From Indira Col to Indira Point, Indian Democracy Requires Space To Dream
The oldest surviving written tale in the known world tells the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian King who bedeviled himself in his search for immortal and everlasting life. On his travels, he would meet scorpion men and divine taverners, eventually making his way to a solitary isle past the ‘waters of death’. Here, he would find the knowledge he sought. He was informed that all men, even the greatest ones, even the Kings of Kings, are bound by their mortality.
Gilgamesh, distraught, turned back and returned home to the approaching city-walls of Uruk. Seeing his works, ye mighty, he had a final revelation: it is what we have built on this earth and the relationships we have cultivated that go on to define our eternal legacy.
The architecture that we envision and the monuments that we erect speak to our ethos and character as a civilization. Asides from the practical reasons (of which there are many) for India to adopt a new shrine to the ‘Temple of the People’, there exists a surfeit of symbolic reasons to honour the practice of our democratic Dharma.
Democracy is a Symbolic Venture
In many ways, this tamasha of democracy is a venture in symbolism and conceptualization. It requires trust in institutions and, as Benedict Anderson famously posited in Imagined Communities, a sense of “deep horizontal comradeship”. India’s Parliament represents the physical gathering space in which a national idea manifests, where representatives from northernmost Indira Col to southernmost Indira Point gather on common grounds and speak to the common good.
Simply put: democracy works because we believe in it and choose to abide by it, even (or perhaps especially when) it exists as an intangible construct. As the incubation place of just governance, our Parliament ought to reflect a modern notion of India and reaffirm our faith in that construct.
Currently, Lutyens’ Delhi continues to perpetuate a paradigmatic order devised during the imperial era, one explicitly designed to reify the “new and the clean” against the existing “dirty architectural slate”. Work on today’s Parliament House began in 1921 and was finished in 1927 under the auspices of Lord Irwin, British Governor-General to a subjugated Indian Rashtra.
And while that colonial space has long-since been repatriated in the struggle for self-determination, the upcoming diamond jubilee of India’s independence serves as the perfect opportunity to evolve and advance our principles. It’s high time that the ‘Temple of Democracy’ be built not only by Indic hands, but by a united Indic people, on Indic civilizational terms.
If the basic understanding of India is to be one of pluralism and freedom, then there can be no hesitation when it comes to investing in both the physical and symbolic infrastructure of our democracy. In doing so, we signal an ongoing commitment to tend to its long-term health, its self-affirming character, and the continuity of the constitution.
These commitments outlast the tenure of any one steward. Well-made buildings, like well-fashioned systems, are structured to succeed their temporary inhabitants and caretakers. The lesson of Gilgamesh teaches that there is no Prime Minister or politician alive today who will live forever. All individuals may fade away, but a new Parliament building can serve the needs of the 21st century collective, and become a hallowed ground to stand the test of time.
Vast swathes of the world still look to India as a sacred symbolic space, and a leader in decolonization. There is a reason that the diaspora today from Trinidad to the United States to Malaysia keenly watches Indian affairs and vigorously involves themselves in the politics of their homeland. When India is strong, her children can hold their head up high. And when India visibly furnishes its national pathshala, we know that the exemplary values of the country will continue to stand in good stead.
The Walls of Uruk
India must shed an outdated mentality, and instead develop new ‘mental maps’ for approaching the modern condition it finds itself in. A country must not be trapped in regressive thinking or be backwards-looking in fundamental arrangement.
This extends also to the national principles of architecture and design, not only for auratic or emotional reasons, but for eminently applicable ones as well. These may include the potential expansion of the Lok Sabha to correct a growing democratic deficit, the benefits of environmentally friendly infrastructure, or the need to host joint sessions of Parliament in the case of legislative deadlock or visits by foreign dignitaries.
As India steps into a new strategic mandate in the world, it must act like and fulfill the responsibilities behooving a great power. It can expect much more interministerial contact from the exogeny, and its edifices of power must reflect such possibility and scope.
As we read Gilgamesh’s Epic today and ponder his legacy, may future peoples and cultures discover our monuments and know that here existed a grand nation, governed by popular decree, in consideration of the popular will. Let a new Temple stand proudly as India’s immortal spiritual and philosophical testament to yugas hence, and yugas forthcoming.