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Old Parliament House: Indian Democracy’s Tryst with Destiny

In truth, Parliament House can never be relegated to being a relic of the past.

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It was supposed to be simple.

Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker had been friends and colleagues for as long as either man could remember, but it seemed as though their new brief in India was going to be the straw that broke the back of that bond. They had been given the opportunity to design the Raj’s new imperial capital in New Delhi.

Part of that design would include ‘Government House’ (Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the ‘two principal blocks of the Government of India Secretariats and attached buildings (North and South Block).’ Neither of them could have predicted the impact of India’s constitutional reform on their friendship.

The passage of the Government of India Act (1919) provided for a bicameral legislature for India. This would mean the construction of a new building, which would incorporate three chambers: the Council of States, the Chamber of Princes, and the Assembly.

Baker wanted a triangular building. Lutyens wanted a circular one.

The story of their angry fallout over the shape of what would become Parliament House is a legendary one, comfortably part of the lore of Raisina Hill today.

In its day, the arguments over its design even shook the House of Commons in London, with Edwin Montagu (then Secretary of State for India) having to hastily assure outraged members of Parliament that there was no need to worry that members going into the newly built Council Chamber would suddenly encounter “servants of the Viceroy on the stairs.”

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Witness to Endless Debates and Paperwork

But furious wrangling over its construction aside, Parliament House has witnessed India’s history for much more than the 75 years of our independence. Reams can and have been written about its architectural splendour, but its legacy is one that is hard to quantify.

In retrospect, in the days when the capital shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, under King George V, one might simply dismiss Parliament House as representing a transition from an old capital to a new one. But it has always been more than just old wine in a new bottle.

If anything, Parliament House has been the stage on which the steps toward not just the transfer of power, but constitutional and political reform took place.

It has borne witness to not just endless debates on sovereignty, federalism, nationalism and independence, but to the paperwork that necessarily accompanies those debates.

From 1927 to 1947, it was the seat of the Imperial Legislative Council. Its edifice has been shaken by protests, such as the bombs thrown by Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt in 1929. That was the first time that the revolution entered the halls of Parliament.

Red leaflets, courtesy of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA), rained down on the aghast members of the Central Legislative Assembly, emblazoned with the message: ‘It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear.’

On the eve of India’s independence in 1947, as the clock edged towards midnight, Jawaharlal Nehru stood before the Constituent Assembly, in the packed Central Hall, to make his famous speech about India’s tryst with destiny. “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history,” Nehru told the nation, “when we step out from the old to new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance…”

Parliament House was the backdrop for the poignant moment when India stood, finally free of the shackles of colonialism. Over the next few decades, it would be the stage for other significant milestones.

It has, for instance, borne witness to spirited debates on tricky subjects of fundamental rights, principles and duties. It holds the echoes of humour, anger, indignation and sorrow of India’s leaders through the decades. It is here that the Constitution – that rulebook of the modern state – was drafted and signed into existence. Over the years, Parliament’s halls had to adjust to make room for the growing pains of a new democracy.

The Chamber of Princes, for instance, was made available to the Federal Court of India (which preceded the Supreme Court) for use as a courtroom when the chamber was not in session. After independence, the chamber was used by the Supreme Court of India – which sat in Parliament from 1950 to 1958. After the first general elections in 1951-52, the chamber was remodelled, and its floor area increased to provide accommodation for 450 new members of Parliament.

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The True Legacy of the Old Parliament

As the strength of the Lok Sabha grew, so too did the requirement for space, often forcing some hapless MPs to sit behind the pillars in the hall. It was here, in Parliament, that India’s leaders debated the Constitution, war and foreign policy, the reorganisation of the states, the choice of a national language, communal riots and famine, border disputes and social justice, the Emergency, the censorship of the press and terrorism.

These, then, were the foundation stones of modern politics and geopolitics. All of these were laid within the walls of the circular building that Edwin Lutyens had so triumphantly designed, the same one that hurt Herbert Baker’s aesthetic sensibilities.

Today, the building has been renamed Samvidhan Sabha (Constitution House). Reports suggest that it will function as a ‘Museum of Democracy.’

But in truth, Parliament House can never be relegated to being a relic of the past. Its legacy, as I wrote in the beginning, is hard to quantify. That is not simply because of the sheer scale and scope of the history to which it has played host, but because the values which birthed this country are difficult to commodify.

In his last speech from the old building on Tuesday, before he led members of Parliament into the new building, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged as much, stating that “the glory of this house (the old Parliament building) should never decline.”

In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru told the country, “And so, we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world.”

In 2023, Parliament House stands as a permanent reminder: that power must be cautioned, questioned and debated. After all, its walls have housed the voices of the people, of the citizens of this country for 96 years.

For those reasons, the true legacy of the old Parliament House will always be democracy’s tryst with destiny.

(Narayani Basu is a historian and the author of V P Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India (Simon & Schuster India, 2020) and Allegiance: Azaadi & the End of Empire (Fifty Two Publications, 2022). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)  

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