Sunday, December 11, 2011
History is ignored
By Swapan Dasgupta
The British Empire was above all a celebration of protocol and pageantry-what the historian David Cannadine has called “ornamentalism”. This would explain the somewhat perfunctory treatment meted out by King George V and Queen Mary to the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, when he stepped on board the Medina in Bombay to welcome the only visit of a reigning King-Emperor to India on December 2, 1911. According to convention, the Viceroy of India was the direct representative of the Crown in India: he governed in the name of the King-Emperor. With the monarch now physically present in the Empire’s prize possession, the Viceroy was automatically relegated to the status of a mere Governor-General.
Bruised vanity wasn’t the only hiccup governing the visit. The British Cabinet, in the throes of a vicious encounter between the House of Commons and House of Lords over a high-tax Budget, was most reluctant to have the monarch away from Britain for such a long time — there was just no precedent. The King overruled the elected government peremptorily. “It was”, he said, “entirely my own idea”.
Queen Victoria, the original maharani, would have loved her grandson for the defiance. To her, India was the Jewel in the Crown. The government wasn’t pleased and flatly refused to pay for the costs of a new, bejewelled crown that would symbolise the King’s symbolic anointment as King-Emperor on Indian soil. There was a scheme to make the Indian princes pay but ultimately the bill for the £60,000 crown from Garrard, the Crown Jeweller on Regent Street, was footed by an ever-obliging government of India.
It wasn’t the Asquith government alone that was not amused. The Archbishop of Canterbury threw a minor tantrum when it was suggested that the crown be placed on his head by three princes — one Hindu, one Muslim and one Sikh. As Kenneth Rose noted in his biography of George V, “he argued that coronation implied consecration, and that in a land of Moslems and Hindus, any such act of Christian worship would be misplaced. It was therefore agreed that the King should arrive at the Durbar with the crown already on his head.”
So it was that at noon on December 12, 1911, that the King-Emperor and the Queen-Empress rode in state to the grand domed tent, flanked by Sir Pertap Singh, the Diwan of Jodhpur, and by reputation the wisest guardian of princely India. His carriage was preceded by a contingent of the 10th Hussars that trotted in to the venue where the band played the robust notes of “See, the conquering hero comes.”
Actually, it was an unlikely “conquering hero”. Two days before, there was a spectacular state entry of the King into Delhi and the 25 square mile tented township complete with ornate princely pavilions, metalled roads, railway lines, electricity and post offices that had been put into place in record. Based on the diaries of the 23-year-old Lilah Wingfield, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who travelled to India to experience the Empire in all its glory, writer Jessica Douglas-Home has provided an unflattering description of the first impressions of the King: “Curzon’s (1903 durbar) had been a show fit for the representative of the greatest sovereign on earth. But now, the first time a reigning British monarch had arrived in person on Indian soil, the Emperor of Emperors appeared as an insignificant, virtually invisible, figure, seated uneasily on a small bay horse surrounded by taller, more imposing and better mounted military men.”
“As the lonely figure of the King rode anonymously down the processional route into the mile-long Chandni Chauk, the crowds looked at the Queen in all her glory and came to the conclusion that she must have left His Imperial Majesty behind in England.”
Unfortunately for Hardinge, possessed by a fanatical desire to demonstrate that Lord Curzon’s 1903 Durbar wasn’t the last word in awesome pageantry, there was another boo-boo in the offing. In the ceremonial genuflection of 475 Indian princes before their King-Emperor, Gaekwad of Baroda deviated from the script. Minutes before he was to appear, he took off his ceremonial jewels and dressed as a Maratha gentleman, walked up to throne, bowed and then — horror of horrors — instead of taking the mandatory seven steps backward, turned his back and walked away, “nonchalantly twirling a gold-topped walking stick”. There was, wrote Douglas-Home, “a murmur of dismay” from the crowd.
An equal gasp of surprise greeted the King’s announcement, kept a fiercely guarded secret, that the capital would be transferred to Delhi from Calcutta. “The Times correspondent visited 10 of the camps and informed his readers that the announcement of the new capital was being received without enthusiasm. Some blamed the Calcutta monsoon, others suggested that it was a reflection of a British intention to remain permanently in India. It was believed by some that Calcutta had been chosen as the seat of power because it would be easy to leave by sea in case of an uprising.”
An uprising, however, was the last thing on anyone’s mind. The only show of people’s power occurred when, after the King had departed to his tent “rather tired after wearing the crown for three hours” and a 101-gun salute. A huge crowd of Indians broke the cordon, rushed to the durbar tent and were seen kissing the ground on which their raja and rani had walked. A Tibetan Lilah Wingfield encountered said he had travelled four months to be in Delhi to get a glimpse of the King!
The next day the foundation stone of New Delhi was lowered into a plinth by the King in front of a small audience of 500. “To loud applause the Maharaja of Gwalior offered to give the plinth a statue of the King Emperor.” From faraway London, Lord Curzon decried the move to shift the capital to Delhi — “the graveyard of empires”.
The Durbar was the most important event in India a century ago. It was a great moment for a Raj that would not endure for more than 36 years and which would never really settle down to a New Delhi that was formally inaugurated in 1931. But it was also a moment in India’s history that will live on despite the contrived derision of the “post-colonial” mind. The Raj’s Delhi is as much a show of India as is Shahjehanabad, the creation of rulers who came from Central Asia.
The latter is celebrated; the former isn’t even commemorated. That’s why India has no sense of history, only an overdose of hateful politics.