What should a country do with its monuments that celebrate figures from controversial periods in their history? Taking Coronation Park in New Delhi as an example, Tom Wilkinson (LSE) examines how India has memorialised statues of leaders from the British Raj. 

Photo: In Coronation Park. Credit: Author

There is a park in New Delhi that commemorates the British Raj. Dilapidated effigies of British monarchs and viceroys can be found there. An assemblage of arch-imperialists that once imposed a racist and violent order are now covered in graffiti and pigeon droppings. The British Raj sought to cast its imperial legacy in stone but the history of the Coronation Park reveals India’s ambivalence to its imperial past.

What to do with monuments representing off-colour political ideals? From Cape Town to Kiev to Charlottesville, this question continues to stir peoples once subject to the imperial yoke. The looming statues of empire continue to be objects of protest in piazzas, parks and campuses. But not in India. In New Delhi, these physical manifestations of colonial authority have not been the target of protest movements. Because India instead opted to create a graveyard of statues.

In the subsequent decades after India won its independence the authorities began slowly and quietly relocating colonial statues to the once famous Coronation Ground. The park takes its title from the lavish Coronation Durbars held there in 1877 and 1903. It was during those imperial pageants that the British crown performed its sovereignty over the Indian princes through outrageous pomp and circumstance ( as was generally the British way). Once surrounded by a vast open space, the Coronation Park is encircled by motorway bridges, high-rise apartment blocks, and construction cranes. It is engulfed by Delhi’s toxic smog during the winter months.

India hailed its independence after decades of (largely) non-violent struggle against the British on August 15th 1947. The statues of English monarchs and viceroys, however, continued to perch on New Delhi’s boulevards and roundabouts after independence. The early post colonial period witnessed little rush to haul down these statues. Lord Louis Mountbatten attributed this to Gandhi bearing “no malice”. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, appeared to be personally relaxed about India’s colonial heritage. This changed during the final years of the 1950s. Political leaders and the public increasingly demanded for their removal from public view.

These anti-colonial protests culminated in disfiguring the stone face of the seventy-foot-tall statue of George V days before Independence Day in 1965. In the colonial period he had loomed, unscathed in his imperial clad, over New Delhi’s grandest boulevard that led to the Viceroy’s House. As he towered over the same boulevard in independent India, the site for the annual Republic Day parade, the nose-less face of George V appeared somewhat out of place.

Several statues were sold back to the British, the Canadian and the Australian by a thrifty Government of India. Delhi’s authorities thereafter shifted the remaining statues to the sleepy and quiet Coronation Ground.  Edward VII, Queen Victoria, Lord Halifax, and Lord Willingdon were among those relocated. The desolate site of the Raj’s Durbars became their final resting place. A great many of the busts happened to disappear onto the black market over time. Chalaki chowkidars [crafty or canny gate-keepers] had seemingly taken them to auction. Few voices of condemnation were raised. Who would give two hoots about the statues of Britain’s arch imperialists in post colonial India? Like memories of the British Raj, these historical artifacts eroded with the passage of time. The faces of these English statesmen became covered in the names of passersby or young lovers in possession of a permanent marker. This began to change in the early 1990s.

A scheme to transform Delhi’s graveyard of statues into a public park capable of expressing India’s relationship with its imperial past received backing from the authorities in the early 1990s.5 There would be wide pathways, red sandstone pillars, and Victorian lamps in a clear nod to the British-era architectural style. The plan simultaneously created a distinctly modern Indian public space with sports facilities, an amphitheater, and an information centre to give historical context to the statues. Later, it was decided that an enormous Indian flag would tower above the statues. Its effect would be to subjugate the colonial statues to the idea of the Indian nation.

Contrary to other post-colonial governments in Africa and Asia, the statues and streets named after English viceroys remained in India for decades after independence. It was during the 1960s and 1970s that those street names began to be replaced by those of Indian heroes. Unlike the protests directed against the statues of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town or the Confederate-General Robert Edward Lee in Charlottesville, in contemporary India these statues have been largely ignored. However, subtler forms of resistance to these symbols of imperialism converge at Coronation Park.

Coronation Park is in a dilapidated state, and the local government never fully implemented its plans.  Wild dogs roam the park. The shrubbery is overgrown. The information plaques were not placed, the information centre or restaurant did not open, and the amphitheater has never been used.  “It has been virtually abandoned…they just stopped working on it”, Professor A.G. Krishna Menon of INTACH said.

Coronation Park was designed to put these historical artifacts on public display. Its design represented an attempt to museumise rather than memorialise the British era. Dr Aparna Balachandran of Delhi University commented, “the creation of a Disneyland of statues is an attempt to divest them of their power”. The extent of the park’s disrepair is indicative of budget constraints and jurisdictional tussles, but it also represents India’s ambivalent relationship with its imperial past.

“The history of the Mughals often captures the historical imagination, yet Indian people do not think much about the British period and this is represented in the apathy towards the park”, mentions Dr Aparna Balachandran. Relocated to the once famous Coronation Ground after independence, these dilapidated statues conjure up India’s mixed relationship with its imperial past: it is based neither on grudges or amicability. The most intimate legacy of the British is out of sight, out of mind. The remnants of a bygone era have been discarded to this far-flung suburb of Delhi and cast into obscurity, much like India’s Imperial legacy.

This article gives the views of the author and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. This post first appeared on the LSE International History blog. A full set of references can be found in the original post. 

Tom Wilkinson is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History, LSE. Tom is currently a visiting research scholar at Columbia University in New York. Prior to arriving in New York, he was based at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His doctoral research investigates conceptions of youth in the colonial and early post-colonial India.  Before commencing his doctoral research, he worked as a Parliamentary Assistant in Westminster and as a teaching assistant in Delhi for the British Council. He tweets @tomwilk0.

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