In 2010 I set out on a journey along the Grand Trunk Road, the most famous highway in southern Asia. I went because the stretch between Delhi and the Khyber Pass crosses the homelands of over 90% of British Pakistanis and of British Sikhs and Hindus who trace their roots to the Indian Punjab. Travelling with oral historian Irna Qureshi I was taking photographs and carrying out interviews for an exhibition and book exploring why the GT Road, as it is known locally, was so crucial to the process of migration to Britain.
The stories that account for this are many and complex, but they centre around how the British used the GT Road as the main artery of their conquest and rule of the northwest region of British India. Long before the arrival of the British many of the people living along this ancient trade route were cosmopolitan, familiar with ideas of travel and had broad horizons, and relationships forged in colonial times between them and the ‘Britishers’ led to local men becoming soldiers in the British Indian Army and sailors in the Merchant Navy. These soldiers and sailors, who became integral parts of the British Empire, were among the first to travel to Britain from the sub-continent. Some of them then stayed, settled and laid the foundations for families and friends who followed during the mass migrations of the 1950s and 1960s.
The fact that it was these men, recruited along the GT Road, who formed the backbone of the world’s largest ever volunteer armies, 1.5 million in World War One and 2.5 million in World War Two, remains largely unknown in Britain. The stories of Asian Merchant seamen, including the vital role they played in keeping Britain’s supply lines open during both these conflicts, are also largely unknown.
Although the history of the GT Road and these stories of migration have profoundly changed the fabric of modern day Britain, they are not taught in our schools and remain unknown outside the communities to whom they refer, where memories of them are fading with the passing of generations. This history is certainly not remembered or commemorated in the same way as that celebrating the architects and facilitators of the British Empire has been, whether that be through the content of school text books and the mass media, or the erection of statues and monuments in towns and cities across Britain.
On the GT Road I discovered an alternative narrative. Travelling along it is a mix of the mundane and the momentous, and a constant tripping back and forth between the past and the present. Alongside signs of rapid modernisation there’s lots of history to be discovered, much of it associated with the era of British rule and the struggles against it. The place that sums this up most succinctly for me is Coronation Park, lying next to the GT Road on the northern edge of Delhi.
When Irna and I arrived it was overcast and drizzling with rain. The growl of distant traffic crept across a flat expanse of muddy earth punctuated by a stand of trees, a large stone obelisk and a couple of dozen red sandstone plinths, some holding aloft grand marble figures with others sitting empty. The only people there were the chowkidar, or caretaker, and his family who were cooking dahl on an open fire. The lovely rich smell of garlic and ginger cooking seemed at odds with the desolate scene.
This marshy land was given its grand name when it was earmarked as the site for the Coronation Darbar of 1877, an imperial pageant at which Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. It went on to host two more such Coronation Durbars. The third, the Delhi Durbar of 1911, has been described as perhaps the grandest extravaganza of the British Raj. It was attended by King George V and Queen Mary, who came to proclaim themselves Emperor and Empress of India, while sat on golden thrones in front of the Rajas and Nawabs of every princely state in India, from whom they demanded a pledge of subservience to British rule. They also announced the moving of the capital of British India from Calcutta to a city to be built nearby, New Delhi.
The organisers were keen for this spectacular ceremony of majestic power and myth building to be showcased across the world, particularly to audiences back in Britain. So they commissioned a film crew from London to document the entire royal tour of India on colour film using an innovative new process called Kinemacolor. Lavish promotional literature and press reports of the time demonstrate how these films were also designed to promote Britain as the world’s pre-eminent source of advanced science and technology that was exported to ‘exotic lands’ around the Empire.
In 1947, just 36 years later after this final Darbar, Delhi became the capital of newly independent India. The city and its magnificent buildings were vacated by the British, the Viceroy’s House became the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) and although these final rulers of the Raj departed they left behind a huge number of their predecessors, set in stone, marble and metal across the city. Whereas British audiences had chosen to go to cinemas, to look up at screens in admiration of their collective imperial might, Indians had previously had no choice. Wherever they went statues of former British rulers looked down on them from pedestals set in prominent and prestigious spots across Delhi, as well as numerous other towns and cities across India.
Coronation Park became Delhi’s answer as to what to do with these statues. In a necessary act of new self-rule they were replaced with figures that celebrated and commemorated history from an Indian perspective, and the Britishers were moved here. Although the choice of this now unremarkable site could be interpreted as a wry comment on its former glories it is also a dignified and matter of fact response to centuries of colonial occupation that helped to shape modern India. Over the past few years Coronation Park has been renovated and there are plans for an interpretation centre, designed not to celebrate India’s colonial history but to educate people about it.
The removal of imperial statues to suburban parks or museums, where explanatory texts set them in their historical context, happened all over India. This acts as valuable lesson to those currently debating the role of statues and monuments in towns and cities across Britain. Historical figures prominently displayed in city centres do not simply teach us a full and indisputable history, they were erected with a desire to shape it. Where they are and how they are seen is crucial to understanding them, and it’s clearly a nonsense to claim that history is erased by moving them to an alternative space, or that their interpretation automatically demeans them. They are what the sculptor Anish
Kapoor aptly describes as: “emblematic monuments to our past which can be thought to represent how we see ourselves and our history”. Put upon pedestals they seek to impose a public narrative upon us all, so it’s hugely important to ask: What version of reality do they represent, to whom does this belong, and what and where are the other stories that should be part of this history?
These enquiries enable discoveries that reveal the past to be a complicated place, particularly when it involves imperialism, and what we use to attempt to understand it needs careful consideration and interpretation. History needs to be inclusive, to facilitate the weaving together of historical narratives with personal stories drawn from all sections of our communities. This should include those whose origins lie along the GT Road, particularly in cosmopolitan places like Bradford. When this is done well it can help people relate themselves to others whilst promoting the discovery of a shared sense of the history and shape of our diverse society, and how or where we all fit into it.
© Tim Smith 2020