American Historical Association cited the park as an example of preserving historical artefacts. They wouldn’t have said it if they’d been there
On August 28, 2017, the American Historical Association (AHA) issued a statement in the wake of violent protests by white supremacists at Charlottesville who opposed the city’s plan to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most important general.
Emphasising the importance of history to public culture, the statement argues that the proposed removal of Confederate statues would “neither…change history, nor erase it” but was a reconsideration of which memorials, and which histories embodied by them, were worthy of civic honour.
The AHA proposed that the Confederate statues needed to be preserved as historical artefacts. Ideally, they should be moved to other spaces, for example museums, accompanied by records of their original location and significance. Two examples from other parts of the world are cited approvingly by the AHA: Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary, which houses old communist statues and plaques, and Coronation Park in north Delhi.
The AHA’s laudatory comments about Delhi’s Coronation Park imply the statues have been preserved as a corrective, but not iconoclastic, rebuttal to a repressive imperial past. We would argue that the fate of the imperial statuary is something of a footnote in a set of very different urban politics.
The current condition of the park is testimony to more significant tensions between, on the one hand, urban development and heritage protection and, on the other, the city and its publics.
The park was designed to form the northern-most point of a heritage corridor that would end at the Qutab Minar in the south. This corridor was central to a proposal to make Delhi a UNESCO World Heritage city, a proposal that was unilaterally withdrawn by the government of India in 2015 without consultation with either the Delhi government, who initiated the proposal, or the INTACH, who prepared it.
The reason for the bid’s abrupt withdrawal is not mysterious. World Heritage City status would have provided substantial armoury for the city’s vast and diverse physical heritage and, in doing so, would have blighted urban infrastructural development of the kind the government currently favours for the capital.
On the question of the city’s publics, it is significant that the park is not deemed worthy of continued support on its own merits; as a large, enclosed, landscaped space of leisure in a part of the city that enjoys few such amenities. That none of the state and non-state agencies involved in the conception and partial completion of the park as a heritage space has supported the park as a local, north Delhi resource attests to the alienation of these agencies from the city’s public. This distance is not new. The city of New Delhi was built amidst the collapse of the imperial state’s credibility and in proximity to the epicentre of the most significant rebellion the British Empire ever faced.
The imperial city’s architecture – of which the statues at Coronation Park formed a part – is a physical memorial to a government regime that regarded the Indian public with indifference, suspicion and antagonism. The dilapidated state of Coronation Park commemorates two realities of contemporary urban governance. Firstly, the abandonment of the park as it was originally conceived marks the ascendancy of rapid infrastructural transformation over heritage conservation in the city. Secondly, and arguably more significantly, the park’s trajectory of decline exhibits the indifference of the government to the maintenance of local infrastructure and, in particular, places of public leisure.
Without some properly resourced maintenance, it is not clear how long the park will remain attractive and amenable to visitors. The story of the park is the story of a bureaucratic regime that refuses to allow the city’s past to offer cautionary wisdom to its present and a city public that is not deemed worthy of recreational spaces.