Coronation Park lays to the north of old Delhi, in a jumbled neighborhood of residences, highway overpasses, and small businesses. Power lines and cell-phone towers rise on the horizon. Between 1877 and 1911, however, imperial Britain staged several Durbars, or royal celebrations, on the park’s flat expanse. British and European diplomats gathered in tented encampments; Indian rajahs and subjects came to bend their knees to Westminster.
The most significant Durbar took place in 1911, when King George V arrived to introduce himself as the Emperor of India and to lay the foundation stone for a new capital, New Delhi, which would succeed Calcutta as the Empire’s seat of government on the subcontinent. Edwin Lutyens, the British architect, embarked on the design of the city, conceiving the grand mall that runs from India Gate past the red sandstone secretariats known as North and South Block to Viceroy House, now renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan—President’s House.
As in London and in many American cities, statues consecrated these public spaces; they were totems of British power. India’s independence movement was gathering momentum when New Delhi was being built. Lutyens designed a statue of George V to stand beside India Gate—at almost fifty feet tall, it was so ridiculously high that it all but announced that British power was overcompensating. Britain also put up around the new capital statues of more obscure governors-general and military men—memorials to functionaries whom, as it turned out, history would little remember.
Britain withdrew from the subcontinent seventy years ago this month, creating, amid the bloodshed of Partition, the independent states of India and Pakistan. (They came into being at the famous stroke of midnight, the moment when Britain withdrew its sovereignty.) The imperial statues in New Delhi presented a dilemma; compared with the challenges of poverty, industrialization, and the desire to consolidate a constitutional democracy, they were a minor irritant, but a highly visible one.
A democratic country’s arguments about public space, history, and art are necessarily continuous. One difference between democracies and dictatorships is that the constructing and revising of public spaces is not a propaganda opportunity for the ruler but a realm of democratic discourse, influenced by popular opinion and competitive electoral politics. After the shock of Charlottesville, as many American cities, towns, and campuses have taken down statues of Confederate leaders and generals, or debated whether to do so, New Delhi’s example is perhaps a useful one. Until the very recent rise of Hindu chauvinism, which has polarized the country, India was a confidently syncretic society, one that fashioned its drive for independence and nationalism from a long history of conquests and adaptations, and sought to unify a population breathtakingly diverse in its religious faiths, regional cultures, and languages.
The challenge in revising public spaces is to avoid closing off debate, denying the past, and arguing that art—even banal stone statues—should never offend. Speaking recently about the debate over Confederate monuments, Lonnie G. Bunch III, who leads the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, told the Times, “I am loath to erase history.” He suggested that the statues that were removed should be grouped together in new spaces and contextualized. As it happens, that is what New Delhi did, in the nineteen-sixties. The city turned Coronation Park, the land that once hosted the Durbars, into a public facility managed today by the Delhi Development Corporation. The park’s architects erected an obelisk commemorating the Durbars, and collected the monstrous likeness of George V and other former British overlords from around New Delhi and scattered them about the park.
On a hot recent morning, while on a visit to the city, I took a long walk through Coronation Park. Half a century after its creation, its upkeep is perhaps not the Development Corporation’s highest priority. I tried to follow signs to an “Interpretation Centre,” which I hoped might lay out the curators’ intentions, but all I could find were sparse concrete rooms containing caged rabbits. There was a cricket game under way next to one of the old British statues. The park managers had lately installed a playground with slides; children screamed and ran about. On my zigzagging walk, when I rounded a stone figure, I usually startled teen-age couples smooching in its shade.
The faces of some of the former British leaders had eroded, or else been chipped by errant cricket balls; they were missing parts of their noses or cheeks. Each statue’s base contained a granite plaque intended to present an engraved inscription, but there was nothing written on them. The original vision for the park, followed by its long neglect, had created an eerie, unintentional beauty; the place feels as mysterious as Stonehenge. New Delhi had not erased its imperial origins; it had collected painful symbols of it and then allowed their potency to dissolve.
In the United States, the post-Charlottesville arguments about Confederate statues have constructively spread knowledge about how such objects were erected as expressions of Jim Crow power. In recent weeks, the removal of some statues has offered citizens a way to counter, however symbolically, the overt racism of President Trump. And, by again raising the question of why a statue of Robert E. Lee is more offensive than one of a slaveholding Founding Father like Thomas Jefferson, the statue debates have again forced Americans to reckon with the foundational role of slavery in the construction of the Republic.
Yet statues are not ideas or arguments; they are relics. They stand still, while the struggle for rights and democratic pluralism is dynamic. And that struggle can lurch backward suddenly. In India today, the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its Hindu-nationalist ideology known as Hindutva, is busy rewriting school textbooks, to falsely revise the history of Muslim conquest of the subcontinent, and to reduce the prominence in the story of Indian independence of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s first Prime Minister and who, during his seventeen years in office, built the modern state and its resilient democracy. Nehru was an avowed atheist, who promoted science, industry, and secularism; he worked to keep Hindu chauvinism on the sidelines, and the Hindutva movement’s ideologues have not forgotten.
The Hindu right’s attack on such a foundational figure as Nehru signals the reach of its ambition to remake Indian nationalism through a majoritarian narrative. As Prem Shankar Jha, one of the old lions of Indian journalism, wrote this month in The Wire, Narendra Modi, the B.J.P. Prime Minister, “is intent upon changing the very idea of nationhood upon which India’s political identity has been based not just for the past seventy, but the past two thousand years.” The country’s sharp turn reminds us that the official revision of history in public spaces is at least as likely to be an illiberal project as an inclusive or cathartic one.