It is a bittersweet moment; the old order has changeth yielding place to new. A 96-year-old building that was not just the fulcrum of democracy but also an eyewitness to history has now been replaced. A triangular-shaped four-storeyed structure constructed at the height of the country’s Covid emergency is officially the Parliament House of India. What goes into the sunset is an architectural marvel of the British era with its 144 sandstone pillars storing within them a memoir of triumph, loss, and survival.
The Parliament was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, a show of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as a miffed opposition boycotted the event. They wanted the momentous occasion to be presided over by India’s first citizen, the president. One can only hope the new Parliament will be more conciliatory and less rancorous.
As the country’s elected representatives crossed over to the new building this week, they and the Parliament both have big footsteps to follow, for they leave behind halls and corridors of antiquity where benches had honourable predecessors who make pages of history look good. India’s past was not just unrolled step by step in the Central Hall of the old Parliament, but it was also here that a nation took birth.
Iconic circular structure: an eyewitness to history
The iconic circular structure that generations of Indians have identified as the centre of the country’s seat of power was built by British architects Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker over six years, and it was inaugurated by viceroy governor-general Lord Irwin in 1927. The building was initially named ‘Council House.’
For 75 independent years and earlier, when the country strived for its freedom, the charming edifice stood tall as ideas of nation-building juxtaposed over time with a nation on the rise. It was at the Central Hall in April 1929 that two brave men, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, threw smoke bombs and changed the nature of India’s independence struggle. They were protesting a proposed Public Safety Bill by the British that would curtail further the civil liberties of a subjugated nation. It was also here that these two young men gave a timeless lesson in valour by refusing to escape, saying all they wanted was for the ‘deaf’ to hear. In the gallery where they sat, they shouted ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, slogans which became the battle cry against the British Raj.
Political leaders of such worth and weight graced the hallowed chambers that it is safe to say they don’t make them like that anymore. These halls have seen debates and disagreements but with a gravitas unmatched in the political speeches of today. The level of political engagement was in sync with the intellect of those who stood up to speak, from Babasaheb Ambedkar to Syama Prasad Mukherjee and later Atal Behari Vajpayee, contemporaries and opponents battled it out with wit and intelligence. The nose-flaring, rising decibels that are hyperbole were seldom on display, least of all among the stalwarts who took India’s hand into a new future.
Over the years the sanctity of Parliament itself has been compromised, public discourse leaves much to be desired, nor has Parliament functioned to its full glory. Bills have been passed unilaterally and the ruling party has disrupted Parliament, an outcome unheard of previously. Much of the past aura has been wiped out; it will take more than the edifice of a new building to recapture the essence of democracy.
At midnight of August 14, 1947, India took its final steps into a new dawn with Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous Tryst with Destiny speech, “…At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance…” Immortal words to the Constituent Assembly that resonated from the colosseum like Parliament, words to a nation that was starting from scratch and finding its feet, words that still speak to us and uplift us.
It was also here that ‘India, that is Bharat’ came into being through India’s constitution, nullifying the unnecessary Bharat vs India debate over the country’s name. In this charming building the Constituent Assembly met from December 9, 1946, to January 24, 1950, before India’s constitution was adopted two days later, a sacrosanct document which continues to define the fabric of the country and the fundamental rights of its people. To tinker with it will be to play with India’s sacred ethos.
It also saw violence closely when in 2001 India’s Parliament House Complex was breached by five terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) when it was in session with top politicians inside the building. Nine people including the terrorists were killed.
The new building is expected to give better infrastructure, access to modern technology, and other updated facilities. More importantly though will it leave its footprints on the sands of time and uphold the increasingly jittery principles of democracy, or will it be an unchartered path in the pursuit of individual glory? Will it be honourable? Who better than Nehru to have put it together for posterity,’ freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India.’