Delhi’s century-long tryst with dissent, from Queen’s Garden to Jantar Mantar
From the British era to Independent India, Delhi has served protesters from all sections at different locations. Take a look at how different locations in Delhi have hosted protests over decades.
Mass protests became prevalent in Delhi alongside a series of social changes taking place in the city around 100 years ago, particularly after the capital shifted here from Kolkata. From hartals and satyagraha against the British rule, to movements after independence like the Emergency protests, kisan agitations, Mandal Commission protests, Jan Lokpal andolan, and the December 16 gangrape protests, Delhi has witnessed several shakeups that have had far-reaching social consequences. Because of the city’s expansion in the last 70 years and with concerns about security, the venue for such events has undergone several changes.
With the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banning dharnas at Jantar Mantar, which has served as the unofficial site for demonstrations for the last 25 years, Hindustan Times tracks the history of places for assembly and dissent across Delhi.
Gandhi’s salt satyagraha
On the final day of ‘Dandi Satyagraha’ when Mahatma Gandhi produced salt from seawater in the coastal village of Gujarat on April 6, 1930, scores of Delhi residents gathered at the banks of Yamuna to defy the British legislation introducing tax on salt production.
A few of them were subsequently arrested. However, the satyragrahis soon outnumbered policemen and the force had to back off.
The same day, a public meeting was held at Queen’s Garden (now called Azad Park) located behind Town Hall in Chandni Chowk to mobilise support for the movement. The gathering here was addressed by senior city leaders of the time including Desh Bandhu Gupta, who pledged allegiance to the Mahatma.
Queen’s Garden had become the epicentre of the freedom movement where political activities and agitations were frequently held after the imperial capital was shifted from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911.
It was at Queen’s Garden when Kasturba Gandhi, on June 22, 1930, urged the nation to join the freedom movement after Mahatma Gandhi was arrested.
Several public meetings during Khilafat and non-cooperation movement were also organised at Pataudi House near Daryaganj. It was here, that Mahatma asked people to boycott foreign goods, government services, schools, and colleges in November, 1921.
Several such incidents are documented in the book ‘Struggle for Freedom, the Role of Delhi: 1919-1934’ by Reva Dhanedhar, director of History division at the Ministry of Defence.
Sporadic protests would also be held at Town Hall Clock Tower, Feroz Shah Kotla, Jama Masjid, and in a park opposite the old St Stephen’s College building at Kashmere Gate. In the 1920s, a few rallies were organised outside the then city limits at a ground in Karampura, now west Delhi.
Mirza Nasim Changezi (107), a freedom fighter living in Old Delhi, says indoor meetings were held at the residences of nationalists in the Walled City — Dr MA Ansari (Daryaganj), Hakim Ajmal Khan (Ballimaran), Asaf Ali (Kucha Chelaan), or Jugal Kishore Khanna (Dariba), which were frequently attended by Moti Lal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Maulana Mohammad Ali, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and Mahatma Gandhi.
“Freedom fighters would also meet secretly at Fateh Garh in northern ridge area near Hindu Rao Hospital. The other places were the residences of Nawab Bangash at Chitli Qabr or Nawab Loharu’s havelis in Gali Qasim Jaan, where they schemed against the British administration. Meetings were held under the garb of mushaira and in the end, the messages were delivered,” says Changezi, who claims to have worked closely with Bhagat Singh.
Protest at Parliament House
As the character of protest changed post-independence, the concentration of dissenters also shifted to from Old Delhi to New Delhi, the seat of power. Agitators would often march till the gates of Parliament House to express disagreement with government decisions.
Recalling his initial days of political activism in the 1950-60s, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader professor Vijay Kumar Malhotra (86) says there were no security issues back then. “We could gather right at the threshold of Parliament House or Vijay Chowk,” he said.
“Many of us would take scooters till the gates of Parliament House. I participated in agitations against the government decision of auctioning of plots and dwelling units to migrants. We would carry portable microphones. Sometimes, parliamentarians came out to hear our grievances,” Malhotra said.
Violence during demonstration seeking cow protection in 1966 led to restrictions on dharnas at Parliament, he adds.
“Some protestors tried to scale the gates of Parliament House. To control the crowd, the police had to resort to firing which killed 5-6 people. After the incident, protesters were barred from reaching the gates,” he says.
OP Jain (88), heritage conservator, says for big political rallies, Ramlila Maidan was the venue of choice. However, he adds, people who wanted their voices to be “heard”, would go to Patel Chowk, or sometimes they managed to reach the PTI Building at 4, Sansad Marg, near Parliament House.
“The presence of All India Radio and the offices of news agencies lured protestors to march towards Patel Chowk,” he says, adding that there were hardly any non-political protests at the time.
Till 1960-70s, Ramlila Maidan also served as the venue for non-ceremonial state functions. In 1961, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru hosted Queen Elizabeth II here during her state visit.
Former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri delivered his slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”, in 1965 at Ramlila Maidan and a mammoth rally led by Jayaprakash Narayan was also held here in June, 1975, before Emergency was imposed.
Meanwhile, small-scale or union protests continued around offices of ministries and those who wanted to “gherao” the Parliament would throng the Boat Club near Rajpath.
Former Doordarshan anchor, Shammi Narang (61), said that while large agitations were organised at Ramlila Maidan, sometimes at Rajghat or Boat Club, small marches were carried out in New Delhi.
“No such event would take place then like we have at Jantar Mantar now. Employees of different ministries or departments would gather outside their respective offices to raise their voice. Industrial labour would stage sit-ins outside their factories,” says Narang, who read news on DD for 19 years.
He adds that dissenters from outside Delhi would usually camp at Rajghat. “Maybe, Rajghat was the obvious choice as it was conveniently located near the (Old and New Delhi) railway stations and the interstate bus terminal at Kashmere Gate. At that time, there were no political provocations to reach to heart of the city,” he adds.
Ban on Boat Club agitation
Around the 1980s, the Boat Club became the most sought-after venue for a show of strength. However, the government imposed ban on any gathering at the Boat Club in 1993 following the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid movement.
Another reason for the ban was the violent 1988 kisan agitation led by powerful western Uttar Pradesh (UP) leader Mahendra Singh Tikait. Demanding higher sugarcane prices and waiving of electricity and water charges, farmers who were camping at Raj Ghat initially thronged the Boat Club. Around five lakh protesters are reported to have reached India Gate lawns riding bullock carts where they camped for a week with their cattle. The sprawling lawns along Rajpath virtually became open toilets for cattle.
“They created a kind of blockade at Rajpath. Soon, the agitation turned violent. The central part of the city was virtually cut off from the rest. Several policemen were injured, after which the government decided not to allow such assemblies at Rajpath,” says retired IPS officer Amod Kanth (69), who was then posted as deputy commissioner of police (DCP) crime at headquarters.
After the restriction on assemblage at Boat Club, a handful of events were organised behind Red Fort on Ring Road and in Burari briefly. However, soon after, the agitations were moved back to New Delhi where they were located currently — Jantar Mantar.