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India: The Perils of Democracy

The Idea of India

by Sunil Khilnani
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 263 pp., $22.00

The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India

by Christophe Jaffrelot
Columbia University Press, 592 pp., $32.50

Chandigarh is Great
Because it has a thought embedded in its Foundations
To generate a System
To generate an Order
To show a Way
To enrich Life1


One of the oddest bits of information I picked up in Chandigarh, the capital of Haryana and Punjab, designed more or less from scratch by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s, was that none of its trees is from India. I was told that every tree in this modern garden city in northwest India was transplanted from abroad. I don’t know whether this is strictly true; probably not, but it is the sort of thing you would hear in Chandigarh. Like the rather pleasant but wholly manmade Sukhna Lake, it adds yet another touch of artificiality to a completely invented town of geometrical roundabouts and avenues with names like V-2 Vertical or V-4 Horizontal. “Chandigarh,” exclaimed an Indian academic whom I visited in Delhi, “is a symbol of all that is inauthentic about modern urban India.”

It depends, of course, on what one means by inauthentic. The idea of Chandigarh, conceived by Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister at the time of the city’s (and post-imperial India’s) birth, was that it should be a new town, “symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past…an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” The Indian past was stained by centuries of humiliation. The Mughal style of Muslim invaders certainly wouldn’t do for a new Indian republic, nor would the Gothic or Indo-Saracenic fripperies of the British Raj. And since Nehru’s vision was of a modern, secular, democratic, internationalist state, some revamped Hindu style was hardly fitting either. Nehru, as Sunil Khilnani observes in his splendid book about definitions of the Indian nation, wanted India “to move forward by one decisive act that broke both with its ancient and its more recent history.” And so the city was built in the rationalist, International style, on an empty plain, after the removal of a few hundred villagers who would only budge once they had been reassured that they would be shot if they refused—thus government authority was proved to be genuine.

Le Corbusier had been waiting all his life for a leader like Nehru. He always had wanted to build a grand monument or, better still, an entire city for a brave new world: the Palace of the League of Nations in 1927, the Palace of Soviets in 1931, “Radiant Cities” for Mussolini and Marshal Pétain, the United Nations headquarters in 1947. But all these plans came to nothing. Now, at last, in 1950, when two representatives of the Punjab government, Chief Engineer P.L. Varna and Public Works Administrator P.N. Thapar, knocked on his door at 35, rue de Sèvres, in Paris, his chance had come. “Corbu” started on a typically imperious note. When invited to work in India, he told his guests that he could design their city just as well in Paris, and sent them off to Marseilles to admire his famous apartment building, Unité d’Habitation.

In the event, Corbu did go to India, twenty-two times. The basic plan for the city of Chandigarh was drawn up in a matter of hours. Corbu arrived, took out a sheet of paper and a crayon, and declared: “Voici la tête,” marking down the government buildings, “et voilà l’estomac, le cité-centre.” He knew his mind. “Doctrine,” he liked to say, “triumphs, and leads us along.” That is to say, Corbu’s doctrine. He enjoyed working in India. He found the workers, including women beavering away in colorful saris, “picturesque.” They were also very cheap. Workers were paid a pittance and were not even housed. But as Corbu remarked, “the advantage of slavery in high and noble works of architecture”2 was that one could change one’s mind on the spot, without worrying about escalating costs.

Corbu, then, was, as Khilnani dryly states, “an odd choice as democratic India’s first architect.” Yet he and Nehru seem to have understood each other, and played parallel roles. Khilnani, a political scientist who is currently working on Nehru’s biography, argues that constitutional democracy, based on universal suffrage, was handed down to his people by Nehru, not because of any great popular demand for it, but because Nehru believed in it. Having set up the institutions of democracy, Nehru would act as a kind of benevolent guide in secular politics: through practice, Indians would gradually get used to the mechanics of democracy. The tools—and buildings—came first, the rest would follow. The core of Khilnani’s argument is that Nehru’s political idea of India, focused on the state, was the one thing all Indians, whatever their caste or creed, would have in common. “The state,” in Khilnani’s words, “etched itself into the imagination of Indians in a way that no previous political agency had ever done.”

Just so, Corbu saw himself as a “friendly shepherd,” a berger amical, for aspiring Indian architects. Peter the Great brought European architects to St. Petersburg to show Russians how to build a civilized city, and in the process import modern European civilization itself. Chandigarh was Nehru’s Petersburg, and Corbu was his civilizer. It was as though the buildings would forge a new attitude to politics, to culture, to life.

One of the criticisms most often made of both Nehru and Corbu was their disregard for Indian conditions and traditions. If only Nehru’s idea of India had “reflected” the religious and cultural feelings of ordinary Indians more, so I was told by several intelligent people in India, the current backlash of Hindu chauvinism might never have come.

But it is unclear just how such feelings ought to have been reflected in government. Even the Hindu chauvinists are confused and divided over this. Some simply want to bash Muslims, while others want to turn India into a Hindu state. But since Hindus are a highly diverse people, with many different sects, and Hinduism never was a unified religion in the way of Islam or Christianity, the idea of a Hindu state has to be vague at best. Gandhi’s vision of India as a spiritual village society still has its admirers, but it is hardly practical.

Khilnani’s book is a masterful rebuttal to all cultural romantics and religious chauvinists. I think he is right when he says that Nehru “fully recognized the depth and plurality of religious beliefs in India. It was precisely this that convinced him of the need to keep social identities outside the political arena.” Again the parallel with Corbu’s modernist internationalism is striking. As Khilnani puts it, in a passage on Chandigarh: “In celebrating a wholly alien form, style and material, it aspired to a neutrality, a zero-degree condition that would make it equally resistant to the claims upon it of any and all cultural or religious groups.” But Nehru—Harrow, Cambridge, and Fabian socialism notwithstanding—was also an Indian nationalist. He did not simply want to copy the West. And Corbu’s Chandigarh was not meant to look like Europe. In a letter to his collaborators, Corbu said he strove after an “organic architecture…which is neither English, nor French, nor American, but Indian of the second half of the 20th century.”3

Curiously, Corbu liked to use the word “Hindu” instead of “Indian.” Three “Hindu architects” were to be attached to his Paris office, to receive an education in modernism, which remained in touch with “the Hindu civilization.” Corbu never made it clear what he meant by Hindu civilization. How could he? But perhaps his use of the term was Nehruvian too, in the sense that Nehru himself, while fighting all his life against caste prejudice, led a government that was dominated by high-caste Hindus. And Chandigarh, the home of bureaucrats, is nothing if not a high-caste Hindu city.

How has it all held up? I arrived in Chandigarh by train from Delhi. Indian trains have a class system, which is almost as complex as the order of castes. There are six classes. I was sitting in “A/C chair car,” which ranks above “ordinary first class,” but below “A/C first class,” I think. Next to me was a well-dressed young Punjabi, full of bouncing energy, who worked for a paint company. He loved Chandigarh. In words I was to hear again, it was “neat and clean,” so unlike Delhi, “a terrible place.” With one policeman for every hundred citizens, Chandigarh is also a very secure city. My companion loved Chandigarh precisely because it was not like the rest of India. But, he admitted, “the showing-off element is also there: big houses, Mercedes Benz, even Pierre Cardin, they are there.”

Chandigarh was built as a city of government. There is no industry to speak of, and not all that much commerce either. The first thing you notice on arrival at the station, apart from its remarkable cleanliness, is bureaucratic procedure. Instead of the free-for-all scramble that takes place elsewhere, you have to stand in line for a prepaid ticket for motor-rickshaws and taxis, with the result that everyone waits around endlessly: neat and clean, disciplined even, but hopelessly inefficient. As is true of other modern garden cities, such as Canberra, it is hard to tell where the city begins, or even if there is a city at all. You see straight roads and roundabouts, with bungalows and modern buildings peeping through the shrubbery. The “center,” called Sector 17, consists of a baking hot concrete square surrounded by shops. No one lives there. After 7:30 it is dead. Everyone will have gone home, to Sector 9, or 16, or 25, depending on one’s rank in the bureaucratic hierarchy. The lower the number, the higher your rank. Corbu’s showcase government buildings, the Secretariat, the High Court, and the Legislative Assembly, are in Sector 1.

But you don’t see Sector 1 until you are right in it. For between the “temples of democracy” (Nehru’s phrase) and the rest of the city is a vast space of trees, scrubland, and parks, filled, presumably, with those imported trees. The government buildings, huge in scale, yet oddly humbled by the view of the Himalayas on the horizon, have grandeur and beauty. To say they are too grand for a provincial government is to miss the point: these temples were meant to represent so much more than Haryana and Punjab.

Concrete looks better against the pale blue sky of northern India than in the watery gloom of western Europe. And Corbu’s sculptural genius is clear to see: in the curved roof of the Assembly, or the sun-breaking overhang on the façade of the High Court, with its astonishing splashes of green, red, and yellow. There are few decorations, of course, since Corbu’s modernism forbade that. But what decoration there is reflects not modern India, or “Hindu civilization,” but Corbu’s own mystical doodles: open hands, symbols of sun worship, and the male figure, representing Corbu’s ideal proportions, known as the Modulor.4

  1. 1

    From Aditya Prakash, Chandigarh: A Presentation in Free Verse, published in Chandigarh by the author himself.

  2. 2

    Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1987), p. 283.

  3. 3

    Letter from Le Corbusier, December 12, 1951.

  4. 4

    The most detailed description of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh and its history is in Norma Evenson, Chandigarh (University of California Press, 1966).

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