An unmarked date reflects Indian ambivalence

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2011 7:11 AM
An unmarked date reflects Indian ambivalence

A century ago, in a tent city of 25,000 people built on the plains of north India, a new king stood before princes and maharajahs, soldiers and bureaucrats, and made a surprise announcement that would change the fate of this city. Delhi, the king said on that December day, would be the new capital of India.

"There was first of all a stunned silence in the audience," the British writer Geoffrey Moorhouse wrote of the announcement by Britain's King George V. "Then there was wild and incredulous cheering all around."

The decision would reshape this city, helping turn it from what was then an ancient fading city into an immense megalopolis, home to well over 16 million people.

But in a country where just about any anniversary is cause for an official celebration _ 150 years of the government comptroller's office, two years since the ruling coalition's election victory _ this obvious one is slipping past nearly unnoticed.

There are no parades or festivities to mark the Dec. 12, 1911 announcement, no speeches by parliamentarians.

There are just awkward statements that have shined a light on India's lingering ambivalence, and maybe even a little bitterness, toward its former colonial ruler.

In a country that sees itself as a rising world power, one anxious to prove that it has moved out of the shadow of Great Britain, no one wants to look as if they are celebrating colonial rule.

Politicians are loathe to come anywhere near the issue, and some of the remaining Indians who battled British rule before independence in 1947 have told top officials that they don't believe the day should be celebrated, according to someone familiar with those discussions.

"There is ambivalence on what to celebrate and how to celebrate," Sheila Dikshit, the equivalent of the New Delhi mayor, told the Times of India newspaper last month, saying she was waiting for federal culture officials to plan any festivities. Those officials, meanwhile, say they're planning some yet-to-be-announced festivities for 2012, but are studiously avoiding linking anything to the royal announcement.

In many ways, that's not surprising.

"Occupation is occupation," said O.P. Jain, a historian and retired top official with The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage, one of the country's top preservation groups. "It wasn't friendship" between India and Great Britain during colonial rule.

Still, he insists, there are ways the city can celebrate the anniversary. India and Britain are now close allies, he noted, and should be able to face their shared reality.

"You can't settle scores with history," he said.

In the years after independence, India has often viewed Britain with a confusing mix of awe and anger. Much of the Indian elite has long spoken English with accents picked up at Oxford and Cambridge, even as colonial Britain was dismissed as a tyrannical occupier in search of profits. Praise was only grudgingly given for the institutions that England left behind, from a vast administrative system to a vast railroad network.

But as India's economy grew, and its confidence increased along with it, that relationship has changed.

By 2010, when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited India, the former colony was widely seen in both countries as the dominant player.

So it's time, historians say, to accept events like the king's announcement, and how the two nations' histories are twined together.

"You're talking about an event that transformed the city of Delhi," said Sunil Raman, a journalist who has recently written a book about the 1911 Delhi Durbar, the immense gathering, at the tent city, when King George V came to India to be crowned Emperor.

It was during the durbar when the king also made his surprise statement. Not even the queen knew of the tightly held secret to shift the capital from Calcutta, where the British increasingly feared Bengali nationalists, to the city then simply called Delhi.

He also announced that a new city _ New Delhi _ would be built alongside the old. Today, most Indians refer to the entire town as New Delhi.

The durbar was an explosion of pageantry.

For the occasion, a temporary city was built on the undeveloped fringes of Delhi. The 40-square kilometer camp had thousands of plush tents for top British officials and hundreds of Indian royals. It had manicured lawns, its own postal system and its own electricity grid. It had a small-gauge rail network with 18 stops. The king and queen, draped in furs and jewels, greeted their subjects from an immense throne, watched over by tens of thousands of soldiers. Indian royals lined up to pay them homage.

The spectacle itself had been carefully orchestrated to "assert the supremacy of British rule," said Raman. "It was a show of strength, a show of might of the empire."

It was also a way to resurrect the grandeur of the ancient Moghul rulers, some of whom had used Delhi as a capital hundreds of years earlier.

That is part of the problem.

"Delhi has a history of being destroyed and rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt," with periods as a political capital that goes back more than 1,000 years, said Jain.

But he also understands the way politicians shy away from history. He began arguing years ago to fix up Coronation Park _ the dusty, overgrown and crumbling remnant of the durbar. But repeatedly, he said, politicians told him it would be "best to put on the shelf for awhile."

Standing in the park, it's hard to picture the spectacle it once saw.

There is a stone obelisk erected long ago by the British, sitting atop a series of now-pitted steps and marked with a sign proclaiming it the spot where the king received from his Indian subjects "their dutiful homage and allegiance."

There are also a cluster of five statues on crumbling red stone pedestals. There is a large one of the king and smaller ones of British officials, grim-looking men with ceremonial swords and fur capes.

The city began construction last year on a series of stone pathways and plazas at the park, but it is already behind schedule.

For now, though, the statues remain exposed and unrestored. Weeds sprout from the pedestal beneath the king's feet, the nose of another statue has been worn away. All are filthy.