Calcutta to Simla we have a chain of military stations connecting the two places, and holding all the intermediate country,” said Lawrence while arguing his case.

A representational image of a letter from Lord John Lawrence to Charles Wood on May 30 1864.

‘Make-believe’ western world of summer capitals

Despite initial reservations on the part of the officers of India Office in London, Simla did become the de facto summer capital of India with Lawrence and his successor spending six months a year in the Himalayan town. This would remain the norm until 1939 (Delhi was announced as the new capital in 1911) when the practice of shifting the government to Simla ended.

Hill stations like Simla developed in the 19th century as Britons, who came to India for a career in bureaucracy and army and had to spend long periods away from their homes, sought relief from the hot weather of the mainland. Controlled development of the hill stations, careful weaving in of infrastructure suitable for the white life gave these towns a distinctly English feel.

Malcom Muggeridge, for instance, remarked that Simla was “an authentic English production; designed by Sahibs for Sahibs without reference to any other consideration – not even Maharajas.”

Hill stations like Simla developed in the 19th century as Britons, who came to India for a career in bureaucracy and army and had to spend long periods away from their homes, sought relief from the hot weather of the mainland.

It wasn’t the case that only the Viceregal office moved to a hill station in summers, provincial governments too followed suit. For instance, the government of Madras Presidency moved to Ooty during the summer months, Bombay government moved to Pune and Mahabaleshwar for four months a year each, and the Bengal government would shift to Darjeeling for three months.

These shifts, especially that of the national government, came under intense criticism from Indian nationalist leaders who called them ‘gigantic picnics’ that separated the rulers from the ground realities of the mainland and the popular unrest.

A section of the British rulers also found this practice to be outrageous. Guy Douglas Fleetwood, a finance member, for instance, observed the following about the move: “Many of our Indian difficulties are attributable to the marvellous system under which for some six months of each year the Government of India goes to sleep – and does so on the top of a mountain seven to eight thousand feet high. There the government devotes itself to a mild form of seaside holiday. It is entirely out of touch with India…Up at Simla the news of an outrage is received with languid and transient interest. The burning questions are polo finals and racing, with the all absorbing tennis tournaments to fill up voids in the daily life”.

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