A building that bore witness to the odyssey of democratic India
The need for the building was born out of the constitutional reforms of 1919 known also as the Montagu Chelmsford Reforms.
Nostalgia vied for space with politics on Monday as the special session of Parliament opened to bid farewell to the grand colonial building that nurtured a nascent democracy into the formidable behemoth that it is today, safeguarding the drafters of India’s founding document, the Constitution, on its way.
Inside those hallowed chambers, lawmakers gathered one final time for a special discussion on 75 years of our nation’s parliamentary journey. Participating in the debate, Members of Parliament (MPs) reflected on the momentous events in the 97-year-old circular building. Since the discussion was a precursor to the shift to the new triangular structure, they fondly looked back at their association with the iconic edifice.
The circular Parliament House is unique. It was a late addition to the plan for the New Capital of Delhi. The need for the building was born out of the constitutional reforms of 1919 – known also as the Montagu Chelmsford Reforms – that mandated a larger legislative institution and significantly more power to central and provincial legislatures. Inherent in this was the need to accommodate the influx of incoming lawmakers that would create a semblance of self-rule in what was essentially a colony subservient to London.
The city’s planning committee and architects, Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens, had to integrate a new building into the plan. To buy time, British officers came up with two temporary solutions. One was to house the legislative assembly in a shamiana or tent. The other was to remodel an existing building to accommodate the new legislative body. Better sense prevailed, and the administration felt that accommodating “members under canvas would tend to give the new legislative procedure a start under unfavourable conditions”. The administration proceeded with the second proposal and constructed a larger council chamber in the secretariat building (currently the Delhi legislative assembly). In 1921, this became the venue of the first central legislative assembly.
The city’s planning committee then asked Baker to design a new building for the bicameral legislature, as envisaged by the 1919 reforms. It identified a diamond-shaped site at the base of Raisina Hill for the new building. Baker made plans for a triangular structure appropriate for the site. But his design was rejected by the committee, which, on the suggestions of Lutyens, was in favour of a circular structure. Pleading his case for a triangular building, Baker wrote a lengthy memorandum to the committee.
“The criticism of the previous triangular plan was that its form had been dictated less by the nature of the buildings than by the geometrical limitations of the site. The criticism applies with equal, if not greater, force to the present circular plan and whereas in the former the visible dome uniting the three chambers would have at least given some expression the nature of the building, no such dome is possible in the circular plan, and it is a matter for consideration whether this circular form of building however beautiful it may be made in itself, will give distinct impression to the sentiment of the national Parliament which India will look for in this building,” he noted.
“Moreover, the site as a whole demand at least one, if not three more such circular buildings, which will probably be used for mere overflow accommodation from the secretariat, so that the Parliament House of India may be indistinguishable in general external appearances from other comparatively unimportant buildings in its neighbourhood,” Baker wrote, summing up his objections.
He even produced alternative designs for the committee’s consideration but could not convince them. The committee finalised the circular design, and Baker and his team immersed themselves into designing the Parliament building and its legislative chambers. The Duke of Connaught laid the foundation stone of the building in 1921.
Meanwhile, Indian members in the central legislative assembly were fed up with the rising expenses of constructing the new capital city. One member, criticising the project, said, “We have no right to feed our aesthetic sentiments at the expense of the poor taxpayers of India. And I cannot find any justification whatsoever why we should think that we should be better housed ... when we really know that the country is actually starving and suffering not only in the sun, but I would say that many of them are quite unhoused ...”
As an architect, Baker was more culturally sensitive than Lutyens. While on assignment in India, he had travelled extensively to inform himself about the country’s traditions and cultures. His travels added elements of Indian architecture to his design. Unlike the more functional secretariat buildings or the luxurious Governor General’s house, the Parliament building presented technical challenges. For example, Baker designed semi-circular legislative chambers with high domes. His idea was that such a chamber would allow for more constructive legislative debates. He procured sound absorbent tiles from the United States of America to ensure better acoustics in the legislative chamber. But the high domes in the building created a peculiar problem – fans could not be hung from the top, and inverted floor fans had to be installed in the Houses
The construction of the building would take six years, and it was one of the first buildings to be inaugurated in the capital city of New Delhi. Baker gave Governor-General Lord Irwin a ceremonial golden key with which he opened the doors in 1927.
Through the tumultuous 1940s, the building anchored the Constituent Assembly even as the freedom movement and the storm of Partition raged outside. And once India was free, it provided a safe refuge to what was an audacious experiment in democracy. In India’s journey as a nation, the circular building gradually came to embody democratic traditions – one that few had given a chance at the moment of the country’s birth.
But as the debate on 75 years of our parliamentary journey also highlighted on Monday, fault lines have also opened up in the national legislature. The bitterness in discussions and the lack of accommodation are a cause for concern. As the old building hands over the baton to the new, the only way to ensure that India’s hallowed tradition of robust grassroots democracy – a model for the world – endures is to engage more actively with the institution of Parliament.
In 1956, the second Speaker of Lok Sabha, MA Ayyangar, released a small booklet introducing young readers to the institution, and held out an advice.
“The common men and women who are the real rulers in the parliamentary form of government have to be told what Parliament symbolises, what it stands for, and how it represents the hopes and aspirations of the people,” he wrote.
That moment is now.