On December 12,1911 an event happened that highlighted the ambivalence that Indians have about the colonial rule of England. On December 12, 1911, at a tent city of some 25,000 Indians, British King George V made a proclamation that began the construction of New Dehli as the capital of India, a decision to move the capital from Calcutta (where the British feared unfriendly Bengali politics ) to the old Mogul capital of Dehli, which had largely gone to seed after the decline of the Mogul Empire in the 18th century.
So, why the ambivalence? For one, it’s hard for nations to honor their old colonial masters. The way the British tell the story, with 25,000 happy and cheering subjects showing respect for their king, is definitely not an image that the still rather-insecure and corrupt republic of India wants to showcase. India is a nation that has a lot of people but is still looking for unity, still insecure about the fact that such unity as it has is based largely on the use of the English language (a legacy of English rule), and which still has not come to terms with its past or its identity.
None of this is unique. India is far from the only large post-colonial holding that has a struggle for unity and cohesion. And clearly it has done a lot better than some nations–it has not fallen into military dictatorship, and it has a functioning democracy, even if it’s not necessarily a transparent one. As it happened, India celebrates a lot of really pointless anniversaries but does not wish to celebrate this major one. There must be something about this British decision, and the fact that India’s independent nation has used the last British capital for their own, that makes it somewhat problematic.
After all, the United States, in choosing a capital, ultimately decided to build a city out of swampland. France and England chose their obvious “primate” cities. Thailand’s Chakri monarchs chose a city with patriotic battles that had been a provincial town under the Ayuttaya Empire. Nigeria and Brazil also ended up carving out new cities in order to try to avoid the rivalries and internal divisions of the past. How a nation chooses its capital, or decides to move it, reflects its ambitions either to carry on the past in some fashion (like the basically Conservative decisions of nations like Chile and Mexico to keep their colonial capitals as national capitals), or to make a revolutionary break with the past.
By choosing to continue the last colonial capital, with its links to the Mogul Empire before the British, the Indians made a conservative decision. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is a fact that needs to be recognized, and the fact that India is avoiding it suggests some degree of embarrassment about their decision. If India wants to come to terms with its past and recognize it, an open admission of why India followed the lead of the British and some recognition of how New Dehli came to be is in order. One does not have to glorify empires (none of them end up really all that decent in the end–all empires are about domination and coercion), just simply recognize their importance in the world that is, even long after they are gone. We must face the demons of the past before we can exorcize them, after all.