The din and debate of elections have come to an end. In a few days, the first session of the new Parliament will begin, and the focus of politics will shift to the Parliament House in Delhi. The newly elected MPs of the 17th Lok Sabha will start working in a building which Prime Minister Narendra Modi described as the “Temple of Democracy”. For almost a century, the circular edifice of Parliament has been an observer of women and men who have shaped our country. But the most iconic building in Delhi was not part of the original plan for the Capital city.
The Imperial Legislative Council was the legislature for British India from 1861, and was expanded to include elected members in 1909. A question was raised in the British Parliament in 1912, enquiring about the provision for a separate building for the Legislative Council in the new capital city of Delhi. The Under Secretary for India in his reply stated that, “It is proposed that the Legislative Council should meet in a hall which will be situated in one wing of the building which also contains the Governor-General’s official residence and the Durbar (Hall).”
So in 1913, when Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens signed on to be the architects for the Imperial City at New Delhi, their brief only included the design of the ‘Government House (the present President’s House)’ and ‘Two principal blocks of Government of India Secretariats and attached buildings (North and South Block)’. As part of the Government House, they were to design a Legislative Council Chamber, library and writing room, a public gallery and committee rooms.
In 1919, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act which provided for a bicameral legislature for India. A new building was needed to accommodate the new houses of the Legislative Council. Baker proposed a triangular building while Lutyens was in favour of a circular Colosseum design for this new building. The committee tasked with overseeing the construction of the new capital decided to go ahead with Lutyens’s design.
The location of the new building was to be at the base of Raisina Hill. Lutyens also proposed a church behind South Block to create a symmetry with the Council House. But this was not carried through. The circular Council House incorporated three chambers (Council of States, Assembly and Princes). The chambers connected to a large central hall in the middle of the building. However, Lutyens’s circular design did not appeal to everyone. Robert Byron, a British writer, art critic and historian, criticised the design in the Architectural Review in 1931. He described the Council House as “a Spanish bull-ring, lying like a mill-wheel dropped accidentally on its side”.
After six years of construction, in 1927, the new Council House was inaugurated. At the inauguration, a message from King George V was read out. It stated, “The new capital which has arisen enshrines new institutions and a new life. May it endure to be worthy of a great nation and may in this Council House wisdom and justice find their dwelling place.”
The Council House, now known as the Parliament House, has been at the heart of the country’s history. The Federal Court (which preceded the Supreme Court) used to function from the Chamber of Princes in the Parliament building. After that, the Supreme Court also sat in the Parliament building from 1950 to 1958.
The deliberation and adoption of the Constitution took place in the Central Hall of Parliament. It was in the Central Hall that Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his famous Tryst with Destiny speech on the eve of Independence. The Central Hall is where the President of India is sworn in and also where he addresses a joint sitting of both Houses at the beginning of a new Lok Sabha and at the opening of the first session of Parliament in a year. Thrice in our parliamentary history, the Central Hall has been witness to a joint sitting of the two Houses for the breaking of a legislative deadlock. The last one was in 2002 when the Houses could not agree on provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill.
The building of Parliament has aged well thanks to constant upkeep. However, the foundation of the lawmaking institution that it houses is slowly getting eroded. Over the years, the regular disruption of parliamentary proceedings has undermined the importance of this temple of democracy.
In 1954, then vice-president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had visited the US Senate. He was there to present to the Senate an ivory gavel. In the Senate, the proceedings of the assembly are brought to order by the repeated tapping of the gavel. The 169-year-old gavel of the Senate had broken while it was being used by then vice-president Richard Nixon. While addressing the Senate, Radhakrishnan had said, “On behalf of the young democracy of India and of the Rajya Sabha, I have the honour and the pleasure to present to you, Mr Vice President, this gavel in the earnest hope that the legislators of the Senate will discuss all problems, national and international, with calmness and composure, with freedom from passion and prejudice, with the one supreme object of serving your great people and the human race.”
Our country hopes that these words spoken 66 years ago will resonate with the newly elected MPs as they take their seats in Parliament.
The writer is head of outreach, PRS Legislative Research