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…

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