Welcome to the Imperial City: Modi sarkar’s bizarre proposal to rename Delhi


April 6, 2015

NEW DELHI, INDIA – British socialite and politician Nancy Astor may have been a bit of a maverick but she was not much off the mark when she said, "The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything… or nothing.''

April 6, 2015

NEW DELHI, INDIA – British socialite and politician Nancy Astor may have been a bit of a maverick but she was not much off the mark when she said, "The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything… or nothing.''

One was reminded of Astor's warning on reading that the Modi Government, in a rush to "change everything'', now plans to junk even Delhi's historical name for no obvious pressing reason.

And,it will have not one, but two names. One for Lutyens' New Delhi (home to ministers, senior civil servants, diplomats, and fashionable hotels), and another for the 400-year-old Mughal-era walled city that generations of Delhites grew up calling Old Delhi.

If the move goes through, New Delhi will be rechristened as the "Imperial City of Delhi", and Old Delhi as the "Imperial City of Shahjehnabad".

Of course, Delhi is not the first city facing the threat of an abrupt name-change. It will join a long list of major cities – Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Pune – which have been renamed for various reasons. But renaming the national Capital is in a different league altogether.

At this point, you might like to know the reason behind this unprovoked rebranding exercise. For, unlike in the case of other cities which have been through this, there has been no public demand or campaign to rename Delhi on ethnic or nationalistic grounds. Even prickly foreign investors – the great invisible elephant at the heart of every government decision these days-are perfectly ok doing business with good old Delhi.

So, what's going on?

Well, it seems that the government has suddenly discovered that the old name is not sexy enough to attract Western tourists. "Imperial'', it believes, would do the trick. A notion has gone round that London taxi drivers and New York pensioners, scouring for a sunny tourist destination over Christmas holidays, would find the charms of an "Imperial" tag more irresistible.

"Honey, we're heading for the Imperial City of Delhi this winter…Damn the Bahamas and the beaches of Bali".

The bureaucratic brains behind the move have also convinced themselves that harking back to Delhi's imperial past would persuade UNESCO to grant it the status of a heritage city which, it hopes, would in turn boost international tourism.

The Hindu quoted official sources as saying that the idea "has been mooted with an eye on the efforts to earn 'Heritage tag' from UNESCO''.

"The nomination dossier, seeking Heritage tag for Lutyens' zone sent to UNESCO names the area as Imperial City of New Delhi. Similarly, the Walled City of Delhi is named in the dossier as the Imperial City of Shahjehanabad. In order to weed out any inconsistency when the UNESCO team is going through the verification process, a request has been made to the (Delhi Development) Authority to rename these areas, an official said," the paper reported.

The problem is that UNESCO has very stringent rules for determining whether a city qualifies for the Heritage tag and a city's name is not one of them. Havana, Rome and Timbuktu didn't have to sex up their nomenclature to earn the status of World Heritage cities. They qualified because they met UNESCO's ten-point guidelines for what a Heritage City should be like.

I am not sure if Delhi's bureaucracy has read the rules carefully. If it had, it might have thought twice before taking the plunge.

UNESCO demands that in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List, a city /site must be of "outstanding universal value"; "represent a masterpiece of human creative genius"; "bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared"; " be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape…" ; "contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance"; "contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity…"

These are only a few of the criteria, and at first glance it doesn't seem that Delhi fits any of these.

A motley collection of indifferently-maintained tourist sites doesn't add up to World Heritage. If old buildings and monuments were enough to get the nod, Mumbai, Kolkata, Lucknow, Jaipur – even Varanasi – would be more suitable candidates than Delhi, especially, the Lutyens' zone which over the years has got cluttered with ugly skyscrapers clashing with Lutyens' original low-rise design. The once-majestic colonnaded Connaught Place is now a dump-sleazy, filthy, unsafe, surrounded by shabby office tower blocks and reeking of decay.

Old Delhi has a better claim but most of its historical sites and places of cultural interest are a mess. Delhi's famous poet Mirza Ghalib's "haveli'' in Ballimaranwas a godown when I last saw it; and the grave of another of its great poets Zauq was bulldozed to build a urinal on it!

The shameful reality is that Delhi has done a poor job of looking after its heritage, and a city which has such little sense of history and treats its cultural legacy with such contempt doesn't deserve a heritage status.

Meanwhile, a word about this mania for renaming. Which always reminds me of Stalinist-era revisionism. Now, we all know that our Prime Minister has a thing for rebranding. But, renaming Planning Commission and schemes he doesn't like is one thing while renaming the country's capital city without a good solid reason is quite another.

It is not unknown for governments to rename their capital cities as the Chinese did switching from Peking to Beijing; or even for a country to reinvent itself -Ceylon/Sri Lanka; Burma/Myanmar; Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe etc. But these changes were prompted by historical reasons – decolonization, partition, secession, and splits and mergers caused by civil wars.

None of this applies to Delhi. And what a name to go for! Democratic India's national capital to be known as "Imperial City''. It's a city where less fanatically nationalistic administrations than Narendra Modi's have worked overtime to erase reminders of its colonial past by Indianising British street names. And now a proud Hindu nationalist comes along and wants to put "Imperial'' back into Delhi.

More appropriate would be to restore to it its ancient name, Indraprastha, a sort of "ghar wapsi". At least it would be more authentic (calling it Imperial City sounds as tacky as that school in Meerut which calls itself Oxford English-medium school), and gel well with the prevailing nostalgia for ancient India, and its miracles.

But, really, the whole idea is absurd. As Americans like to say, "don't fix it, if it ain't broke". And New Delhi is doing fine, thank you.

Courtesy: Firstpost