Basti Basna Khel Nahin Hai – Dilli hai jiska naam II: Narayani Gupta

This is the second part of a series on Delhi that does not talk only of the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad, the Mughalia, aka Mughlai delights and the lip-smacking Chaats of Chandni Chowk or the grand ruins of the seven Delhis and the wide open spaces and broad roads, but a series that also looks at the way Delhi has evolved. We wanted to explore the logic of the city and of the forces that have shaped the idea of the city itself. It was this idea that made us approach people who have engaged with the city with love and care for decades, and we requested them to write for Kafila.

This series is titled Dilli Hai Jiska Naam, and the first post in the series by Pradip Krishen can be read here.

Here is the second post, by NARAYANI GUPTA

Basti basna khel nahin: Narayani Gupta

Presented at a seminar on ‘The Right to the City’ at Indraprastha College, Delhi University, on 5 September 2019 

The strident cry of the Right to the City takes us back 50 years, to Henri Lefebvre. 50 years ago, when I was in my 20s,  parts of the world turned upside down – 1967 saw the Naxalbari peasant uprising, in 1968, Lefebvre’s book Le Droit a la ville was followed by the  protest movements of students and workers in Europe. 1969, the rhythms of Woodstock, and in India the excitement of the founding of JNU… Today we get late for appointments because of the pile-up of cars on the roads. 50 years ago it was because of the river of red flags that eddied through the streets from Ramlila Maidan to Sansad Bhavan. Government bred its ‘other’ – protest. Things fall into place when recalled from a later time, but when they happen they merely disturb the surface.

So this is a golden jubilee moment, but also a nostalgia moment, nostalgia for that stubborn sense of hope which we seem to have lost, for the battle-cries now replaced by triumphalist slogans.

The plea for a collective life and an equal access to resources – which is implied in the battle-cry ‘The Right to the City’ – has to be placed against the histories of particular countries. It is certain conjunctures that explain why something happens when it does – even the rallying-cry of the Right to the City.

In medieval Europe, the city was a legal entity, as were the monarch and the church. “City air makes free” was the abbreviated form of a fundamental right – that even a runaway serf automatically became free if he lived in a city for a year and a day. This emphasis on individual liberty was different from the other medieval notion – of the liberties of estates.

In the fast-moving years from 1789 to 1794, Paris acquired a special status in the popular imagination as THE city, and to storm it and to occupy it was the symbol of political victory, first for the Estates, then for the People. This was most dramatically re-enacted in 1871 when the Commune was set up (London is too sprawling, Washington too formal, to connote the centre of a nation the way Paris is.)

‘Right TO the City’ is more strident than Rights IN the City. The post-war movement, ‘War on Want’, in 1951, included Right to the City. Right to public spaces, right to subsidised housing, and to welfare services, have been demands made in Europe, Turkey, Brazil, South- Africa. Spain’s concern about the eviction of the poor, and the north American about gentrification are 2 sides of the same coin, and remind one of Georges Simmel, as early as 1903, sensing  the change that was coming  (“The Metropolis and Mental Life”)  – the individual might get  freedom, but all quality and individuality would be reduced to their exchange value. 

In India, in the past, there have been demands that traditional rights be recognised – usually signalled by hartals – but the demand for the right to the city has to be read as a 20th-century phenomenon, connected with the introduction of democracy and electoral choices.  New Delhi is formal, but as symbol of a strong central government, has seen streets being taken over by protesters, most spectacularly for the week in 1988 when 5 lakh of Tikait’s followers turned the immaculate Rajpath lawns into an ephemeral village.

Places have personalities, as do regions and countries. The indigenous accounts of towns recognise this, quite unselfconsciously. The spirit of the place can be divined by reading its history. There are also, in the history of places, violent breaks which can superimpose a different form or character on them, something which again is identifiable only by understanding the backstory. Holistic place-histories/sthala-puranas should be not collections of data, but something conveying climate, land-use, language, creative cultures, the ebb and flow of cosmopolitanism, government structures, and popular stereotypes. The old Tamil poets who worked on the notion of the tinnai understood and elaborated on this, poets elsewhere sensed it and verbalised it without making the grid that the Tamils did with such confidence. In the histories of towns, moods have to be sensed – there are sad towns and happy towns, excited towns and frustrated towns, abrasive towns and friendly ones. In Indian literary texts, the different communities that make up a town’s inhabitants are delineated, as is the diffidence of the poor in the face of the politically established, or the rural in the face of the urban (Sudama and Krishna, Shakuntala and Dushyant).

India’s history cannot be read in terms drawn from the Western experience. Alas, India’s history cannot be read satisfactorily at all – because many of us are strangers in our sub-continent, and unfamiliar with its languages and registers, with the strategies that people devise endlessly to survive. So Indian history gets reduced to the adventures of rulers.

Academics are comfortable with discussions of the national or the regional rather than the local. The Indian nationalist movement pulled individuals up from their roots in the local to the height of the national. In the nation-building decades – the 1950s and 1960s – systematic research on towns was commissioned, and then aggregated. Sociologists, demographers and geographers worked on patchwork quilts of local studies and did excellent primary work. Towns were not differentiated in ecological terms, and were graded in terms of populations. It was the age when statistics were relied on and reliable. One could suggest other criteria for categorisation – differentiating habits and choices of different generations, intellectual and cultural richness….

The most serious lacuna was that no historian was asked to prepare biographies of towns, and the abbreviated Gazetteers were thought sufficient. As a result, in the 1970s, those historians who chose to research towns relied, by way of secondary material, on the work of social scientists. Following the social sciences, typologies were thought essential, and templates were drawn for ‘ancient Indian towns’, ‘medieval towns’ and ‘colonial towns’.  The particularities of towns, the differences between, say, Kanchipuram and Mathura, Mumbai and Kolkata, were not discussed. The pioneering and highly individualistic work of a scholar like Jean Deloche, on communications in India over the centuries, for instance, has hardly ever been treated as an academic resource, nor were ‘literary’ texts.  Far more well-known is the history of urbanisation in India compiled by a geographer (R Ramachandran) 30 years ago, and then he had to write it as Urbanisation and Urban Systems in India, making it a social science product rather than a history.

Many slogans or battle-cries have been raised When Henri Lefebvre used the term ‘Right to the City’ in 1968, holding up the ideal of collective life in a co-created city, you could hear the march of feet and the ‘La Marseillaise’ being sung as the hundreds marched to Paris in 1792. In 2008 David Harvey added a vital detail to Lefebvre’s ‘collective life’ – the specific need for equal access to services – again, does it remind us of the Levellers in the 1640s?

These can be the 2 frames through which we can begin to think of the Right to the City – access to services, and collective life. 

It all begins with ‘urbanisation’.

dil kā ujanā sahl sahī /   basnā sahl nahīñ zālim

bastī basnā khel nahīñ /  baste baste bastī hai         Fani Badayuni

One vowel can change so much – ‘basti basana’ means a settlement being planned by officials and ‘experts’, ‘basti basna’ means a settlement being built by its inhabitants. Towns can begin on an architect’s drawing board/computer screen, or by families raising low walls of broken brick or bamboo mats. Americans use the friendly term ‘neighbourhood’, Indians speak of ‘colonies’ or of ‘bastis’ – with a distinct caste-difference of register, a ‘colony’ being middle-class and respectable, a basti  poor, over-crowded and often seen as disreputable. ‘Colonies’ are essentially clusters of homes with a common level of income. ‘Bastis’ are for most part a cluster of people of one language-group, the refuge of immigrants to the bewildering city. Towns have external boundaries. They also have rigid internal boundaries, often marked by walls or railings, to separate ‘colonies’ from neighbouring ‘bastis’. It is in the detail that the inequalities in Indian towns can be read, not in the regional.

What is ‘urbanisation’, after all? An increasing number of inhabitants within a town’s boundaries. And/or rural areas near the town changing their profile from agricultural to industrial/service. The latter can happen by individual/community choice, or by the state requisitioning properties. In the case of people moving into the town, in most cases they have to fend for themselves, and rent homes or create homes in grey areas (the most spectacular neighbourhood, a combination of both processes, is Sangam Vihar in Delhi  – no-one waits more eagerly for elections and freebies). Over time, illegal softens into legal, kacha into pakka, and differences can be blurred by name-changes – a neighbourhood can acquire respectability by naming itself ‘Extension’/’Greater’ or even ‘Vihar’ (a word that has gone through many changes of meaning through the centuries).

For access to services, collective identity – the basti as community – is needed. Equally vital is the need for  individual identity  In the game of cards, where the rules  keep changing every so often – aadhar, ration, evs, pancard, it is the poor and even the recent immigrants who are better equipped than the middle class, because they are politically-savvy,  industrious, and innovative in a way the better-off are not. The instinct of self-preservation is a very effective tool to work the system. The poor find ways to get the services which the middle-class see as their right.

(Over the last year, the word ‘citizen’ has acquired a political dimension which no-one had foreseen. Less important than being a city-dweller, a person has to prove that he belongs to a country.)

Identity-cards are an assurance of security, and of access to services. Hard work, and the judicious greasing of palms, can empower the immigrant; make available for him all that money can buy. Then comes the next hurdle, one which is much more difficult to cross. This is that of social exclusion. It is generally accepted that a person can be defined by where he lives or what he does for a living – the middle-class by choice, the poor by lack of choice.  Jug Suraiya, when he moved to Delhi from Kolkata, found it disconcerting to be asked by a new acquaintance “Where are you putting up ?” Terms like HIG/MIG/LIG/Janata Flats are acceptable, as much as A,B, C or D categories of homes for officials (the first graded by income, the second by seniority).  Though the names ‘Man Nagar’ and ‘Shan Nagar’ were changed because of public indignation, ‘Seva Nagar’ is still used.  Similarly, the absurdity of the term ‘jhuggi-jhonpri colonies’ does not embarrass anyone. The middle-class town-dweller has no compunction in subverting rules or simply civil behaviour for his own convenience is indignant at the very sight of the dwellings of the poor (the telling word ‘eyesores’ says it all, and the adjective ‘dirty’ is blind to the fact that the most garbage is generated by the affluent neighbourhoods).

In the enthusiasm of middle-class India for American culture, its racial prejudices have been imbibed rather than its mainstream egalitarianism. As competitors for jobs and goods increase, so do prejudices, to justify denying services to specific castes or faiths, or income-levels. The prejudice that justifies keeping  certain people out is instilled from childhood – parks where middle-class children accept that poor children cannot play or household helps eat their lunch, ‘public libraries’ where an auto-driver cannot borrow books, restaurants which they cannot  enter.  The EWS category for school children creates distress, grief. One reason offered for the Nobel-prize-sharing Abhijit Banerjee’s concern with poverty is that he, a child of middle-class parents, used to play with the children of the nearby slum.

The dictum of medieval German towns – “City air makes free” – and Ghalib’s remark that everyone was entitled to occupy the street – were not incitements to do what one pleased in the public areas. It was implicitly understood that there were limits – on everyone. Our towns should be seen in terms of units smaller than the whole urban area, less than a municipality, bigger than a basti/colony. At this scale one can visualise shared public activities – appreciating cleanliness, care for trees, holding addas, encouraging sports, staging small theatricals or music recitals, above all making “the right of way” a right of all people, not only of cars – so that pavements become thoroughfares, not ragged borders for car-corridors. There are many ‘choks’ in modern Indian towns, but they have forgotten the original sense of a chowk – a common space where people could gather, with dignity, so that they did not have to eat their lunch perched on a culvert wall. The loveliest chowks are the round-points in Lutyens’ New Delhi, but ironically the ‘common man’ is discouraged from going into them because of the official cars circling them all day.

If city-dwellers develop an affection for the city – its open spaces, its walking areas, its markets, it may mean the end of the anomie that assails so many, lone individuals clutching a mobile phone. And Rajpath should not be a place from which we feel alienated, but a space which belongs to the city.

Narayani Gupta has taught History at I.P. College and Jamia Millia Islamia, been a member of the Urban Arts Commission, and is a consultant with INTACH. She has authored many works including Delhi Between  The Two Empires 1803-1931, OUP.        

9 thoughts on “Basti Basna Khel Nahin Hai – Dilli hai jiska naam II: Narayani Gupta”

  1. Sohail Hashmi, this series is a wonderful idea, and I should have said this after the first — which I happily sent out far and wide. The first piece by Pradip Krishen made fascinating reading. I thought it tied the knots in my head to a tough three-part essay by Nivedita Menon (

    Prof. Gupta’s essay is something else! The kind of piece you sit down and read, and keep on reading without even knowing it. There are architects I will send it to, for sure, and lots of students I know, and senior citizens who begin their revolutionary days in 1967, but it’s also the kind of scholarly essay you will mark for reading again, perhaps twice.

    I can’t wait for the next one in the series. Are you only looking at Delhi? How about Mumbai (and Bombay), Chennai (Madras), and Kolkata (Calcutta)?


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