On December 12 last year Delhi celebrated 100 years of the announcement by King George V that the capital of India would be moved from Calcutta to Delhi, a year after the Viceroy proposed doing so, for obvious geopolitical reasons. The announcement was made by the British without any previous notification, during the Coronation Durbar in a grand ceremony fusing the British and Mughal traditions where they were proclaimed the Emperor and Empress of India, to commemorate their coronation in Britain earlier the same year The foundation stone for the new city was laid on December 15, 1911, by King George V at Raisina village, where the Viceregal House—present day Rashtrapati Bhavan—later came up, and adjoining Malcha village.

Just as every ruling prince, nobleman, landed gentry and other persons of note from India attended this Proclamation Durbar, the third and last held by the British in India after 1877 and 1903, the who’s who of Delhi celebrated the occasion last year. The Delhi government and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations have lined up a series of celebrations to mark the occasion for a year starting December 12, 2011. Souvenirs were released, the street food and kebabs and kulfis of Delhi were distributed and celebrated, exhibitions with photographs ranging from that of the old city of Shahjahanabad to the present day Lutyen’s Delhi celebrating the “new India” were held, and a book on the history of the seven cities of Delhi was released by Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit.

But the book fails to celebrate an important event in India’s modern history; an event that was probably the first in a series of similar occurrences since then across the country almost every year with an alarming consistency.

The residents of the 150 villages that were eventually acquired to build New Delhi refused to give up their farmland to the British and protested. More than 3,000 families united against the forced acquisition of prime agricultural land and the dense forest land on the Raisina Ridge that is still termed the “lungs of Delhi”. 

Historical accounts suggest that the villages of the area had played host to mutineers during the 1857 revolt and provided them with supplies during the march to Red Fort in the old city of Shahjahanabad. Many people from these villages took active part in the rebellion and fought alongside the soldiers. One of them was a Jat soldier Gulab Singh, who fought the British and later came to be known for his bravery in the villages of the area as “Kaale ghode wala (one who rode a black horse)”.

British records of deaths in the area, maintained meticulously to keep track of the division of land parcels and ownership, show that he continued to live in the Malcha village with his family and died on April 5, 1894. By then, out of respect for his contribution during the revolt of 1857, his family had become prominent across the villages of present day central and south Delhi. Members of his extended family were often asked to assume leadership roles during disputes in the panchayats.

Tucked away in the ridge forest was the famous hunting lodge called Malcha Mahal, owned by the Nawab of Awadh and built more than 600 years ago. The Nawab would often visit it with his entourage and go hunting in the area, which then boasted of a sizeable tiger population as well as other game. After the fall of the Awadh dynasty around 1850, Malcha Mahal lay almost abandoned, with only a few servants guarding the property.

The majority of the population of these villages comprised Jats, while Muslims and Gujjars were also present in good numbers along with some Brahmin and Dalit families.

By 1911, however, there were very few Muslim families left, presumably because Muslims were specifically targeted by the British in and around Shahjahanabad after the 1857 revolt because of their active participation. Gujjars had also been punished by the British since Gujjar gangs had looted British convoys and killed British families that had fled Delhi when the mutineers were busy laying siege to the city.

The Jats were now in a majority across the villages of the area. Descendants of Gulab Singh were still respected and people looked up to them for leadership; as a result Malcha village had acquired the status of the most important village in the area over the more than five decades since the great revolt.

The proposal to shift the capital to Delhi was mooted by Charles Hardinge—Viceroy of India from 1910 to 1916—in 1910, a decision that would change the lives of the people of Raisina and Malcha forever.

On November 21, 1911, M W Fenton, Chief Secretary to the Government of Punjab, issued an order in the Punjab Gazette saying: “Notification number 775; whereas it appears to the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab and its despondencies that land is acquired by Government for public purpose, namely for the new capital of India at Delhi, it is hereby declared that the undermentioned land is required for the said purpose. This declaration is made under the provision of section of Act 1 of 1894 and under section 7 of the said Act, the collector of Delhi district is hereby directed to take order for the acquisition of the said land.”

The descendants of the villagers whose land was acquired say that even when the Coronation Durbar was being held the British were yet to inform the villagers, leave alone getting them evacuated from the area.

They say nobody was sure of what was eventually to happen; but the murmurs started after Sir Sobha Singh (father of noted author Khushwant Singh), the builder who was entrusted the task of building New Delhi, had the foundation stones removed from Kingsway Camp, where the Durbar had been held and placed at Raisina and Malcha villages, 11 kilometres away.

Meanwhile, architects Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker had started to work on designing the architecture of the new capital, construction of which was to begin only by 1916.

The villagers were then informed— much like it is done in present day India—that their land no longer belonged to them, and that all of it, including their dwellings and non-agricultural land was to be acquired.

Panchayats held in every village unanimously decided that they would not surrender their lands.

On October 10, 1912, the Government of India issued the order endorsing the order of the Government of Punjab (endorsement number 1169), paving the way for the formal acquisition of the land in Malcha and Raisina villages.

At first, a little less than 4,000 acres was to be acquired for the construction of the Viceroy House, or Rashtrapati Bhavan as it is now known.

Meanwhile, sensing the rebellious mood in the villages, the British decided to provide legal sanction to the acquisition by paying compensation to all the people whose land was being acquired. The farmers then put up a demand of  Rs. 2,400 per acre for agricultural land and Rs. 1,920 an acre for other infertile land. However, they were offered just Rs. 35 and Rs. 15 per acre for fertile and infertile land respectively. Compensation rates were decided without consulting any of the villagers; the government prepared a list of all the villagers and the compensation amount they would be entitled to.

The Land Acquisition Officer of the Government of Punjab was to issue awards between 1912 and 1913 and pay the amounts that the government had seen fit as compensation to families from the two villages. They were told to collect their compensation amounts but no arrangements made for resettling them; they were simply asked to migrate to wherever they could.

The villagers had made up their minds to protest against this injustice. Some people, however, decided not to protest and instead pleaded with the British to resettle them in other areas instead of leaving them to their own fate. 

The Jats of the area, however, had no plans of surrendering. Village panchayats were held and it was decided by Jats of at least seven villages—Malcha, Palam, Prahladpur, Sultanpuri, Manglapuri, Motibagh and Gothda—that they would fight for their lands. Farmers from all these villages gathered near a well called Dhaula Kuan at Palam village, which is today a famous location situated southwest of Delhi, and poured salt in the well as part of their vow to defend their lands. Historical accounts suggest that the well was named dhaula (white) because of the white sand at its bottom but villagers in and around the area claim that it was named so as part of the tradition of the Jats of the region to pour salt in it as part of their vows before going to battle. “Namak ki saugandh khana sabse bada pran hota thha (to swear by salt used to be the biggest vow those days),” a farmer recalled at a meet of the farmers from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, organised in Delhi by the Delhi Gramin Samaj (Delhi Rural Society).

Led by Amar Singh, the pradhan (village head) of Malcha village and grandson of the “brave Kaale ghode wala baaghi (the rebel who rode a black horse)” Gulab Singh, they started fortifying the boundaries of Raisina and Malcha and preparing for battle.

When the British got a whiff of the plans, they attacked Malcha and Raisina immediately and 33 people, including Amar Singh, were killed in the fight. While there is no evidence of what exactly transpired during the fight, an octogenarian who claims his grandfather fought the British says his father had seen the British fire cannons at Malcha.  “The whole village lay in ruins after that,” he said.

The families of the Jats from Malcha and Raisina ran away, never to return to their homes again. Only ten per cent of the 300 families from the two villages collected their compensation.

All that is left today of the village is the temple, known now as the Malcha Mandir.  Half of the compound of the temple houses a small school run by a private trust, while the other half houses the old temple. The road running through the area was named Malcha Marg and the famous market of the area is called Malcha Market.

Malcha Mahal suffered near dilapidation and lay in ruin, unoccupied since India attained independence in 1947. The last queen of the Awadh dynasty of Lucknow, Begum Wilayat Mahal, was allotted the house in 1985 after she had spent almost a decade in the VIP lounge of New Delhi railway station with her two children, servants and a loyal pack of dogs. She reportedly approached Indira Gandhi to have the property allotted back to her and the process was initiated after that. The Begum poisoned herself to death in 1993 and is survived by her children, Prince Ali Raza and Princess Sakina Mahal.

The land of Malcha and Raisina villages is today occupied by several ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign and Home ministers; the Chanakyapuri area, where most of the embassies of foreign countries are situated, is also located where once farmer ploughed their fields.

The property has since been named Wilayat Mahal. A board outside  Wilayat Mahal today cautions potential “intruders” of the presence of hound dogs and threatens that trespassers will be gunned down. Nothing has so far happened to make the guns boom, and hardly anyone has met the prince and the princess since the Begum died. A few journalists, mostly foreign, have managed to gain “legal” entry into the compound but have come away dejected with the delusional and aggressive attitude of Sakina Mahal, who was famous in the 1990s as a reclusive princess who is perpetually drunk.

The land of Malcha and Raisina villages is today occupied by several ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign and Home ministers; the Chanakyapuri area, where most of the embassies of foreign countries are situated, is also located where once farmer ploughed their fields.

Malcha Marg runs perpendicular to Sardar Patel Marg, along which the old Malcha village would have run. The stretch along Sardar patel Marg houses foreign embassies and the offices of some states, like Karnataka Bhavan and the Uttar Pradesh Bhavan. One section of the Diplomatic Enclave has been named Malcha House, a reminder of erstwhile Malcha village.

Right across the road is the boundary wall of Rashtrapati Bhavan, across which lies the dense forest known as the Rashtrapati Bhavan Estate. Parliament House and India Gate too fall in the 1,792 acre area along with Rashtrapati Bhavan, all of which were reportedly under the area of Raisina village. The famous protected forest of the Raisina Ridge area is also walled and out of bounds for the common man.

Despite suffering brutalities at the hands of the British, the families that were forced to leave the villages did not scatter into oblivion. They stuck together, moved westward and eventually settled down in the Harsana Kalan area of what is today the Sonepat district of Haryana. They bought land from other farmers in the area and started their lives all over again.

Over the next decade, families from the other five villages who had rebelled alongside them kept joining them after being forced into selling their lands at dirt cheap rates. These families together formed a single village and named it Malcha Patti after Malcha village out of respect for the people who laid down their lives there.

This village today has almost forgotten what happened with their forefathers; only old-timers recall stories that have been passed down over the generations. The generation that had heard first-hand accounts of the events that transpired 100 years back is now represented by a couple of people with fading memories. Over the years the interest in such stories had also faded. That was until 2004, when a farmer called Sajjan Singh discovered something startling.

During a chance discussion with an officer from the Revenue Department in Delhi, where he regularly participates in activities of the Ramakrishna Mission, Singh learnt that the British had actually awarded compensation for the lands owned by his forefathers; it was his forefathers who had refused to take the compensation and chosen to fight for their lands instead.

“Our forefathers were illiterate and so never knew or even cared to know anything related to compensation after they were thrown out of their lands. This information did not trickle down through generations as a result. My father too was barely literate. It was a big revelation for me,” Singh recalls eight years later.

But then Singh was aware of his forefathers’ small role in the country’s history—that he was a descendant of the famous rebel Gulab Singh. He decided to trace this money and started talking to elders in his village about what had happened a century back. With his father no more he convinced his paternal uncle Rai Singh, who had no children, to initiate a legal battle to trace the money. He approached advocate Sanjay Rathi at the Tis Hazari courts in Delhi urging him to look into the matter.

“It was a search in the dark in the beginning. But while fighting a case related to another land dispute earlier I had learnt that the records of the erstwhile Punjab province are stored in Chandigarh under the records of the state government of Punjab and that they have revenue records as old as 200 years. So the first step we took was to try and access them,” recalls Rathi.

On behalf of his uncle, Sajjan Singh then filed a case at the Tis Hazari courts in Delhi claiming the compensation that is due to the descendants of the people who had fled from Raisina and Malcha villages in 1912. They won the first legal battle after two years when they managed to trace the old revenue records and establish that compensation had indeed been paid.

On December 25, 2006, replying to the petition filed by Singh, the then Land Acquisition Collector of Delhi A K Kaushal said, “As per records, compensation of acquired land belonging to the ancestors of the applicants vide award no. 30, 31 and 32/1911-12 of village Malcha had been deposited in the Court of Divisional Judge Delhi on 21.12.1912 under provisions of Section 31(2) of the Land Acquisition Act 1894.”

It had been established that the amount was still with the government. During informal meetings with government officers Sajjan Singh learnt that there were receipts of people from some villages receiving the compensation still available in government records. But it was not until 2006, after the Right to Information Act came into effect, that Singh could access those records. Singh managed to lay hands on a receipt acknowledging the payment of compensation to a farmer from Palam village, after which he filed applications to access all records related to compensation paid to villagers from Malcha and Raisina.

The British used to keep detailed land records; so much so that they would even list the number of trees that existed on a person’s property. They also used to maintain pedigree tables or family trees of residents of every village.

Singh filed numerous RTI applications and eventually established his immediate ancestry, ownership of his forefathers over the land on which New Delhi stands today and that as per revenue records the money due to his great great grandfather was never paid to him. All this evidence now put the ball in the court of the government of Delhi and the government of India.

This information prompted other farmers to file cases in the court on the same lines by providing proof of their family history and tracing the amount that was to be paid to them as compensation. Many families came forward and Rathi now had at least 17 cases with him.

The first bank ever set up in India was the Bank of Calcutta, founded in 1806 by the British to fund their campaigns against Tipu Sultan and the Marathas. This was renamed the Bank of Bengal in 1809 and was the national bank of India when the British decided to move their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. The money that was to be deposited in the court of the Divisional Judge of Delhi was, by default, deposited in the Bank of Bengal. It had been lying with the court since the people who were to receive the compensation amounts never appeared before it; and neither the British bother to trace them.

The British had since also set up Bank of Bombay and the Bank of Madras but because Bank of Bengal operated from the then capital Calcutta, all the money was deposited in it. As per available records, the compensation money was deposited in the Bank of Bengal in 1913. Ten years later in 1923 when construction of New Delhi—which had suffered delays due to breakout of the World War I—had finally started picking up, the three banks were merged to form a single entity which was named Imperial Bank of India. The Imperial Bank inherited all this money and the records related to it. After Independence, the Reserve Bank of India acquired controlling interest in the Imperial Bank in its capacity as the central banking organisation in the country and the Imperial Bank of India was renamed the State Bank of India. This means that the State Bank of India inherited the money that was meant for the displaced people of New Delhi who live in today’s Malcha village in Sonepat. 

The State Bank of India proudly exclaims in its ad campaigns, started a few years back, that it has been the national bank of India for more than 200 years, and the fact that it has records of the first Indians to open bank accounts like Rabindranath Tagore Vinobha Bhave, Dadabhai Naoroji, and even Jawaharlal Nehru.

In case of the compensation for these villagers, however, the bank, replying to a show cause notice related to one of the petitions filed in this case, said in an affidavit in 2009 that “the relevant records of the year 1913 of the Bank of Bengal are not traceable”, which, in quite simply means that the records have been lost!

Sanjay Rathi has since tried to impress upon the court that the records of the then Divisional Judge of Delhi must have been inherited by some authority, especially since there are records of cases dating back up to 200 years available in courts of Delhi.

However, his applications under the RTI Act have thrown up a sorry state of affairs in the judiciary, too. “The Supreme Court directed me (through replies to RTI applications) to the Delhi High Court, which in turn directed me to the local courts in Delhi. Similarly, the Union Urban Development Ministry and the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi have directed me to the Land Acquisition Department of Delhi, which in turn has stuck to its stand that it had deposited the amount in the court of the Divisional Judge of Delhi in 1913 itself. The case has come back to where it started as a result.”

“It is a vicious circle. ‘The records exist and the money was deposited with the government but it has vanished now’ is what we are being told,” says  Singh. “Everyone is eventually hiding behind this one excuse—documents have been lost,” says Rathi. The Patiala House court presently hearing the matter has issued a notice to the government of Delhi to explain why the process of disbursement of compensation was not started in 1913 itself, to which the government was to reply at the next hearing in June, which has been postponed to August. “It is the responsibility of the government as per law to make sure that the farmers receive their compensation amounts. Instead, the farmers are demanding it and being told that the government cannot compensate them.”

As other villagers slowly got to know of the issue and the case in the court picked up momentum, politics  on the matter too built up. Various self-help groups were formed among sections of the farmers to plead the case politically. Protests and demonstrations were staged in the capital on a regular basis demanding justice for the farmers, including one on Independence Day at Jantar Mantar when Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade was at its peak. Since then there have been many more protests across the capital and farmers from the village have taken part in them in large numbers along with the members from various other farmers’ unions in Haryana.

These farmers now gather regularly when local politicians give calls for protests and dharnas, not necessarily to address the issue of the compensation due to them but other issues too. Sensing the opportunity to consolidate a decent vote bank and judging the sentiments among the farmers from Malcha Patti as a sellable political issue, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Member of Parliament from Sonepat, Krishan Singh Sangwan raised the question in the Lok Sabha during a Zero Hour discussion a few years back.

Nobody in the village got to know what reply he got but they were told the reply was something that did not address the issue and instead only “misled” the “honest” Sangwan saab.

Some farmers also approached Yoga Guru-turned-politician Baba Ramdev and got a promise that he would take up the issue against the “corrupt” Government of India on a large scale; it is, however yet to come to fruition, with Ramdev caught up in his own issues.

While the overwhelming sentiment in Malcha is that they have been cheated and that the government has not even come up with a reply, Singh never participates in rallies or protests; nor does he talk much about the political developments regarding the issue.

“Only the courts of this country can force the governments, politicians and bureaucrats to work; this fight has to be won legally,” he says, dismissing the protests and the speeches given by politicians who will “only exploit the farmers and never work towards anything concrete to get their issue addressed”. After all, “...these very politicians led numerous protests across Haryana and Delhi when land was acquired by the governments and rallied the poor farmers around them. But no leader managed to achieve anything for them. The governments kept doing what they wanted to and will continue to do so”. 

Ironically, the law that was used against Singh’s forefathers to evict them from their villages is still the same one being used by the governments across the country to acquire farmers’ lands: The Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which the Government of India adopted verbatim after 1947.

Except for a few cosmetic changes introduced through some amendments since then, the Act remains the same. As per conservative estimates more than four crore people have been displaced from their farmlands and houses since independence as governments have continued to use provisions of the Act. And government’s own figures suggest that almost three-fourths of these people are still awaiting compensation. Provisions of this Act—some of them allow the government to take away land without even awarding compensation—have been at the root of almost every conflict related to land acquisition in India since independence.

The Supreme Court has come down heavily on the law on various occasions. After the violence in Delhi’s suburbs of Noida and Greater Noida last year over the acquisition of farmland for construction of upmarket housing societies, the SC had said that the state is “the biggest land grabber, depriving farmers of their livelihood for generations” and remarked that this law is “anti-people” and meant only to benefit the governments.

The Government of India finally came up with a proposal to enact a new law which provides justice to the farmers. The new bill, termed Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, proposed to link welfare of farmers with the acquisition of their land. But even before it was to be tabled in the Parliament last year, which it eventually was not, experts and the farmers’ unions of the country rejected it as a farce.

“The proposed bill falls way short of expectations. Leave alone the complex issues related to ownership of land, it fails to deliver even on the often repeated promises that ‘no forced acquisition of land will be carried out’ and that ‘fertile land will not be acquired’. It is simply a patch work on the earlier bill, a far cry from the de novo approach promised to meet challenges in the current scenario in the country,” says Devinder Sehrawat, Secretary of the Delhi Gramin Samaj.

Sehrawat has been organising various discussions on the subject. Politicians, experts on public policy, farmer leaders and protesters from various states have all taken part in such meets. Farmers from Malcha too have actively participated in them, demanding that the new law include provisions that require the government to address all cases of land acquisition since the draconian law of 1894 came into effect.

The people of Delhi, meanwhile, are busy celebrating. The Delhi Book Fair showcased over 100 books on Delhi’s history recently. Pictures of King George V and those of the Coronation Durbar were on display at the fair’s photos of Delhi before the capital of modern India was built were also visible in many books. The people who inhabited this city before it are missing, though. Nobody seems to know or even care about what fate they fell upon and what happened to their families.

The fight that those families and their descendants have put up over these 100 years is part of the long commentary on the wrongs that have been perpetrated on the poor of this country, both before and after independence. That Rashtrapati Bhavan, the building which houses the first person of India, stands on land that is legally “in dispute” is a chilling reminder.