At the turn of the 20th century, Delhi was just a provincial town. Far away, Calcutta was the happening place. A decade later, Delhi was to become the British government’s nerve centre in India
Bengal is from where the British expansion into India began and the Bengal Presidency’s area, centred at Calcutta, encompassed all of northern India up to the Khyber Pass. The first talk of shifting British India’s capital from Calcutta began in the mid-19th century itself.
The British hated Calcutta’s sultry climate. Every summer, the administration would move to Shimla. The real push came after the government’s decision to divide Bengal in 1905. This led to protests and hostility. Calcutta had become too unstable politically.
When the British decided to shift the capital, one of the first choices was Shimla, from where the government anyway functioned in the summers. A permanent capital, however, required better accommodation and ample space to house some 43 odd government offices. Given Shimla’s topography and lack of space, it was not possible.
The new capital had to be centrally located like at Nagpur. Plans to create a new city from scratch in central India were also floated. However, no other provincial town proved good enough and creating a new one meant creating railway lines, telecommunications and other infrastructure from scratch.
This is where Delhi won. It was an important commercial centre and was connected by railway and other means of communication. It was also just 12 hours away from Shimla. Unlike Calcutta, the British found Delhi’s weather suitable for at least seven months of the year. It was also surrounded by the northern princely states loyal to the government.
Most important, however, was Delhi’s perception in the average Indian’s mind as the seat of power. This is where the Mughals had ruled from and this was why all three Imperial durbars—in 1877, 1903 and 1911—were held in Delhi.
Where in Delhi?
The foundation stone of the new capital was laid at Kingsway Camp by King George V in 1911. North Delhi, beyond Kashmere Gate, was where the British lived and worked. The new city was expected to come up there. An ‘expert committee’, comprising architects like Edwin Lutyens, however, decided otherwise. The committee found the site unsuitable as it was swampy and low lying, making it vulnerable to flooding. It was also found to be too ‘flat and boring’.
Lutyens and his team roamed around the Delhi countryside for days and finalised the area near Raisina hills. The undulating terrain meant that buildings like the Government house (Rashtrapati Bhavan) and Secretariat will be at a height, making them imposing.
The area was also largely uninhabited except for the village of Malcha, making the land cheap unlike the Civil Lines area. There was also ample land available in south Delhi, making room for future expansion.
British revenge on Calcutta
If the Bengali gentry in Calcutta didn’t care much about the separation of a few zonal areas from the Bengal Province in 1905, Delhi would probably have still been a medieval walled city basking in the lost glory of its Mughal heydays and “New Delhi” would never have happened.
But as history would have it, the Partition of Bengal—which took away Assam and the Muslim-dominated East Bengal from the Bengal Province and merged them into a new state—unleashed an era of tremendous political unrest in Calcutta between 1905 and 1911, and sealed the fate of this once bustling metropolis.
And that, consequently, paved the way for New Delhi.
The political reason—to divide Bengal among communal lines—was not hidden from anyone. Viceroy Lord George Curzon, in his letter to Secretary of State John Brodrick explained: “Calcutta is the centre from which the Congress Party is manipulated throughout the whole of Bengal, and indeed the whole of India. Its best wire pullers and its most frothy orators all reside here. They dominate public opinion in Calcutta…affect the High Court… frighten the local Government… their activity is directed to creating an agency so powerful that they may one day be able to force a weak government to give them what they desire.”
On the day of Partition in 1905, English newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika carried a news item titled “Calcutta in Mourning-A Unique Sight”. Large processions from various parts of Bengal gheraoed the Viceroy House for over a week even as the police resorted to violence. Such influential intellectuals as Rabindranath Tagore took to the streets in support.
The unrest ensured that Curzon was forced out of office in 1905 but Partition remained. The Swadeshi Movement took shape leading to mass boycott of British-made goods.
Secret armed societies sprang up in Calcutta and Dhaka. Sporadic guerrilla operations like bombings of centres of administration, murder and attempts of assassination of British bureaucrats made life hell for the machinery of governance in Bengal for half a decade.
The British had their revenge soon. In 1911, they reunited Bengal but shifted the Capital of the country from Calcutta to Delhi.
20 years of ‘Temporary Delhi’
Delhi was declared as the new capital of British India in 1911. The city, with its imposing buildings, was still two decades away.
In the 20 long years between the announcement by King George V on December 11, 1911, and the unveiling of New Delhi, the Imperial government of India managed its functions from buildings that were far less grand in north Delhi.
The area was known as ‘Temporary Delhi’. The present old Secretariat, constructed in 1912, is from where the government machinery functioned. The adjacent Council Chamber (now Delhi Vidhan Sabha) is where the Legislative Council was held, before construction of Council House (now Parliament House) in 1927.
The walled city and its suburbs like Karol Bagh were administered by a Municipal Committee, headed by a Chief Commissioner. The larger Delhi province was part of Punjab and was governed by a Lieutenant Governor sitting in Lahore. Civil Lines and adjacent areas, where the British lived, was part of the Municipality till 1911.
Once the Imperial government shifted here, 500 acres in north Delhi were added to the area and was governed by a notified area committee.
The site for New Delhi, under construction for many years, was looked after by an Imperial Delhi Committee, which had complete say over the construction and administration of the area.
With objections both in India and England over the amount of money spent on building New Delhi, the British were deterred from spending lavishly on the temporary capital. To set an example, the Viceroy himself stayed in a modest ‘circuit house’.
Over the next few years, Imperial Delhi or the ‘Delhi Enclave’ expanded to 1,290 sq miles, comprising the present day National Capital Territory. The move was fought tooth-and-nail by the Punjab government, whose land it was, over the inclusion of then far flung areas like Mehrauli and Najafgarh in the Imperial territory.
Delhi’s ‘Garden City’
The British wanted their Imperial capital in Delhi to be as magnificent as Imperial Rome. They also wanted it to be spacious, airy and green. The pollution and ‘smoke problem’ in Calcutta was already a serious issue and the British wanted a controlled and planned growth for Delhi.
The land east of Yamuna was acquired from United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) to be developed as a ‘garden city’ and become the lungs of New Delhi. There were plans to house government employees in the ‘Garden City’ on the site, what is now Shahdara.
Plans were also floated to dam Yamuna and create lakes on either side, lined by wide boulevards. That plan, however, didn’t fructify and later government housing too came up mostly in south Delhi.
The planned garden city is now an urban sprawl and the only planned housing in the area would only come up in the 1970s with the development of Mayur Vihar and Patparganj.
Henry Vaughan Lanchester, an architect hired as consultant by the Town planning committee, wanted the Yamuna to be an integral part of New Delhi. His report said the river should be linked to New Delhi through a ceremonial avenue.
Lanchester also suggested that Shahjehanabad should be integrated with the new political capital, to bring the vitality and soul of the existing city to New Delhi. These plans too didn’t see the light of the day.