India’s civic spirit, still safely housed

A common force often reshaping the world – the determination of people to be self-defined and self-governed – is playing out in India these days. On Sunday, the country will inaugurate a new building for the national Parliament, but the building itself, meant to hold civil debate, is already an object of robust debate. That’s because its design reflects a rise in Hindu nationalism, challenging India’s founding ideals of secular rule and respect for minority faiths.

One critic, Shiv Visvanathan, a sociology professor, wrote in the Deccan Herald that the new design is “rewriting history and redoing architecture” with the “majoritarian logic” of the dominant Hindu population. Yet the new building also has simple, practical purpose. It replaces a century-old structure that is crumbling and technologically ill-equipped. Its cavernous chambers will accommodate more members – meaning, in theory, better representative democracy as India has become the world’s most populous nation.

But architecture is never solely about use. In light and structure, buildings can highlight beauty, perception, listening, and integrity. As the visible expression of what the late British political scientist Ben Anderson called the “imagined community” of the nation-state, it projects power and identity.

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