The political developments of the 1910s and 1920s were taking place against the backdrop of some important changes in the relationship of Shahjahanabad with its immediate surroundings. As soon as the transfer of the capital from Calcutta had been announced, planning had begun to construct a grand new city. Work began on New Delhi, for which a location south of Shahjahanabad was ultimately chosen.

But since this was inevitably going to take some time, the temporary capital was to be housed in Civil Lines from December 1912. This was the area outside the northern wall of Shahjahanabad, where the bulk of the British population had started living, particularly after the revolt of 1857, in preference to within the walls of the city.

The European Club, which was initially housed in the Town Hall, had moved in 1898 into Ludlow Castle, in Civil Lines. In 1908, the Cantonment had moved from Daryaganj to the Ridge, and the offices of the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner from Kashmiri Gate to Civil Lines.

The transfer of the capital necessitated the provision of considerable accommodation. A new Secretariat was built (and today houses the Delhi Legislative Assembly), and Thomas Metcalfe’s palatial house was repaired (it today houses the Defence Research and Development Organisation). The Viceroy was housed in a refurbished circuit house. There was also a demand for more hotels. The Maidens Hotel had been built in 1900, and the Cecil and Swiss hotels were added to this area in the 1920s.

Both these spaces – Civil Lines and New Delhi – developed as essentially European enclaves. Not only did Shahjahanabad not receive anywhere close to the funding and attention that civic amenities in the European areas did, the needs of the latter began to act as a brake on the improvement of the old city. In the words of a special officer appointed in 1935 to look into the problem of congestion, after 1911 “Town planning of the older city received attention mainly in its relation to the requirements of the New Capital”.

The more Shahjahanabad was neglected, the more it was reduced to the status of an “Indian town”, increasingly looked at as posing a threat to the European areas – through its congestion and resulting unsanitary conditions, as well as by its political volatility. This perception of Shahjahanabad as a threat resulted in elaborate police measures to insulate passing dignitaries, including high officials such as the Viceroy.

In 1921, the Duke of Connaught, the uncle of George V, visited Delhi. His route from the station to the Viceregal lodge (now the Vice Chancellor’s office in Delhi University North Campus) was lined with troops facing the road and police facing the crowd, with the crowd being kept at least 12-15 yards from the carriage in which he travelled. Barriers were erected at Kashmiri Gate and Chandni Chowk to hold back the crowds.

Delhi before 1857. The walled city was all there was. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sandwiched, as it was, between these settlements to the north and south, with the river to the east, there was little room for the expansion of Shahjahanabad. On the other hand, the population of the city had been growing at a rapid rate, driven by commercial growth, which, by the early twentieth century, had made Delhi effectively the commercial capital of North India. The only space available was to the west of Shahjahanabad.

Part of the requirement for commercial space was met by dismantling the city wall along the western perimeter, and creating Burn Bastion Road (more popularly called Naya Bazar) and Garstin Bastion Road (now officially Swami Shraddhanand Marg but still often called GB Road).

Then, a larger suburb to the west, which included Karol Bagh, was developed in a planned manner, and christened “Western Extension Area”. Even this expansion did little to alleviate the congestion within the walls. In view of the better civic conditions in Civil Lines, an increasing number of wealthy Indians began to build houses and live there from the 1920s onwards.

The Delhi Improvement Trust, which came into being in 1937, focused on the problems of Shahjahanabad, but again with a view to improving aesthetics and sanitation in relation to New Delhi, or making it financially remunerative. One of the first projects was housing and street development in Daryaganj, which had been lying desolate and shabby after the removal of the cantonment in 1908.

Here an important consideration was that the area lay “on the side of one of the main thoroughfares between Delhi and New Delhi.” Similarly, the vast ground that had been left vacant around the Red Fort after the post-Revolt demolitions was irrigated and landscaped, as it presented “a drear spectacle of dusty untidiness in the heart of India’s capital”. Paharganj received attention in sanitation and aesthetics, mainly because it lay between Shahjahanabad and the new capital, and adjoined the New Delhi railway station.

View of Old Delhi from Jama Masjid in June 1973. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The administration’s perception of Shahjahanabad as a dangerous, unhealthy space, which had to be kept separate from New Delhi, is best illustrated by the controversy over the city wall on the southern side. In the plan of the new city, a wide strip of land had been left vacant as a cordon sanitaire between the limits of New Delhi and the wall of Shahjahanabad. Proposals to dismantle the wall in order to free up more space, or even due to concerns of safety, since the wall was damaged in parts, were vigorously resisted by the New Delhi Municipal Committee (NDMC, a precursor to the present New Delhi Municipal Council) which had been set up in 1927.

The President of the NDMC saw the population of Shahjahanabad and their problems as a contagion that had to be kept hidden from view and contact with the new capital. He went on to say, “If ever Government decided to demolish the wall, the NDMC would insist on an absolute unclimbable fence being erected in its place, and erected before the wall was demolished”.

It was suggested by officials that the wall was needed to provide a picturesque backdrop to the park that had been constructed to the south of it, as well as “hide the horrors which doubtless exist behind it”. When the need to demolish the wall was finally accepted, it was with the condition that a row of buildings with aesthetic facades should face the road, and that the “slums” within be cleared and redeveloped. The latter however led to protests from residents, who insisted on their right to live in their ancestral homes as they always had, and led to the project being indefinitely postponed.

Excerpted with permission from Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi, Swapna Liddle, Speaking Tiger.