After debarring the dissenter and the discontented from the India Gate-Boat Club-Rajpath complex, the Indian state has turned this vast expanse into a theatre where it can periodically display power and majesty. Here there can be now no show of defiance against the Indian state, only acceptance of its might; no protest against its flawed behaviour, only praise of its wisdom and sagacity.

The symbolic transformation of the India Gate-Boat Club-Rajpath complex, also known as the Central Vista, began long before Prime Minister Narendra Modi began to dominate the national consciousness. Yet, unknowingly perhaps, it is he who has solemnised its appropriation for the exclusive use of the state.

Until Modi became prime minister, the Central Vista would become the state’s exclusive theatre once every year – for hosting the charming spectacles of Republic Day and Beating the Retreat. Over the past 12 months, though, the state seems to have monopolised the Central Vista for hosting what it deems are nationalistic events. It is from this theatre that Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan last year. It was here he led nearly 40,000 people to observe International Yoga Day on June 21.

Both these programmes will pale in comparison to what the government has planned for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 India-Pak war, between August 28 and Sept 26. It will hold a five-day exhibition on the lawns flanking the Central Vista, a carnival likely to include battle enactments, and then the grand finale, on Sept 26, with a massed band concert at Vijay Chowk. During the nearly month-long celebration, both the president and the prime minister will lay wreaths on two different days at Amar Jawan Jyoti, the Flame of the Unknown Soldier, a memorial erected in 1971 after India’s war with Pakistan.

Wanted: only cheers, no jeers

Modi, in this sense, has altered the significance that the Central Vista once had for our democracy. Earlier, it was the theatre that the state and its citizens, the ruling party and the Opposition, shared, staging tamashas each had scripted on its own. It was the proscenium where the maddening dance of democracy was witnessed. It was, above all, the theatre of contested meanings and contrasting feelings.

It is no longer so. The jamborees mounted here have the universal theme of extolling the state and its managers, of harping on India’s greatness, at times imaginary. To this theatre, people still come, but they must always cheer, not jeer at, the show, regardless of its quality.

Mercifully, the Central Vista hasn’t yet become the state’s stage through the year, thus keeping out ordinary citizens who come here to shoot the breeze or buy ice-creams from push-carts. They can do just about anything, including tipple secretly, as long as they eschew the temptation to give an expression to their political selves.

Yet, not too long ago, it was here that incorrigible dissenters and contrarians assembled to articulate their criticism of the state, special-interest groups clamoured to advocate their cause, and the Opposition organised rallies to pressure the government to change its behaviour. It was here the meek and the weak came to display the sores their lives had become.

There couldn’t have been a place better suited for citizens to register their protest. As the Central Vista bumps up to Rashtrapati Bhavan, it goes between the North Block and South Block. In their warrens are the offices of the prime minister, the finance minister, the defence minister and the foreign minister. From this architectural perspective, the India Gate-Boat Club complex is the forecourt of the state.

Ground zero for protest

Indeed, before protests were banned here, the prime minister had to merely step out of his or her office in South Block to notice the raucous crowds raving and ranting against the system. It was about showing defiance in the state’s forecourt and warning the wielder of power about the grim consequences of his or her indifference to their plight.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Jayaprakash Narayan chose the Boat Club lawns to hold a massive rally against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on March 6, 1975, three-and-a-half months before she enforced the Emergency. On the morning of that day, despite the security cordon, thousands began their march to the Boat Club.

“Leading them, in an open jeep, was Jayaprakash Narayan. JP was cheered by the crowds assembled along the way, who offered garlands and showered him with petals,” Ramachandra Guha writes in India After Gandhi. The rally is said to have drawn an estimated 750,000 participants.

Yet, three months later, on June 20 to be precise, Gandhi’s audience surpassed the crowds JP had gathered. She is said to have addressed a million people, accusing the Opposition of seeking to annihilate her physically and of conspiring against her at the behest of foreign powers.

Her rally, ironically, demonstrated that the Central Vista was not just the Opposition’s playground, but also the ruling party’s. It was where, outside parliament, political parties flaunted their popular support to bolster their arguments against each other, criticised their rivals’ agendas, and warned and cautioned them against walking a certain path.

Even in her most paranoid, authoritarian mode, Mrs. Gandhi distinguished between her political self and the one that embodied the state. The Opposition’s charge against her was political; its criticism did not arise on account of her presiding over the state and its policies. It is this distinction which has tended to become increasingly blurred now.

History of dissent

Significantly, when the election was called for in March 1977, following the lifting of the Emergency, JP went to Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan – not the Boat Club – to kick off the Janata Party’s campaign. His choice of the venue underlined an important fact – the Central Vista was for protests against the state and cautioning political rivals. By contrast, the Ramlila Maidan, tucked in the heart of Old Delhi, symbolised the people’s court, where the political class must go to for seeking the popular mandate.

This distinction persisted through subsequent years. When Prime Minister Morarji Desai sacked Charan Singh from the cabinet in June 1978, the peasant leader organised a breathtaking rally in December. India Today’s Prabhu Chawla then calculated that there were more than five lakh people on the Central Vista lawns and another three lakhs clogged the roads to it. Two months later, Singh was re-inducted into the cabinet.

It was on the Central Vista lawns that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made his infamously callous remark about the anti-Sikh riots of 1984: “The earth trembles when a big tree falls.” He was back there three years later, addressing a rally to silence an Opposition clamouring about the commission pocketed in the Bofors deal, and cautioning his audience against the modern-day Mir Jaffars and Jai Chands, two historical figures who are synonymous with betrayal.

A year later, in 1988, peasant leader Mahendra Singh Tikait came with lakhs of supporters in tractors and trucks from West Uttar Pradesh and took over the Boat Club lawns for seven days and nights. They ate and slept there, and heard Tikait and his band of lieutenants harangue the state. Among the techniques deployed to evict them from the Central Vista lawns was to amplify rock music to a high decibel level to disorient and chase them out.

Tikait’s siege of the capital stoked apprehensions among managers of the state about their own vulnerability. Traffic snarls, inconvenience to Delhiites, and security were cited to deny permission to protest rallies at the Central Vista. In February 1993, three months after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the BJP was not allowed to hold a rally at the Boat Club, in support of its demand to build a Ram Temple at Ayodhya.

Theatre of protest to one of state power

Big or small protests became increasingly rare at the Central Vista. Among the techniques the Delhi police resorted to in order to ban rallies was continuously clamping Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code on India Gate and its vicinity. This section empowers the administration to declare unlawful a public gathering of five or more people at a particular place for 60 days. At its expiry, however, Delhi Police would re-issue the propitiatory order.

In 2011, in response to the Bhopal gas tragedy survivor Bano Bi’s petition, the Delhi High Court ruled that Section 144 could not be imposed in perpetuity. Though the practice of extending Section 144 every 60 days was discontinued, Delhi Police kept the Boat Club out of bounds for demonstrations, taking recourse to the Supreme Court order which laid out guidelines for ensuring protests don’t violate the rights of others. This it could do because it is mandatory for organisers of public protests to take the prior permission of police.

At times, though, India Gate becomes the site of spontaneous outburst of emotions and protests, testifying that its symbolism endures despite concerted efforts to make the public forget it. It was here in December 2012 that youngsters from different parts of Delhi gathered to demand action against those accused of gang-raping a physiotherapist. Clashes with the police ensued. Sure enough, Section 144 was imposed on the Central Vista. But it didn’t dissuade Delhiites from continuing their passionate protests on subsequent days.

In February 2014, Delhi Police issued an advertisement formalising what had been its policy – the site of Jantar Mantar was earmarked for protestors totalling 5,000. For a gathering over this number, the sprawling Ramlila Maidan was made available.

Yet neither Jantar Mantar nor Ramlila Maidan has the eloquent symbolism that the forecourt of the Indian state has. Though located in Delhi’s central hub of Connaught Place, officially renamed Rajiv Chowk, Jantar Mantar sits on a lane that is neither visible to the political class nor to Delhiites. As for Ramlila Maidan, it is in that part of Delhi where the fulcrum of power was centuries ago – and from where the outcry of protest can’t reach the prime minister’s office or parliament, regardless of how high the decibel level is.

Obviously, in depoliticising the India Gate-Boat Club-Rajpath complex, Prime Minister Modi didn’t have a role. His contribution has been to reclaim the Central Vista for the state and overturn what it symbolised for Indian democracy. It is no longer the space where the state and its citizens enter into conflicting dialogue and fiery arguments. It is now the theatre where the state engages people in a nationalistic monologue, and where the prime minister repeatedly attempts to embody the state in his own personality.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.