Another Modi message to Delhi from Lutyens on transfer of power
Why did Indira Gandhi choose to erect a memorial to the soldiers who gave their lives for the Bangladesh war right under the arch of this monument to the colonial army, India Gate? And why did PM Modi choose to extinguish his fire and melt it into another eternal flame that formally breaks with any memory of the Raj?
To understand this, we need to go back to the tensions that underpinned the formation of the independent Indian state.
But first, a detour on an early morning in August 1965. Two days before Independence Day. Prime Minister Shastri was probably awake, pondering General Jayanto Chaudhuri’s reports on how ready Indian soldiers were against their Pakistani counterparts. In another three weeks, India would push their advantage and nearly encircle Lahore.
But that day, in the heart of Lutyens Delhi, a motley crew of Samyukta Socialist Party activists were on their way to fight their own battle. Armed with buckets of tar, a ladder and a few hammers, they marched in silence to the India Gate, overpowered two soldiers, knocked out one, climbed onto the imposing statue of King George V under the canopy adjoining, tarred his face, hacked off his crown, chipped his nose and ears, and hung a picture of Subhash Chandra Bose on it. After winning their symbolic victory, the group disappeared into the night.
The act was universally criticized by English-language newspapers. Frank Moraes, father of poet Dom Moraes, a Gandhi pukka sahib, who was editor of the Indian Express, called it “perverse patriotism”. In this his views were no different from those of Nehru or Sardar Patel. As Home Secretary, Patel had formally chastised the Bombay government for caring about British monuments when there were far more pressing matters to attend to. Nehru had an even more accommodating attitude towards the symbols of the Raj, seeing British statues and monuments as an integral part of Indian history.
This surprised many foreign visitors to New Delhi at that time. President Eisenhower would comment in 1959 on a visit to the capital: “When I noticed an impressive statue of King George V standing in a prominent spot near the palace, I couldn’t help but wonder if we , in our early days of independence, would have tolerated a statue of King George III between us.”
The magnanimous approach that India’s new ruling elite had towards the relics of the Raj had a lot to do with the strand of the ruling classes that dominated the power system when we became independent. The nationalist elite consisted of three major groups – merchants and industrialists, large regional landowners, and the bureaucratic-managerial-intellectual class that occupied the state apparatuses. Since neither the capitalist class nor the landowners had enough strength to rule on their own, the bureaucratic-managerial elite gained significant autonomy in the direction of state power.
This domination did not happen overnight. It took several years of struggle before the bureaucratic and managerial elite could establish themselves at the heights of politics, economics and civil society. This struggle also found its parallel in the Congress party, in the battles between the government led by Nehru and the party satraps. In his fight against the more conservative elements within the Congress party, Nehru increasingly recruited apolitical members of the elite to his side. Among them were English-trained technocrats, planners and former ICS officers who were until recently loyal to the British Raj.
The ruling elite saw themselves as a “social bureaucracy” that would modernize and develop India from above. He looked to England for inspiration in liberal values and individual rights, and to the Soviet Union for its egalitarian impulses. It was not surprising that they favored the structure that the colonial state had built, especially its systems for collecting knowledge, enumerating people, linking different parts of the country, promoting trade . It was naïve anti-colonialism that believed in the empowering mission of Western Enlightenment discourse and saw the Raj as a perversion of the true spirit of liberal democracy.
Indira Gandhi was no different. For her, there was both a disjunction and a continuity between the Raj and independent India. It was therefore natural that the heroes of the Bangladesh war should be remembered in an unbroken chain of all the military heroes who came before them. What better place for that than India Gate? Even the aesthetic of the Amar Jawan Jyoti, which was inaugurated on Republic Day 1972, is one piece with the rest of Lutyens Delhi. It is spartan and austere in design, grand and imposing in effect.
As I have argued in the past, the hegemony of the bureaucratic and managerial “Lutyens elite” has steadily weakened over the past 35 years. Now, under Narendra Modi, we are in the final stages of ousting him from the halls of power. The mercantile and entrepreneurial elite, which initially played the role of second fiddle to the “Lutyens elite”, are now in complete control of the state. It must reimagine the place of power with a new materiality, with a new semiotics of authority.
This includes a new state architecture in the center of Delhi, which is the whole point of the Central Vista project. The new “Central Vista elite” must also produce their own nationalist rituals, their own traditions of harnessing state power. This is why the Amar Jawan Jyoti must be extinguished and “merged” into the new Jyoti at the National War Memorial. It’s also why “Abide With Me”, a Christian hymn that was a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, is to be dropped from the list of tunes to be played at the Beating the Retreat ceremony.
The “Lutyens elite”, and those who were part of its ecosystem of power, see their way of life being systematically dismantled around them. They see him as philistines and upstarts attacking the symbols of modern India, much like the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha to make a political statement to the world. The old elite knows that these are all surgical strikes aimed at depriving them of their rights and disempowering them, since they are no longer of any use to the propertied classes. Their flame is extinguished.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Editor of NDTV’s Hindi News and Business Channels.)
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