Birth of a city

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Rajpath, New Delhi's central vista. It has similarities with the design of the central core of Washington, D.C. Photo: V. Sudershan

The book, supported by rich documentary material, tells the story behind the shifting of the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi.

THE title of the book is catchy but a little misleading, as are the credits for putting it together. The National Archives of India holds the copyright for the book as it contains historical documents that lie in its custody. As the historian Mushirul Hasan was the NAI’s Director-General, his name finds the pride of place as the first of the two editors.

The book carries a long introductory essay “A Century of New Delhi: Political Reform, Questions of Finance, and the Creation of a New Capital for India” written by Dinyar Patel. For some time, it has become rather fashionable to link Ghalib’s name with Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi irrespective of the context. One is at sea to fathom the reason behind tagging the great poet’s name with the book when it exclusively deals with the political and bureaucratic processes that were at play when the decision to build a new capital for India was taken and executed, and has nothing whatsoever to say about Ghalib’s or Mir’s or Zafar’s Dilli. It was not as if Dilli was being transformed into a new city or was being shifted to a new place. A new capital city was being built at a distance from it and there was hardly any relationship of continuity between the old and the new.

Having said this, one has to admit that the book contains a wealth of historical material that has perhaps seen the light of the day for the first time. The beautifully written introductory article introduces the reader to the complexity of the whole exercise of building a new capital for a subject-nation by its colonial masters who were eager to create impressive monuments to display the imperial power and grandeur of the great British Empire. As the jacket notes correctly inform, “this meticulously documented and highly readable volume takes the readers on a journey to the past to understand the conceptual origins of the vibrant, modern metropolis that New Delhi is today”.

The book tells the story of how the decision to build a new capital city was taken, what the reasons behind shifting the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi were, what kind of problems the authorities faced while acquiring land for the new seat of power and why the ambitious project could not be implemented in its entirety and had to be severely curtailed. It brings together key official documents on the creation of the new capital city from 1911 to 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. They have been divided into eight chapters dealing with the transfer of the capital, plan of the capital, temporary works department, site selection, land acquisition, appeal/protests/requests, town planning committee, and health and environment.

Although the announcement regarding the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to the “ancient city of Delhi” was made by King and Emperor George V on December 12, 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, the tortuous process of decision-making had started much earlier and in-depth and detailed discussions took place among the high echelons of the British bureaucracy weighing the pros and cons of such a momentous decision. In fact, as Dinyar Patel says in his introductory essay, the decision was taken secretly in the months before the Delhi Durbar. However, as the First World War broke out in 1914, severe financial constraints were felt, the process of land acquisition became fraught with disputes, petitions and litigation, and the British realised that they were in no position to implement the original plan and the project had to be considerably scaled down.

In 2011, we witnessed a euphoric celebration of the centenary of New Delhi although it was really of the announcement of intent and there was no reason for citizens of a free, democratic country to celebrate events connected with the expression of the imperial power and might of the erstwhile colonial masters. In any case, the actual building of the capital was completed only in 1931 and the government was left with no resources to spend on a grand ceremony as it had already incurred an expenditure of Rs.144 million on its construction. In 1911, the nationalist response, as voiced by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bhupendranath Basu, N. Subba Rao and Dadabhai Naoroji, was a measured one devoid of any euphoria. In fact, these leaders in their own ways tried to link the shifting of the capital with impending or expected political reforms. And in 1931, the nationalist leadership gave the inauguration of the new capital the cold shoulder and did not show any enthusiasm as it was preoccupied with the recent death of Motilal Nehru, the first Round Table Conference in London and Mahatma Gandhi’s scheduled visit with the Viceroy, Lord Irwin.

It is not common knowledge that the decision to build New Delhi was taken at a time when new capital cities were being built in other countries as well. Patel draws the reader’s attention to the fact that in 1902, the United States Senate Park Commission, better known as the McMillan Commission, made public its plan to redesign the central core of Washington, D.C., including the National Mall that was visualised as a grand boulevard flanked by monumental buildings. The similarities of New Delhi’s Central Vista (Rajpath) with it are quite evident. In 1910, Herbert Baker was commissioned by the South African government to construct two imposing buildings in Pretoria that would architecturally express the new union between the British settlers and the Boers. Pretoria had become the capital city after the conclusion of the Boer War. The same Herbert Baker built the Secretariats in New Delhi and they bear great resemblance to the Pretoria buildings. In 1908, Australia selected Canberra as the site of its new capital, and Canberra was often referred to in the discussions among British officials about New Delhi. It may be noted that all these capital cities were built keeping in view the advent of the age of automobiles. This explains New Delhi’s straight, wide roads laid on a grid plan.


The documents compiled in this volume take us to reports and correspondence, including notes, memos and telegrams exchanged between the Viceroy, the Secretary of State for India, Governors, bureaucrats, planners, petitioners and Indian and foreign contractors, that make fascinating reading. The first document on the transfer of the capital is of great interest as it brings out the official thinking behind shifting the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. It is a letter dated November 1, 1911, from Lord Crewe, Secretary of State for India, to Lord Hardinge, Governor-General of India in Council, in reply to Lord Hardinge’s letter of August 25, 1911. Although Lord Crewe’s letter gives a fairly good idea of what Lord Hardinge had suggested in his despatch, one feels that the volume should have opened with Lord Hardinge’s letter.

As the historian Sumit Sarkar points out, “the despatch linked the reunion of Bengal under a Governor-in-Council with a transfer of the capital to Delhi, both as a sop to Muslim sentiments and, much more important, on the rather far-sighted argument that viceregal authority should be insulated from provincial pressures as ultimately ‘a larger measure of self-government’ was inevitable in the provinces”. So, the optimism expressed by leaders like N. Subba Rao was not entirely misplaced. Rao had asserted that New Delhi would be “a first and necessary step in the onward path of self-government”.

Among many other reasons, the Hardinge letter talks of the feelings of the Muslims of East Bengal who would welcome the restoration of Delhi as the seat of imperial power. The suggestion was strongly endorsed by Home Member James Jenkins, who worried a lot about the continuing revolutionary terrorism in Bengal. He felt that “until we get rid of the partition ulcer, we shall have no peace”. However, the Muslim political elite was not mollified by the transfer of the capital. Unaware of this confidential official correspondence, Bhupendranath Basu was perceptive enough to argue that the Coronation Durbar of December 12, 1911, had signalled the end of Curzonian authority and that a shift to Delhi offered hope of more enlightened rule.

A letter of June 4, 1912, written by H. Wheeler, Secretary, Government of India, Home Department, to the Chief Secretary, Government of the Punjab, talks of an issue that still remains unresolved as is evident in the sit-in staged by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to demand control of the police administration in the capital. As Delhi was a district under the Punjab province those days, Wheeler wrote to the Chief Secretary of the Punjab: “It is an essential feature of the scheme outline by His Majesty, that the administration of the new capital and its surroundings should vest in the Government of India direct....” The response it elicited from the Punjab government tells us of a turf war raging: The provincial government expressed shock that such a “momentous decision” could be taken without consulting it, and suggested that the Government of India should control only the newly created enclave, that is, the capital city of New Delhi and not the entire Delhi district including the walled city. Echoes of this argument can be heard these days by supporters of the Delhi government, who maintain that the Centre should have control over police only in the New Delhi district and not in the entire State.

Naturally, the Bengal Chamber of Commerce protested against the shifting of the capital from Calcutta and suggested that either the Department of Commerce and Industry be severed from the rest of the administration and continue to be in Calcutta or a member for Commerce and Industry should be appointed to the Government of Bengal. Wheeler, in a letter dated February 26, 1912, declined to accept either of the two suggestions and said that “the concession of wider powers to the local government in regard to the disposal of such commercial questions as are mainly of provincial importance is likely to become desirable from all points of view”.

One learns from the chapter on appeals, protests and requests that the residents of Paharganj had petitioned against the acquisition of their village for the purpose of building the new capital city. Even the Maharaja of Jaipur sent a request that his buildings and lands in Jaisingpura and Madhoganj should not be acquired for the imperial capital project. Litigation against land acquisition rattled the authorities so much that William M. Hailey, Chief Commissioner, Delhi, wrote to the Secretary, Government of India, Finance Department, requesting him to appoint a full-time pleader on a salary basis as an adverse judgment in even one case would set a precedent for others and the government was likely to bear heavy financial losses.

It is a well-known fact that the British officials were very meticulous in making surveys and maintaining detailed records of things they considered important. The chapter on land acquisition has a demi-official letter from Major H.C. Beadon, Special Land Acquisition Officer, to Wheeler, dated August 31, 1912. It deals with the question of the treatment of mosques, temples, and tombs in connection with land acquisition proceedings in Delhi. He also sent three separate lists—X, Y and Z—cataloguing these monuments under three categories. List X shows the structures “which will have to be preserved, mostly at all events for all time”. List Y shows buildings that ought not be destroyed forthwith but probably at some time in the future, while list Z contains descriptions of those that can be demolished without any problem. It would be an interesting and useful exercise if somebody could check how many of the 45 monuments on list X are still extant and whether any of those on list Y still exist. The letter also makes a thoughtful suggestion that regular burial grounds should be demarcated and preserved for Muslims among whom while the rich bury their dead in graveyards owned by majawars after paying them, the poor have nowhere to go and bury their dead wherever they can.

Early sketches and plans for the new capital city visualised a phalanx of secretariats and offices along the Central Vista, but by 1931 the government was in no position to build anything but bungalows here. Similarly, the plan to build a cluster of institutions at the intersection of the King’s way and the Queen’s way (today’s Rajpath and Janpath) had to be dropped due to financial constraints. The cluster was supposed to include an oriental research institute, the imperial records office, a museum and a library. However, only one wing of the records office could be built and its internal courts were hastily finished in plaster. Now this is part of the National Archives complex. However, the plan was put in place to some extent by the government of independent India as one finds the National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Museum and the Archaeological Survey of India adorning the area. While Lord Hardinge was enthusiastic about Henry Vaughn Lanchester’s proposed axis connecting imperial New Delhi with the Mughal-era Shahjahanabad, he had to drop the idea as he could not purchase Paharganj. Dinyar Patel vividly describes in his introductory essay that considerations of cost forced the government to abandon other elements too that would have welded Old and New Delhi into one single city. The Viceroy’s house, too, could not face the Jama Masjid as was originally envisioned. It faced the Central Vista that did not reach the river Yamuna as had originally been planned.

As New Delhi was envisioned as a garden city, it was natural that the government would pay attention to the planting of trees and shrubs. The chapter on health and environment contains many memos and letters that show the authorities’ concern for the environment and their intention to plant trees and shrubs that could easily grow in the city’s climate and soil. A letter from C.A. Barron, Chief Secretary, Government of the Punjab, to Wheeler offers an exhaustive list of such trees and shrubs and is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago. A malarial survey was undertaken and measures were adopted to fight the menace. Those days, malaria could result in death.

The book comes with a CD that provides maps of the Delhi region from the early 20th century. Patel informs us that many of the maps and diagrams mentioned in the official correspondence and memos could not be traced in the National Archives. Nevertheless, the seven maps on the CD make a visual presentation of the far-reaching changes brought about by the building of the new capital.

In view of the rich documentary material offered by the book, one hopes that it will encourage other scholars to use it to make more detailed studies on related subjects. It is also to be expected that the National Archives of India will open its doors to more and more scholars and periodically issue similar volumes on many other aspects of the nation’s history.

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