But Delhi isn't 100 years old!

Published: 16 December, 2011 07:31 IST | Kanchan Gupta |

Never mind the party hats and the hoopla. Delhi is by no means hundred years old this week; it's far older than that

Never mind the party hats and the hoopla. Delhi is by no means hundred years old this week; it's far older than that. Trying to put an age to India's national capital would be akin to guessing the age of the Great Banyan at the botanical garden in Howrah. 

Folklore has it that the Great Banyan is 200 years old, but with the main trunk of the tree long gone (it was struck by lightning in 1925) there's no way its age can be proved or disproved. Two decades ago I had pointed out Adwaita, the giant Aldabra tortoise that used to be the main draw at Alipore Zoo in Kolkata, to my daughter and told her, "See, he is more than 200 years old." When Adwaita died in March 2006, the zoo director claimed he was 250 years old. 

In 1990 the residents of Calcutta, as Kolkata was then known, celebrated the city's tercentenary year with great fanfare. That was a miscalculated 300th birthday, premised on the mistaken belief that Kolkata came into existence when Job Charnock set up the headquarters of East India Company on the eastern bank of the river Hooghly. But Kalikata existed long before Charnock was born. The jagirdari rights of Kalikata, along with those of Gobindapur and Sutanuti, were secured by Charnock for a song from the Sabarna Roychowdhury family.

Descendants of the jagirdar rue that their ancestor knew how to wield a sword but not a pen, and insist that John Company swindled him. That, however, is inconsequential as far as determining Kalikata-turned-Calcutta-turned-Kolkata's age is concerned. What is important to note is that Kalikata's existence disproves the birth of Kolkata in 1690. 

Just as the Durbar of December 1911 does not prove that Delhi was born a hundred years ago. Neither did Delhi ever become the Second City of the Empire -- that distinction was never shared by Calcutta with any outpost of imperial Great Britain. Nor would it be correct to suggest that India's colonial masters elevated Delhi to the exalted status of India's capital: Others, including the Mughals, had ruled this country, or at least an overwhelmingly vast portion of it, from here. 

What, then, is Delhi celebrating? The Durbar? The coronation of King George V as the Emperor of India? The decision to shift the political headquarters of British India to New Delhi while Calcutta would remain the financial capital? If you ask around, nobody will be able to tell you what the celebrations are for, but chances are you will be invited to the party. Which reflects the poor sense of history that has been this nation's singular weakness.  Or else so much tamasha would not have been generated by the 100th anniversary of the third Durbar in British India. Much as Delhiwallahs would feel disappointed, they need to be told there were two similar events preceding the 1911 jamboree -- in 1877 and 1903. 

The Durbar of 1877, where Queen Victoria was hailed, in absentia, as Empress of India and which marked the formal transition of trading and political power from East India Company to Great Britain, was a restricted affair with minimal pomp and glory. Queen Victoria's message, a copy of which is preserved at Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, set the terms of engagement between the rulers and the ruled in the changed circumstances that followed the fall of Delhi after the false bravado of a derelict Mughal Emperor's delusional courtiers in 1857. 

"We trust that the present occasion may tend to unite in bonds of close affection ourselves and our subjects," Queen Victoria's message, read out by the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, pompously declared. Ganesh Vasudeo Joshi, the impetuous but polite leader of Pune Sarvajanik Sabha, promptly put in a petition: "We beg of Her Majesty to grant to India the same political and social status as is enjoyed by her British subjects." Needless to say, the Queen wasn't pleased by her native subject's effrontery.

Lord Curzon was not given to restraint or understatement. The two-week long pomp and pageantry he organised in 1903 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII (in absentia) as Emperor of India surpassed anything that the natives and their Maharajas and Rajas had seen. Eight years later, it was Durbar time once again. This time George V attended the celebrations and was ceremonially declared Emperor of India. If it was a dhoti-clad Brahmin from Pune who made the first Durbar memorable by demanding equal rights for Indian subjects, the second Durbar will be remembered for the sheer razmatazz of the show of imperial power. 

As for the third Durbar, held 100 years ago this week, it should be remembered for the Gaekwar of Baroda, Maharaja Sayyaji Rao, doing the unthinkable: Turning his back on the Emperor and Empress and showing them his brocade-clad posterior. Lord Hardinge didn't survive in office too long after that. Nor did the British Empire.

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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