The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Delhi's monuments to callousness

The 150th anniversary next year of the 1857 Uprising and the staging of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi have begun a rethink on what we ' living in a fast-lane present ' have done to our built heritage. The first will bring us face to face with how to relate to monuments that our colonial masters erected after the suppression of the 'Mutiny'. The 2010 Commonwealth Games will focus the attention of the erstwhile British Empire on Delhi, an old city, which emerged as the colonial capital of the 'brightest jewel in the crown' in the last century. There is already some talk about preserving the past and rescuing the heritage of Delhi from a callous and oppressive present. A recent poll published in a newspaper suggests that while most Delhiites (the word, 'Dilliwalas', is now an anachronism) are unaware of the city's rich cultural and architectural past, only one-third of parents feel strongly about inculcating a sense of the city's heritage in their children.

Faced with the failure of the Archaeological Survey of India ' an organization headed by a bureaucrat for many years and openly susceptible to governmental pressure ' some have begun advocating the setting up of a national heritage commission. At the same time, there is no dearth of proposals for a consumerist appropriation of our past in the interests of the present. A few years ago, a Union urban affairs minister had advocated a veritable 'Gurgaonization' of Lutyens's Delhi, while another votary of efficient land-use went on to suggest that the Rashtrapati Bhavan be converted into a luxury hotel.

The debate on balancing the voracious demands of the 'cityjan' with nurturing Delhi's culture, habitat and built heritage is bound to get sharper: how near the Qutub Minar can the elevated metro be allowed to run, or need it go underground rather than spoil the view of a world heritage site' How much of the natural flood plain of the Jamuna (including its floating population) need be ceded to a major temple complex, or indeed to the Commonwealth Games village' How many people and working artisans (even butchers) have to be shifted out of the Jama Masjid area to beautify it as a place of daily worship, and simultaneously as a national monument with which all of us (including the non-practising Muslims) can identify'

It is common to lament how the majority of Delhi's monuments ' a large number dating back to the 13th to the early 16th century ' have been encroached upon by property developers and squatters. This is an important facet of urbanism of post-independent Delhi, and it allows the concerned citizen to blame those who have appropriated its heritage to private ends. What is remarkable is how the city's empowered citizens and criminal elements have conspired, in very different ways, to foreclose access to a lot of the city's monuments in the normal course. A few examples of the fate of some of the key 'Mutiny' structures would help illustrate how these have become no-go places for the ordinary tax-paying public.

Take the Flagstaff, up the ridge from the main gate of the University of Delhi. Driven out of the city in the summer of 1857, it was here and on the adjacent, narrow strip of the ridge that the retreating British were confined in that tumultuous summer; and it was from the Flagstaff and batteries at the Chauburja mosque and beyond that the push for the vengeful recapture of Delhi was calibrated in the autumn of that eventful year. There were ten natives for every European in camp. John Kaye, the demi-official historian of the 'Sepoy War', paints a sympathetic picture of the native cooks and water-carriers, who, unmindful of the well-directed artillery fire of the rebel topchis and golandazes from nearby Mori Gate, had played khidmatgars to the besieged sahibs at the Flagstaff and on the northern Ridge.

The demands of humanity, implies Kaye, suggested that the English be slightly more considerate towards their native camp-followers, without whom the project of the reconquest of Delhi would have been quite impossible. But it was not just the exhaustion caused by war that had made the life of natives-in- camp of 'less value than that of the meanest animals'. For if colonial domination had to be re-established, then insensitive as it may appear to some, that structure could not be dismantled during the very campaign for the re-establishment of British supremacy in India.

A contemporary satire in a Dilli akhbar had lampooned the harassed 'English Gathering at the Flagstaff', where the 'trousers of Angrezi wisdom had slipped all the way down to their socks-full of worries'. Two years ago, Flagstaff Road lost its name to B.R. Ambedkar Memorial Marg. True, Ambedkar during his Delhi sojourn had lived nearby on Alipur Road. But because of the construction of the Metro, that street had been closed to the previous prime minister when he visited north Delhi for inaugurating the memorial. The adjacent Flagstaff Road was open, and so got divested of its historic name in the despotic flurry that precedes such prime-ministerial visitations.

Despite a recent renovation, the historic Flagstaff is in a state of disrepair. This early-19th-century building is now virtually taken over by an open air yoga club. Sundays are reserved for bhandaras, that is, a philanthropic halwa-poori feast, with periodic pulmonary check-ups for the senior citizens who throng the Ridge for their early-morning constitutional. Its circular ground-floor hall is used to house mattresses and dhurries in king-size steel trunks. Through a private arrangement with the city's archaeology department, it is unlocked only for the duration of the yoga classes ' to keep it open at all times would no doubt endanger the property of the Yoga club. For the rest of the day, the Flagstaff is a closed monument. No notice of its past greets the energetic, early-morning walkers: it survives in a non-historical present.

A much more serious consideration behind the locking up of Delhi's many monuments appears to be the growing number of rapists that stalk the city day and night. The Khuni Darwaza, overlooking the stadium where Harbhajan Singh spun India to a famous ODI victory the other day, was where Bahadurshah Zafar's sons were shot dead after their capture from Humayun's tomb in September, 1857. And it was here that a college girl was raped not very long ago. This historic gate on one of Delhi's busiest roads has subsequently been fixed with grills and locked. The early-19th-century magazine ' a simple arched structure which the British guards self-destructed to deny the 'Mutiny' rebels access to a large amount of gun powder ' now stands similarly barricaded, although it sits in the middle of a traffic island, opposite the city's General Post Office.

The city that killed Gandhi seems to prosper only by barricading itself. The Nineties was the decade of private security guards. Policing, the message had gone out, had to be private to be effective. Now, even medieval city- gates and colonial guard-houses ' like the one on the northern Ridge ' have to be locked-up, so as to protect the women of this megalopolis from its growing number of casual rapists. It has been said that the aim of heritage is to make all of us proud. It is time we realized the cruel, and not just ironic, import of this descriptive truism.

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