Central Delhi has changed. This is common knowledge at this point. Ever since Rajpath got renamed to Kartavya Path, the administrative realm of the national capital got quite the makeover, complete with newly-installed CCTV cameras, red granite tiles, and a lot more.
The Central government’s efforts at rebuilding and revamping the whole area was touted as a move to convert Rajpath from a seat of power to a more democratic space. While that claim can be argued, the increased security and new layout also came off with some exclusionary moves.
Just take the case of what is now known as the Central Vista Avenue, covering the path from Vijay Chowk to India Gate. For decades, generic travel photographers have depicted India Gate with hordes of tourists, sellers of toys and eatables, and people just picnicking on the lawns from the Gate to Man Singh Road. Starting from the Vista’s inauguration in September, all such picnics were banned.
It can arguably be a good move to ensure the cleanliness of the lawns. After all, the tourists still continue flocking around, ticking off an important item off of their Dilli darshan checklist. But for the ones who could brave their way to a solitary moment at India Gate at nighttime, their memories would just remain memories.
Not that I am advising Delhiites to hop around the city late at night (I myself can hardly venture out amidst the coldwave); I, like many others of my age, do have a sudden nocturnal wanderlust to head out to monuments like India Gate in the dark. Not to forget, male privilege makes the criminally creepy city slightly less creepier to be at.
India gate Diaries 🚶🚶🚶— Abhey Ramola (@abheyramolaa) March 10, 2018
Night photography 📸#travel #traveling #TFLers #vacation #visiting #instatravel #instago #instagood #trip #holiday #photooftheday #fun #travelling #tourism #tourist #instapassport #instatraveling #mytravelgram #travelgram #travelingram #igtravel pic.twitter.com/kumyQJP857
Back in the pre-pandemic times when I was a Delhi University student, India Gate had always been one such ideal place to engage in some nocturnal memory-making. It’s not like I or my friends ventured out to Lutyens’ Delhi after midnight. The latest that I might have been there would be somewhere between 10 to 11.30 pm. Just my friends and I walking towards the Gate and maybe uploading an Instagram story or two (I once accidentally put the Instagram location sticker as Gateway of India).
Compared to other regions to explore in such hours, India Gate felt secure also because of the numerous light poles pouring out the shade of orange on the black road below. The rest of the lighting department included the usual barrage of ice-cream carts and toy sellers. If some were not riding the state-sponsored Yulu bikes on the road, they had some of those lit-up toy bikes to get onto. While the Lilliputian size of the bikes definitely implied that they were intended for children, I saw mostly adults going all “dhoom machale” on them at nighttime.
Obviously, I even rode one such “kiddy” bike on the road right in front of the Gate. For a man like me who doesn’t even have a two-wheeler license, that was, let’s say, quite an experience!
But even with all of this, the nocturnal form of India Gate made for a relatively peaceful sight. If you too get bothered with the daytime crowds, then 9.30-11.30 pm would be the perfect time slot for you. The last time I had a nightly visit to the Gate was probably in 2019.
Fast forward to 2022 and I hardly have time to venture out at India Gate at this time. During the DU phase of my life, I was privileged enough to have a friend who had a “baap ki gaadi”. It was convenient for him to step in as chauffeur and drive us around the city and thankfully, he was no drinker so there was no room for any “Salman Khan incidents”.
Anyway, this Christmas Eve, I along with a few new friends happened to be having dinner at Pandara Road (yes, selling my kidney would be the plan if I am to pay the bill over there again). Realising that we were very near the houses of MPs and Supreme Court judges, we decided to have a post-dinner walk to India Gate. But here’s the catch: the clock had just struck eleven.
I had heard earlier that following the revamping, the Gate starts shutting down for the public between 10.30 and 11 pm. So, when we reached our destination, we could see that the entire path was empty with a few barricades marking this new border.
Given the law-abiding citizen I am, I would obviously never dare to cross the barricades (and especially when a handful of cops are walking around on the other side of the road). So, I just decided to stand behind the barricades and click a photo of the now-desolate India Gate for memory’s sake.
Alas, the tap of the click button coincided with a police whistle as one khaki-wearing gentleman crossed the road. A barking inquisition followed as he asked what I was doing.
“Just taking a photo,” I reply.
“Photography not allowed. And step away from the barricade.” The warning continued.
My friends and I were taken aback but we still dutifully crossed the road. We were still curious enough to ask him some questions. Giving him certain journalistic credentials, I asked what was not permitted at this hour of the night.
Cooling down a little but refusing to disclose his name, the Delhi Police personnel explained that they have marked the area right in front of the Gate as a “square” through which traffic can pass as usual but people are not allowed post 11 pm. Even if you are taking a stroll out here, just walk on and don’t stop for a glimpse or a photo.
And if I was even desperate for a photograph, I must get out of this barricaded square and click the Gate from the sidelines. I am no-one to question such surveillance and beefed-up security in a city with an alarming crime rate. But it wouldn’t have hurt to let just random passers-by stop by for a calming look right in front of the Gate, making direct eye contact with the red Bharatpur stone sculpture. Even with a policeman breathing down my neck for security reasons, I wouldn’t mind just standing calmly, basking in all the lights and fog surrounding the Gate.
Instead, we were pushed to the exterior of the so-called “box”. Funnily, when I stood near the barricades of the box’s border, I was shooed away yet again, with another policeman telling me to go further. But this one had a different explanation.
When a friend lamentably told him, “I used to come here earlier and there were no restrictions on photography”, the policeman just said, “No, no you can click photographs over here and even if you are inside the square area. I just thought you guys were assembling here or something.”
So, can I photograph the India Gate after 11 or not? I still have unclear answers. One thing I know for sure is that I should be ready to hear the shrill whistle if I raise my phone.
Anyway, shooed away from the police-exclusive zone, we walked on the path towards Akbar Road with the Gate falling to the side of my right hand. There were a few stalls, the usual tea-sellers who deck their bicycles with a kettle, candy floss, and what not. A stall of Lovely Chuski (the local ice-cream makers who have been doing their business at India Gate since 1986) was also present although I doubt if anyone would care to have a chuski in this winter.
A tea-seller also named Akbar proved to be a friendly observer as I and my friends were talking to the police.
“I have been selling tea over here for the last 24 years,” he revealed while offering some watery tea to us. “The Department [Central Public Works Department] made some specific vending zones. That’s good for morning customers and as the Gate is open in the daytime, business goes as usual. But the night earnings have definitely fallen after the whole Central Vista work. Now, police puts barricades and customers just have to do ‘darshan’ of India Gate from a distance. So, naturally, people show up less after 10 and 11, unlike earlier.”
Ajit Kumar, an ice-cream seller, had similar views as he was leaning against his Mother Dairy cart without any potential customers in sight.
“First of all, who eats ice cream in winter?” Kumar took a dig at himself. “But then again, some young people like you were still mad enough to do that. The thing is that when the road was not this separated from the public, many youngsters used to stroll around. And as they had time to waste, they could stop for chai, ice cream, bhelpuri, whatever. Now too, it’s not like the India Gate area is empty but because of the barricading and constant policing, people just stop for a few seconds, click a photo somehow, and then drive away. We are just left here, hoping for someone to not be in such a hurry.”
I didn’t know what to reply with, just walking away glumly after Kumar finally stopped his monologue.
For those who have somehow read till here (why though?), I again wish to reaffirm that this is no debate against policing of the India Gate. It is more of a personal essay reminiscing on the changes I witnessed at India Gate. And as far as I remember, there used to be some police vehicles parked near the Gate even in the pre-pandemic days. Adding the security presence might arguably be needed now but I wish the area hadn’t become this exclusionary. But then again, I am just speaking as an everyday citizen. What would I know?
PS: The teetotaller friend who used to drive me to the Gate earlier has now started drinking alcohol. So, I guess, everything changes with time...