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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Delhi’s Belly | Secret republics

Delhi’s Belly | Secret republics

How the high walls of Chanakyapuri's embassies evolved, and the little-known tales that they keep safe

The diplomatic mission of Pakistan in Chanakyapuri. Photographs by Lalit Verma/courtesy ‘Delhi’s Diplomatic Domains’Premium
The diplomatic mission of Pakistan in Chanakyapuri. Photographs by Lalit Verma/courtesy ‘Delhi’s Diplomatic Domains’

On 9 March 1967, Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s daughter who had been in New Delhi for around three months, decided to go for a walk. The trouble was that she had decided to walk the short distance from the USSR embassy on Shanti Path in Chanakyapuri to the American embassy, says Gladys Abankwa-Meier-Klodt, author of Delhi’s Diplomatic Domains: Chanceries And Residences of Chanakyapuri And Imperial New Delhi. Once there, she sought political asylum in the US, says Abankwa-Meier-Klodt, the wife of a German diplomat who has been residing in Delhi since August 2011.

Delhi’s Diplomatic Domains is part-history and part-architectural documentation, sprinkled with anecdotes from government documents, maps, letters, interviews, recorded history, and archival photos. In Alliluyeva’s case, Abankwa-Meier-Klodt found, the Soviet ambassador who gave Alliluyeva her passport during her India visit, was recalled and never posted abroad again (passports used to be taken away from Soviet nationals while they were overseas).

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But this wasn’t the name that was initially considered for the proposed diplomatic enclave. In 1951, the foreign service department’s chief protocol officer I.S. Chopra convened a meeting with his officers to decide what they should call the area. That was when “the junior-most officer" in the group, M.K. Rasgotra, piped up: Kautilya Nagar.

Sitting in his snugly heated Vasant Vihar drawing room, 89-year-old Rasgotra, who went on to become foreign secretary, recalls the meeting like it was yesterday. Then an assistant protocol officer in the foreign services department, he remembers that in 1951, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) had organized a meeting where prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was to address the members. As part of the preparations, a large plot south of Rashtrapati Bhavan was cleared of scrub vegetation and jungle, and the ground levelled.

Once the AICC meeting ended, there was talk about using the land to house foreign diplomats. The protocol office signed off on the suitability of this area as it was propitiously close to Rashtrapati Bhavan and Teen Murti Bhavan, where Nehru lived. Once the plan was passed, there was the small matter of what to call the area, laughs Rasgotra.

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Author Abankwa-Meier-Klodt at her home in Delhi. Photo: Rituparna Banerjee/Mint

However, the problems of a new republic are many, and all of these discussions were being held against the backdrop of providing for the millions of refugees who had crossed over after Partition. This also coincided with a time when Nehru had to articulate independent India’s foreign policy and build the foreign services department from scratch.

“Nehru had this vision of India as a great humanist country in the front ranks of power, but all around him Delhi was barren," says Rasgotra. “Nothing existed. On one side of Rashtrapati Bhavan, you had Teen Murti House, and beyond that there was jungle."

Allotting land for the diplomatic enclave was the easy part. Individual countries came forward with expressions of interest in face-to-face meetings with Chopra, and most were assigned whatever, and however much, land they asked for, says Rasgotra. “The Chinese made the largest demand. The Sri Lankans were among the first to make a modest demand."

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Following the allocations, the tricky question was, who would actually develop the sites? Nehru suggested the countries themselves build their embassies as models of their own best architectural practices. It was a masterstroke, and something heritage conservators in New Delhi still appreciate about Chanakyapuri.

“It (Chanakyapuri) is an encyclopaedia of the architecture of the world," says Prof. A.G.K. Menon, convenor of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach).

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The diplomatic mission of Bhutan on Chandragupta Marg adheres to the strict Driglam Namzha code of building according to one’s social station, and features the multicoloured exterior, small arched windows and columns, typical of the traditional home of an affluent Bhutanese family.

It was in 1955 that the first embassy building came up in Chanakyapuri—of the Vatican. The latest was Palestine, which completed the construction of its mission complex in 2012.

By now, some missions have started renovating or rebuilding structures to accommodate more officers as their relations with India grow. Others are renovating as part of the general upkeep of these old buildings.

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Delhi Diplomatic Domains—Chanceries And Residences of Chankayapuri And Imperial New Delhi: Full Circle Publishing, 248 pages, Rs 3,499

Abankwa-Meier-Klodt claims that there is at least one embassy building featured in her book that no longer exists. “That’s the Malaysian high commissioner’s residence," she says. “At the time that I took the photos they said, ‘Oh no, we’re going to demolish it’, and I said no that’s a historical document, I need to have that in there."

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Updated: 15 Feb 2014, 12:10 AM IST
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