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Colonial Construction And Postcolonial Persistence Of The Imperial In The New Delhi Plan

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New Delhi is not only the capital of India but the capital of the world’s largest democracy. Conceived and built by the British, the New Delhi plan translated British India’s home policy in sandstone. The government’s administrative hierarchy and centralization of power was directly represented in the physical plan that impressed its magnificence and power over a country awakening to freedom. A realized grand vision imperial plan in an ideologically contradictory circumstance of independence and democracy is the unique departure point for this work.

At the macro level, we see intersecting themes of political ideology, physical planning, policy, culture and evolution in contemporary city form. The motivation for this research emerges from my own subscription to the fact that “New Delhi today is a kind of an overgrown capitol complex, resolutely detached from the rest of the city. “‘ In my view, it is the persistence or resistance of the “Imperial” in the post-colonial democratization of New Delhi that is largely responsible for the fractures in the city’s identity, urban form, sustenance and evolution. Today the National Capital Territory of Delhi occupies an area of 1486 sq. km. , housing a population of nearly 13. 8 million people.

In comparison, when conceived by the British, New Delhi was to cover an area of 13 sq. km. for a projected population of 65, 000 people. At this time in 1911, the population of Delhi was about 400, 000 which rose to 636, 000 (in the rest of Delhi and the new planned city which spread over an area of 170 sq. km. ) in 1931 after the completion of the capital. The advent of Indian independence and partition saw an exodus of nearly 500, 000 refugees from Pakistan to Delhi between 1947 and 1950. Over the following years, New Delhi assumed the significance of a capital as well as a central employment center for North India continuing to attract numerous migrants from the rest of the country. Today, a National Capital Region (NCR) covering 30, 000 sq. km. has been delineated to manage its growth while the city continues to sprawl outward attracting a and population explosion is the persistence of a ‘garden city’ suburb with low densities in the heart of the city (British planned New Delhi). The lack of public infrastructure and growth management strategies, rising land values, unemployment and a dysfunctional planning mechanism have further caused visible fractures between the center and rest of the city.

Whether there is a disconnect between the planning process and existing ground realities or simply the lack of socio-political will that drove strong traditions of urban planning in the simply the lack of socio-political will that drove strong traditions of urban planning in the past, “[New Delhi today is] a kind of an overgrown capitol complex, resolutely detached from the rest of the city. “7 For many reasons (as discussed below), this thesis begins it’s diagnosis at the heart of the city -British Imperial Delhi to find symptoms that may lead to the root cause of Delhi’s present day problems of inequity, inefficiency, sprawl, constrained resources, rising land values etc. Although the basis for the first colonial settlement in Delhi was perhaps directly related or influenced by the Mughal walled city of Shahjahanabad, this study assumes British planned New Delhi to be the precursor for urban form and evolution of the capital as we see it today.

The documented historical evolution of the imperial (British) city reveals inherent physical, economic, socio-cultural and political drivers implicit in the plan that propagated the development of the city (land use patterns, density distribution and segregation) in the post-colonial era. The consequence of these implicit drivers of form allowed to manifest in the absence of a comprehensive master plan (in the postcolonial era) has New Delhi struggling with the densities and urban implications of contesting tri-polarities -in simultaneously representing a defensible seat of power (ceremonial precinct), a residential enclave for the elite and a central business district for the entire city. Furthermore, the imperial plan’s relationship (more so the lack of it) with Shahjahanabad is briefly discussed in the planning of the imperial city but mostly discounted for the lack of its determinant role in the postcolonial period of the city’s evolution. This elucidates the fact that the implicit drivers of form responsible for segregation between the British planned city and the native city continued to operate in the postcolonial era. Hence, it is the persistence of these drivers that has isolated the Capitol District from the haphazard development of rest of the city (Shahjahanabad included) and in part responsible for contrast created within the city. It may be useful at this early stage to make a distinction between the colonial and the imperial.

Several writers have used these terms interchangeably. In his article ‘A Definition of Colonialism’, R. J. Horvath maintains that the important difference between the two phenomena appears to be the presence or absence of a significant number of settlers from the colonizing power residing in the colonized state. He asserts that while “Colonialism refers to that form of inter-group domination in which settlers in significant numbers migrate permanently to the colony from the colonizing power, Imperialism on the other hand is wherein few if any, permanent settlers from the imperial homeland migrate to the colony. Anthony King, on the other hand does not accept Horvath’s classification of New Delhi under the imperial order for two reasons – “first, the British community in India referred to themselves as ‘colonial’ and to their society as a ‘colonial society’; second because there were always a large number of permanent roles in the colonial system in India which were continuously filled from metropolitan society. “

We take into account both views. While it acknowledges King’s contention that British presence in India was in fact ‘colonial’, however, the act of British planned New Delhi was ‘imperial’ for two reasons -first, the British themselves referred to conceiving the city under imperial collective memory and under the imperial mode of urban design; second, by the time the capital was completed in 1931, the inevitability of Indian independence had catalyzed the steady decline of the British empire. The years between 1931 and 1947 witnessed the gradual return of the British administration to their imperial homeland. Hence, New Delhi’s circumstantial existence rests upon unique parameters that validate its imperial antecedents -a city conceived to enshrine the ideals of western imperialism, populated by a declining colonial population in preparation to be handed over to house the capital of the largest democracy in the world under Indian self-rule.


“The British when they built New Delhi, for example were clear about what they wanted they wanted an Imperial City. They were also clear in their mind when they developed Calcutta, Bombay and Madras -they wanted colonial cities. At the time, the collective memory of the classical imperial city, pre-eminently Rome, had a marked impact on urban design across the globe especially for competing British imperialists. Although Rome itself was little more than a provincial town with some impressive ruins, the idea of Rome was ubiquitous. As torchbearers of the Roman imperial legacy, the British used Classical architecture to represent the idea of Rome, because to them “. . . the Classical was the embodiment of the highest aspirations of imperialism. . . “Britain’s self-proclaimed imperial inheritance from the Romans “took shape in a variety of ways, from the iconography of individual buildings and public statutory, through the shape and form of public spaces, both permanent and ephemeral, to the planning of the whole cityscapes.

In New Delhi, the imperial memory was manifested through the overwhelming scale and Classical iconography of buildings strategically placed at the termini of hexagonal axial geometry which was imposed on the cityscape. It’s embodied meaning -that of a new dominating social order was carefully choreographed in spatial organization almost in a theatrical display of power and control at all times. Also implicit in the metaphor of exhibition and theatre were the hierarchical separationist structures between the theatre (imperial) and the circus (native); inclusive and the exclusive and finally the haves and the have-nots. In their article ‘Imperial cities: Overlapping territories and intertwined histories’, Driver and Gilbert cite Eric Hobsbawm’s foreword to Art and Power in which he “identifies three demands which the state makes on public art and architecture -the glorification of power itself, organization of art as public drama and service of art as education or propaganda. They further assert that imperial urbanism has time and again used these demands to exploit architecture and urban design.

The case of New Delhi exemplifies this exploitation and points to a deeper meaning implicit in Hobsbawm’s three demands revealing a duality in the nature of imperialism (one of power accompanied education). The same duality is also embedded in the term ‘dominion’ which implies domination and subjugation, but by the same token engenders political allegiance to the subjugated in working towards the peaceful betterment of the whole. Seen as two contrasting sides of the same coin, a regressive desire to express power and superiority reinforces a progressive responsibility to educate and modernize the subjugated. Similarly, the responsibility to modernize requires the necessary superiority and power to bring about positive change. The exploitation of architecture and urban design that Driver and Gilbert refer to stems from this dual nature of imperialism. Here the built expression of power is justified by the responsibility to modernize, often leaving the latter unfulfilled, rather dubiously magnifying the former as a result. It is to make this distinction clear in intention and action for which imperialism may be understood as the combination of the following:

Conservative Imperialism: Form of imperialism primarily concerned with the subjugation/domination of new territory and its subjects which is usually manifested through a regressive desire to display power and control at all times.

Liberal Imperialism: Form of imperialism primarily concerned with the pledge of political allegiance which is usually manifested with a progressive responsibility to uplift, educate and modernize the dominated territory and its subjects.

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