The Lessons of Connaught Place

Rarely does a work of architecture represent something so different from what was intended.  Connaught Place, the series of concentric roads and arcades surrounding a park in New Delhi, is today a monument to failure, even failure on a grand scale, but almost 100 years after it was constructed it offers a lesson we finally might learn.

Designed by Robert Russell, chief architect for the Public Works Department of New Delhi, and named for Prince Arthur, the First Duke of Connaught, third son of Queen Victoria, Connaught Place is a symbol of the entire British enterprise in India. The pillared Georgian arcades, modeled after the Royal Crescent in Bath, England, represented the pinnacle of European civilization. The three concentric avenues, bisected by seven radial roads, with each block designated by a letter of the alphabet, evoked British primness and order. And the park in the middle of it all offered the civilizing influence that Western culture would bring. It did not quite work out that way.

Connaught Place is now an anachronism—a landscape of perfect geometric order surrounded by the chaotic sprawl of New Delhi.  Exhaust from the motorbikes and tuk-tuks swirling through the curving streets has turned the white facades a dingy gray. A few restaurants still offer a pleasant throwback to a more genteel era, but international brand stores now occupy much of the retail space, and after they close for the night junkies hunker in their doorways to heat heroin over propane burners.

Twelve years after Connaught Place was finished India gained independence and the British government released its hold on the land it had controlled for almost 400 years. But an irredeemable imprint had been made. The British built railroads and instituted a modern postal network, and India’s educational and judicial institutions are still modeled on British systems.  But what would India be like today if it never had spices to lure European traders, if the British East India Company had never been formed, if cultural transformation had never been a byproduct of the colonial enterprise? We will never know, because for 400 years Indian culture was never allowed to flourish in a way that it might form the basis for its future society.

Human beings are slow learners or history is a poor teacher. A little over fifty years after India gained independence, former president George W. Bush sent American military forces into Iraq, and his neoconservative advisors, who knew little or nothing about the part of the world they were about to invade, spoke of Iraqis throwing flower petals at the feet of their “liberators.”  It did not turn out that way. Freedom and democracy can’t “arrive on the wings of a B-52,” as Arab League Foreign Minister Amr Moussa has said. If  “the desire for freedom lies in every human heart,” as George W. Bush stated, then wouldn’t all human beings, in their own way, at their own pace, come to embrace it, and define it on their own terms? This should have been the lesson of Connaught Place. Nothing can be forced. Nation building, society building, are organic processes that must begin where the roots of history, culture, and experience lie. Otherwise what follows is at best alien, at worst monstrous, but nonetheless doomed to die. The fundamental problem with Iran’s Islamic Revolution is that it has imposed a rigid interpretation of Islamic values that bears no relation to twentieth century Iranian society or even Iranian history.

All this is reason for cautious optimism that the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East will result in more lasting and positive change than any of the colonial misadventures or America’s invasion of Iraq. There are good reasons to tiptoe into the land of optimism—always a risky proposition in the Middle East.

First of all, in every country where unrest has occurred it has been largely unassisted.  Except for the NATO mission in Libya, the former colonial powers have been uncharacteristically sidelined, unable to play the role of master gamesmen, as they did when they carved tribal regions into makeshift countries. This has been most notable in their failure to end the civil war raging in Syria, or even check a bloodbath that continues unchecked. Whatever political orders replace the dictatorships, they won’t bear the imprint of Western powers, like Robert Russell’s circular roads in New Delhi. The new institutions will be the first creations that the people of these countries truly own.

Also, none of the revolts has been driven by ideology. There have no chants of “Death to America!” No “Goddess of Democracy” has been erected in Tahrir Square. No calls for pan-Arab nationalism have even been heard. The danger of ideologies is that they are often expressed as abstract principles, ideals detached from human experience, and their slogans can mean anything anyone wants them to mean. Defenders of communism will still claim that true communism has never been tried. In the case of the Arab revolutions, what has driven the people onto the streets are the bread-and-butter issues common to all human beings—better opportunities, a brighter future, and, yes, the desire for “freedom.”

Finally, thus far the uprisings have been leaderless. Charisma can be a handicap in disguise, intoxicating both for the leader who possesses it and those who are seduced by it. When that happens the leader can become inseparable from the cause itself. No doubt new leaders will emerge in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but unlike Lenin, Mao, or Castro, Colonel Gaddafi in 1969, or Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the spirit of change will not be embodied in a single figure. No one will be able to claim its ownership.  In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi’s rule didn’t last a year, and General Abdel el-Sisi may become the face of security and stability in Egypt for while, but his influence, too, may eventually wane.

Revolutions, no matter how promising, have a way of going horribly sour—Russia 1917, Cuba 1959, Iran 1979—but so much rot had built up in these systems that they begged for a housecleaning, and in each case, one finally came. A few days after Hosni Mubarak fled to Sharm el-Sheikh, a friend wrote to me: “For the first time in 30 years I feel proud to be Egyptian.” For the first time in modern history the Arab world has taken control of its own destiny, and I can’t imagine a better foundation for a new beginning. The road ahead will still be rough, and there will be setbacks, likely, indeed, many of them, but it is the destination that ultimately matters, not what it takes to get there.