Old Indian Parliament: An Odyssey Of Colonialism, Independence And Protest

Before India's tryst with destiny, chambers of the old Parliament under the British Raj were shaken by revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt in 1929, who threw bombs in its chambers and dropped red leaflets with the message, ‘It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear’.

Inauguration Of The Old Parliament In 1927

Twenty-six years before India gained Independence, Britain's Duke of Connaught laid the foundation stone of Parliament House on February 12, 1921, stating that the House would stand "as the symbol of India's rebirth to yet higher destinies". The halls of the now “Old” Parliament building echoed the historic 'Tryst with Destiny' speech delivered by the first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on August 15, 1947. Transfer of power at the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly took place at the dawn of independence.

The temple of India’s democracy, the old Parliament has a history of over a hundred years. Chambers of the old Parliament under the British Raj were shaken by revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt on April 8, 1929. The two freedom fighters dropped red leaflets from the Visitors’ Galleries with the message — ‘It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear’, from Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA). Singh and Dutt dropped bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly when Sir John Allsebrook Simon was present in the chamber among others. The Simon Commission had garnered strong protests across the country and ‘Simon Go Back’ became one of the strongest slogans of pre-Independent India.

On June 8, 1929, The Tribune’s Lahore edition carried a front-page report on the freedom fighters with sub-headlines quoting them: ‘We wanted to make deaf hear’; ‘No faith in utopian non-violence’, ‘Assembly is only a hollow show’; and ‘We could have ambushed Simon, but that was not our intention’. Both Singh and Dutt had surrendered after the incident and newspapers reports quoted them as saying that it was merely a “danger signal to the government” to “change the system of administration”. They aimed to be arrested and use the trial court as a forum for propaganda to familiarise the masses with their movement and ideology. Singh and Dutt were tried in the Assembly Bomb Case.

As the Old Parliament building is a historical landmark that has guided India’s destiny before and after Independence for over nine and a half decades, the odyssey of the Old Parliament is not limited to its architectural splendour but its illustrious legacy. It represents the transition of the shifting of the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi under the then monarch King George V. As the Parliament building, conceived as part of a larger mandate, representing India’s sacrosanct tryst with freedom now becomes history, we must remember the story, ethos and democratic values it envisaged for India post-Independence.

Colonialism To Post Freedom

It took six years for the construction work of the Parliament House to complete. The then viceroy and governor-general of India, Lord Irwin, inaugurated the Indian Parliament during its opening ceremony on 18 January 1927. Designed by British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker in 1912-1913 as part of their wider mandate to construct a new administrative capital city for India, the Parliament of India was originally called the House of Parliament.

The two architects argued over the plans for a permanent building to house the legislature. While Baker planned a triangular, Lutyens was in favour of a circular, colosseum design for the Parliament building. They also disagreed on the building’s location. Lutyens preferred the current location of the Parliament House, while Baker wanted to explore alternative sites, away from the secretariats on Raisina Hill. Eventually, Lutyens prevailed and the committee overseeing the construction of the new capital city went with the circular design. “I have got the building where I want it & the shape I want it,” Lutyens stated.

In 1913, plans for the new capital city of Delhi were being drawn up. It was envisaged that the Governor General’s house (now Rashtrapati Bhawan) would, within it also have the present-day unicameral legislative council. Since the council was small, its summer meetings were held in the viceregal lodge in Shimla. During the winter months, the council met in its chambers inside a building (the Delhi Legislative Assembly), which also housed the government secretariat. However, the dabs of self-government from the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1918 led to the creation of a bicameral legislature.

The administration now required space to accommodate legislative chambers for two houses. The challenge was concerning the newly-created larger legislative assembly with 140 members. Two proposals were made; to house the legislative assembly in a shamiana (tent), or to remodel an existing building to accommodate the legislative assembly. The second proposal was considered and a larger council chamber in the secretariat building was constructed, which became the home of the first central legislative assembly in 1921.

Within months after its inauguration, a tile from the assembly chamber roof fell in the middle of a debate. Later the same year, cracks showed up along the arched roofs of the corridors of the newly constructed building. An attic storey, made from plaster, was added to the building to accommodate the growing number of assembly staff two years later.

A newly Independent India, carrying the wounds of partition and communal violence faced the logistical challenges of accommodating the 300-plus members of the Constituent Assembly. This meant remodelling the library and converting it into Constitution Hall (central hall) for the making of the Constitution. Benches with electrical heating were installed in this hall to bear the chills of Delhi winter.

The Parliament House, originally called the Council House comprises a central hall, circular and 98 feet in diameter. The hall is poignant to the essence of the Parliament building since this is where the Indian Constitution was drafted. The Constitution of India came into force on January 26, 1950. The first general elections under the new Constitution were held during the year 1951-52 and the first elected Parliament came into existence in April 1952.

Situated at the end of Sansad Marg, the Parliament or Sansad Bhavan houses the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and a library hall. There is also a garden in between these three chambers. The building facilities accommodation for ministers, important officers of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, Chairmen and Parliamentary Committees. Two floors were added to the existing Parliament Building in 1956. With the idea to educate people on the Democratic heritage of India, which dates back over 2500 years, the Parliament Museum was established in 2006. The museum is equipped with sound and light videos, large screen interactive computer screens and virtual reality among other features.


Time And Timing: Old And New Parliament

On 13th December 2001, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed breached the premises of the Indian Parliament in a White Ambassador carrying fake Home Ministry stickers. The attackers wielded AK-47 weapons, grenades, grenade launchers, and handguns, and broke through successive security cordons. Though all MPs successfully and safely escaped, the attack killed nine people and injured 18, including six Delhi police and two Parliament security officials. After one of the attackers, wearing a suicide vest was shot, his bomb exploded, killing him. The four other attackers were also killed. The then Minister of Home Affairs LK Advani had called the attack a “terrorist assault on the very bastion of our democracy, clearly aimed at wiping out the country’s top political leadership.”


In 2012, former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar expressed concerns regarding the parliament building saying that it was “silently weeping”. It was later confirmed that the building had seepage and plumbing issues, along with other long-standing problems. The same was reiterated by Kumar’s successor Sumitra Mahajan in 2018, at the status of the then 88-year-old structure. In a letter to the government, Mahajan wrote that the building was showing “signs of distress”. The last legislative sitting in the Old Parliament was the Budget session of Parliament which ended in April.

In March 2018 Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) MP from Anandpur Sahib, Prem Singh Chandumajra demanded that the area in Parliament (the two seats) from where Singh and B.K Dutt threw their bomb be reserved to mark the event. Chandumajra had met the then LS speaker Sumitra Mahajan to fix a placard on the area from where the bomb was thrown into the well, to remind people of the struggle against the anti-people policies of the colonial rule. “This tribute is overdue,” Chandumajra wrote in a letter to the speaker. He had also sought that March 23, the martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev be declared a holiday in Parliament. “MPs should visit Khatkar Kalan, the ancestral village of Bhagat Singh on this day,” he added.


As the old Parliament becomes history, the new Parliament has already created history for numerous reasons. The inauguration ceremony is being boycotted by multiple opposition parties. PM Modi has also been criticised for sidelining the President of India, Draupadi Murmu in the ceremony. Modi performed the groundbreaking ceremony of the new parliament in December 2020, as the Farmers’ protest crossed two weeks amid Delhi’s harsh cold. The new parliament building is part of PM Modi’s grand Central Vista plan estimated at two hundred billion rupees ($2.7 billion). Its foundation was laid as India struggled between the first and second waves of the covid-19 pandemic.


"If the institutions of parliamentary democracy are worth preserving, the duty to explain them to the people they are meant to serve becomes vitally important."---John Allen Fraser