By Dr Jay Dubashi
Delhi is a hungry city. It devours everything and everyone it touches – families, dynasties, sultanates, kingdoms and empires – and chews them and spits out the bones, as dogs do, and the victims don’t even know what has happened or is happening.
A British king came all the way from London in 1911 to announce that they were transferring their capital from Kolkota to Delhi – the ancient capital, they said – and would function from there as soon as it was ready. The announcement was made exactly a hundred years ago, which makes New Delhi – that is what they called it – a hundred years old this month. It is surprising nobody came from London to celebrate the event. How could they? They lost their empire soon afterwards, and to add to their misery, were almost thrown out of the European Union this month. A country on which the sun never set, and which barely a century ago, was going about building new imperial cities all over the world, is now totally broken and gasping for breath.
A year after the announcement was made, the Viceroy was making his state entry (this was in 1912) when a bomb was thrown into the howdah on top of his elephant. The Viceroy himself (Lord Hardinge) escaped unhurt, but the man holding the imperial umbrella was killed on the spot. The Viceroy had not obviously consulted an astrologer before setting out on his parade. This should have alerted the British to the shape of things to come, but they were blinded by their new capital and could not read the writing on the wall.
Things went bad right from the start. The foundation stone for the new capital was set in 1912. Within two years, the British had to face a war, World War One, which so impoverished them that they almost abandoned the scheme. Then came the massacre in Amritsar, which nobody could explain properly, and it was downhill all the way after that.
In 1921, there were riots in Mumbai during a visit by the new Prince of Wales, the same man, who a few years later insisted on marrying a twice-divorced American woman and was de-throned. And in 1922, Gandhiji was imprisoned for the first time for civil disobedience, a new word coined by Gandhiji, which the British never understood properly.
In 1931, a full twenty years after the shifting of the capital was announced, the new capital was inaugurated by yet another Viceroy, a man called Willingdon, whose wife was so avaricious, the princes used to hide their jewels whenever she visited them, for she was in the habit of stealing them right under their noses during her visits. A year after Willingdon started living in the new Viceregal Lodge on Raisina Hill, Gandhiji started his second civil disobedience movement, which so scared the Viceroy that he fled home. This was the same man who had inaugurated “New” Delhi.
In less than twenty years of the inauguration of their capital, just when they believed they were setting down to a long peaceful stay in India, the British were out of India, lock, stock and barrel. In 1929, the stock markets crashed all over the world, and two years later, the British economy – and also the US economy – entered a long period of Depression. While Lord Willingdon did not know what to do with his 354-room Viceregal Lodge, hungry fellow- Britishers crowded in London’s dingy lanes looking for bread. By 1935, Willingdon was back home, looking for a job.
Then came another war which played havoc with Britain, but somehow it managed to survive with the help of its cousins across the Atlantic. By 1947, less than twenty years after the new capital was built, the British were back home, minus the Indian empire, but with a stolen Kohinoor, which they are now showing in London Tower and making money from the tourists.
How have things gone for Delhi’s new rulers after the exit of the British? For the British, the move to New Delhi was a disaster. They had to flee even before they had settled in. For the new rulers, beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru, it has been tragedy after tragedy.
Delhi is a treacherous city and has its own ways of dealing with its hungry rulers and all those who fancy themselves as rulers. The last Moghul Emperor was packed off to distant shores and was never heard of again. Jawaharlal Nehru died of broken heart in Simla, miles away from Delhi, after suffering an ignominious defeat at the hands of his so-called friends and brothers – the Chinese. His other friend, the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army – with which he had nothing to do – in 1979. His wife died of an accident on a ship and was buried at sea.
What about others after Nehru? Nehru’s daughter was killed by her own bodygurads in her own garden. Her son, also a Prime Minister but not at the time of his death, was also assassinated, this time by a clutch of terrorists, a few years later. All the three – Mountbatten, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi – were killed by terrorists, or men close to terrorists, long before terrorism, as we now understand it, had begun to assert itself. Indira Gandhi’s second son, who was supposed to inherit her gaddi, was also killed in violent accident of a different type.
We now have another Gandhi-Nehru in waiting – or is it Nehru – Gandhi? – who does not seem to have learned much from recent history. If I were in his place, I would keep myself as far away from Raisina Hill as possible, and from the ghosts roaming the South Block. Delhi is both a hungry and treacherous city, and spares nobody.
And what about Willingdon, the man who inaugurated the imperial capital in 1931 and had to flee home three years later? He died soon afterwards, but his wife lived for a great many years after him, and the last time I saw her was when she was crossing Queen Anne’s Gate in South Kensington in 1948, a year after the British had been thrown out of India, and she was so frail she seemed, literally, on her last legs. I helped her cross the road, the least I could do for a lady who had been the first to live in the new Viceregal Lodge, and purloined all those lovely diamonds and pearls from our princes!