Is Delhi Officially the Capital of India? Well...

You may have viewed Delhi as the capital without question but it may actually be worth asking how this happened...

5 min read
Cover of Pilar Maria Guerrieri’s book on Delhi

Quick question: what’s the capital of India?

Delhi, of course. Or to be more accurate, New Delhi. Which is part of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, and, along with places like Noida and Gurgaon, part of the National Capital Region. Duh.

How do you know that Delhi is the capital of India?

What do you mean how do you know it’s the capital of Delhi? That’s like asking how do we know that the moon is the moon, or how do we know that day is day, or that Salman Khan is a douchebag. They just are.

Look, there are genuine, observable, verifiable reasons behind why each of those things you mentioned are what they are. The moon is the earth’s satellite, daylight is a result of the earth’s rotation, and Bhai keeps taking his shirt off (let alone all the other terrible stuff he’s done). In the same vein, what is the basis on which Delhi is the capital?

It’s the capital because… well, that’s what they told us in school, that’s what all the books say, that’s just how it is. Parliament functions from there, the Prime Minister operates from there (though some holders of the post have been of a more nomadic persuasion), the President lives there, the Supreme Court is located there. It’s on Wikipedia, ok? What other reason do you want?

Well, how about some sort of document making it the capital? Is there some rule or law or something which says Delhi is the capital?

Sure, there must be… right? Wait, why are you asking all these stupid questions? Go and check with some boring legal expert, why don’t you.

Too busy to read the whole story? Listen to it instead:

Well, that’s kind of the point. This stuff did just come up during a case before the home of boring legal expertise (and of some exciting but disturbing Game of Thrones-level intrigue at present), the Supreme Court of India.

Why on earth was the Supreme Court bothering itself with this nonsense? Didn’t Sherlock Holmes say something about not cluttering your mind with useless information?

Well, it’s not exactly useless, it’s actually quite relevant to some pretty important stuff. The court was conducting its hearing on Tuesday into the ongoing tussle between Kejriwal’s Delhi Government and the Centre about who’s the actual boss in Delhi. Senior advocate Indira Jaising, representing the Delhi Government, was trying to point out the pitfalls of giving the Centre too much power to interfere with Delhi’s affairs, since Delhi isn’t even designated as the capital of India in any law.

Whoa, that can’t be true. Doesn’t the Constitution say Delhi is the capital?

Senior advocate Indira Jaising raised this issue before the Supreme Court of India
Senior advocate Indira Jaising raised this issue before the Supreme Court of India
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Indira Jaising)

Nope, the Constitution says absolutely nothing about the capital of India.

Wait, so the Constitution can tell us that the government should promote animal husbandry, but doesn’t say where it’s supposed to come up with plans for doing that?

That is correct. Despite all its articles about Parliament, and Governors and Councils of Ministers and the President, the Constitution never says where any of this government stuff is supposed to happen. For instance, Article 52, which is titled “The President of India”, only says this: “There shall be a President of India.” That’s it. Nothing about Rashtrapati Bhawan. Nada. Ditto for Parliament, and the Prime Minister, and all of that. The only thing for which a location is specified is the Supreme Court of India, and even that says that the court will sit in Delhi, or any other place the CJI and President may decide.

So who made Delhi the capital then?

Aha, now you see the point of the question, don’t you?

No, it’s still pretty useless, but this is like a Dan Brown novel now – none of it really matters, but since you’ve got this far, you might as well see how it ends. So yes, how did Delhi become the capital?

For that, we have the Delhi Durbar of 1911 to thank. King George V turned up for his coronation as Emperor of India, did the regular touristy stuff – wandered around in fancy clothes, took pictures, got the locals to grovel for him – and then casually announced that the capital was going to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi. This led to the development of Lutyens’ New Delhi, since Delhi had been a bit of a backwater since the Revolt of 1857; and the rest, as they say, is history. History here being that they built lots of stuff for the government in Delhi and then we just went with those buildings when we got independence.

And there’s no mention of Delhi as capital in any formal document then?

Artist’s sketch of Delhi, 1857.
Artist’s sketch of Delhi, 1857.
(Photo Courtesy: Niyogi Books)

Not exactly. Since 1991 at least, there’s been official legislation which refers to Delhi as capital, sort of. The 69th Amendment to the Constitution inserted Article 239AA, which creates a special scheme for Delhi’s legislative assembly, and which changes the official name of Delhi to the National Capital Territory of Delhi, from the Union Territory of Delhi. There is even a definition of “Capital” in the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi Act 1991 – though this is just a sort of shortening for convenience in the text of the Act.

But if none of those things actually make Delhi the capital, is Delhi officially the capital then?

Yes, it still is. There are lots of capital cities around the world which haven’t been termed as such in their country’s constitution or in any other law, like Paris, London, Berlin. Some countries do have legislation which does the job, like the Residence Act of 1790 in the USA which established what became Washington DC as the capital. But this isn’t necessary. As long as there is an established convention, a capital city trundles along nicely – especially when all the major institutions are located in that capital city, as is the case in India.

So all of this was entirely pointless, wasn’t it?

I mean, even the judges of the Supreme Court didn’t really have an answer to any of this, so you know, it’s knowledge that not everyone has.

Still pointless though, right?

What about knowledge for knowledge’s sake? What about learning something new everyday? What about – wait, what are you doing with that incredibly dangerous-looking axe?

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