Delhi, the brash, bustling Indian capital of today, was, in effect, born in 1947. In the wake of India’s hellish Partition, thousands of Muslims fled, while Hindu and Sikh refugees poured in. Delhi took in nearly half a million refugees from Pakistan in those heady but brutal months before and after August, 1947. Large parts of today’s Delhi grew out of the refugee camps that sprung up along its limits 69 years ago.
In 1942, little existed beyond Civil Lines, a British-era neighborhood known for its “European-style hotels,” including the famous Maidens Hotel. North of that was a vast tract of empty land on “Kingsway.” This was earmarked for the Viceroy’s house (which later became the Rashtrapati Bhavan), which was eventually built on Raisina Hill. Kingsway itself would become home to the Kingsway Camp, Delhi’s largest refugee camp.
By 1956, Delhi’s northern limits expanded. The Indian government had allotted 2,000 acres of land to the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation to permanently resettle refugees, according to the 1951 Delhi Census. One of the earliest such colonies to come up was Vijay Nagar, west of Civil Lines. Model Town, further up, and to the west, was also on the map by then. Kingsway Camp, which is still on the map, would eventually become Guru Teg Bahadur or GTB Nagar.
In the early 1940s, Lodhi Road could have been South Delhi. There were hardly any roads, let alone neighborhoods, beyond it. Even Lodhi Colony, the last residential area to be built by the British, wasn’t on the map yet because it was only completed in the 1940s.
By the middle of the 1950s, refugees moved into empty flats in Lodhi Colony and built homes around the villages in Nizamuddin and Jangpura: all of it on what was once the deserted south side of Lodhi Road. Change was also afoot deeper in Lutyens’ Delhi. In 1951, Khan Market opened. The shops on the ground floor, and the flats above, were all owned by refugees.
The South Delhi of today was agricultural land in the 1940s, until the government started buying land there to permanently resettle refugees. Officials from the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation drove through these parts, and even rode through on horseback, inspecting land for refugee colonies.
By 1956, southern Delhi began to take shape with the appearance of Lajpat Nagar and Defence Colony. But the rest of what forms South Delhi today was not on the map yet. Barring Malviya Nagar in the far south, where land had been allocated for industries, the South Delhi of 1956 was still largely made up of villages and splendid, ghostly tombs.
West Patel Nagar
Before 1947, Karol Bagh was Delhi’s western limit. West of that was an expanse of empty land heavily dotted with trees in parts. That is where all of West Delhi lies today.
Land in western Delhi was allotted to refugees after 1947. These refugee colonies, U-shaped with a park in the middle, became the template for subsequent neighborhoods, partly because they were built by the same urban planners who shaped Delhi through the 50s and 60s. But this was the beginning of Rajinder Nagar, West Patel Nagar, Moti Nagar, Rajouri Gardens: overwhelmingly Punjabi neighborhoods that are today quintessentially Delhi.
A decade from independence, Delhi was a different city. Wilderness and agricultural fields began to give way to residential suburbs, commercial markets and industrial zones. The population doubled: a spurt that hasn’t been seen since, according to the Census. But the Muslim share of the population plunged from 33 percent to less than 6 percent.
“The city that was once a Mughal city, then a British city, had by the 1950s emphatically become a Punjabi city,” according to historian V.N. Dutta. The adjectives for Delhi also changed: what was once stately, languid and literary became boisterous, hearty and enterprising. And its map was transformed.
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