There goes a saying that: “What may have taken a generation to build can be razed to the ground in a matter of years.” This fits aptly with the current Indian political scenario. India’s rich historical and cultural heritage is under the axe.
Starting with renaming streets and cities by getting rid of Islamic names, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is bringing down historical edifices one after the other.
It all began in 2015, soon after Modi became prime minister the previous year. The historic Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, where the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah lived was renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road. A narrative was floated that a tyrannical king’s name was replaced by a kind and intellectual scientist and a former Indian president.
This got the ball rolling. The city of Allahabad soon became Prayagraj, Mughal Saria railway station and an important junction on the borders of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was rechristened Deen Dayal Upadhyay railway station, after a staunch right-wing Hindutva ideologue and a founding member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Next in line is renaming the city of Aligarh to Harigarh. But Aligarh’s contribution to the Indian freedom struggle and the role of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in establishing a world-class university will be impossible to erase from the pages of history.
The iconic Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar is the latest casualty on the list. It was here on April 13, 1919, that a crowd gathered to protest against the Rowlatt Act and the arrest of pro-freedom leaders Dr Satya Pal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlu. Brigadier-General Dyer ordered his men to open fire at the peaceful gathering, leaving several thousand dead.
The single narrow entry to the bagh had been blocked and finding no escape, many jumped into the well inside the garden to save their life. The Bagh is a reminder of the atrocity of the colonizer towards its subjects and brought about a turning point in India’s freedom struggle.
But now the Sakara Galiara or the narrow alley leading to the bagh and the Shaheedi khu or the Martyr’s Well, where several hundred jumped in hoping to save their lives has lost its essence and the pain that it carried as a reminder.
The narrow passage that was a reminder of the horrors endured by those inside the bagh has been replaced with golden shining murals and human structures on the walls. It now has a shiny roof. The well has now been covered with glass, giving it an ultra-modern look. A light and sound show every evening makes it look like a place of celebration.
The narrow passage that was a reminder of the horrors endured by those inside the bagh has been replaced with golden shining murals and human structures on the walls
“The bagh is a somber reminder of the bloodiest Baisakhi. It is a place of mourning and the tragedy cannot be celebrated by light and sound show,” explained historian Pushpesh Pant.
It is said that dictators don’t like heritage, culture and a healthy legacy because it means emancipation and a form of freedom of expression. After taking over as the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave patronage to the promotion of culture, keeping religion out of politics. But Modi a staunch critic of Nehru, holds him responsible for all the wrongs that take place in India and wants to erase his legacy.
Nehru’s idea of India, his secular outlook and his strong dislike for the right-wing ideological bodies like the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) is well documented. The same RSS is Modi’s ideological mentor.
Trampling History in Delhi
The Central Vista Project coming up in the heart of India’s national capital is the most extravagant example of erasing a legacy.
Iconic National Archives, the National Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts hold the richest treasure and heritage of the subcontinent. But with plans for a new mansion cum office of the prime minister, these buildings are now going under the hammer. Eight other official buildings that hold various offices of the government of India will be sacrificed to give way to the new capital.
The lawns of India Gate along the Raj Path called Central Vista were not just a reminder of the British capital, but they also served as large open spaces in this densely populated city.
What has worried the town planners, historians and art curators is how this government has implemented the entire plan. Besides a handful of people in the government, no one is aware of what exactly is being constructed. There is no plan in the public domain and questions are being raised whether or not the necessary clearances have been taken.
In the lethargic bureaucratic system in India, to acquire a piece of land to build a school or a hospital can take several months, sometimes even years, before a project could be put to public use. But here a project worth millions, spread over an area of three-kilometres, could get all clearances just with a stroke of a pen.
“If a new vista is to be built, a good design demands that it should be created along with the existing structures that are in good health. To demolish a recently constructed seven-floor building to make a new one is an indication of bad planning,” said a retired Delhi town planner on condition of anonymity.
There is nothing wrong with building a new capital. Eight times in the past rulers have built their capitals over Delhi. But never has one king demolished the fort made by his predecessor to build a new one for himself. This is the first time that one capital is being razed to the ground to build a new one.
“From Qila Lal Kot built in Mehrauli in 731 AD till the British relocated their capital to Delhi in 1931. What you see happening in Delhi has never happened in the past,” said Professor Sri Ram Obroai, a professor of History at Delhi University.
Lest we forget, if history repeats itself, any ruler who has built a capital over Delhi has witnessed the end of his reign. Mughals who ruled over the length and breadth of this subcontinent from Agra saw a downfall after shifting their capital to Delhi.
The Pandavas lost their kingdom in the gamble and were left to fend for themselves in the forest soon after they built their capital at Indraprastha, the ancient Delhi. British who ruled India for almost two hundred years with their capital at Calcutta had to wash hands from the empire soon after they shifted their base to Delhi.