For all practical purposes, India is governed from New Delhi. But New Delhi is not, and never has been, a reflection of what the country is, was, or will be. The Mughals wrung the villages dry to create their ‘Dilli’, and the British crippled local industry and diverted economic surplus to create theirs. In 2013, perhaps the best place to envision one of India’s possible futures is about 30 kilometres south of the capital, next state over in Haryana, a city that has surpassed even Delhi in terms of material growth.

Gurgaon is, however, teetering on the edge of societal and administrative dysfunction. Never mind New Delhi, even the Haryana state government doesn’t have much sway over this self-arrogated dominion.

Its observable growth from dusty hamlet to hick town to a city of well over a million people began as recently as the early 1990s, thus Gurgaon is always thought of as a beginning, a crucible of new experiments. But the settlement is, in fact, ancient—although just how ancient is disputable.


Gurgaon’s earliest history is the stuff of mythology:

How much real but forgotten history is preserved in such legends it is impossible to say, but it appears certain that they often preserve relics of ancient creeds or religious organizations. Thus Gurgaon derives its name from the tradition that it was granted to Drona Achárya, gurú of Yudishthira.

(A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province, by Horace Arthur Rose; Government Printing Press, Lahore; pp 131, Volume 1; 1911.)

But the Haryana government suggests that the name ‘Gurgaon’ originates not in the Sanskrit word for ‘teacher’ but in, simply, ‘big’:

It is said that the name Gurgaon is a corruption of Guru Gram, i.e. village of a spiritual leader … The tradition also has it that it was here that Dronacharya gave instruction to the Kauravas and Pandavas.* It may also be the case that on account of its association with Dronacharya or otherwise, this gram was considered guru or big. Adjectives like bada, chhota and uncha are sometimes used in the place names to indicate their physical character.’

(‘Origin of the Name of the District’; Chapter 1; Gurgaon District Gazetteer, 1981)

(*Gurgaon District Gazetteer, 1910)

The Gurgaon Municipal Corporation’s website, a playground of aperçus and choicest grammar, offers a more folksy etymology: “In a layman understanding, the word Gurgaon has its origin in an amalgamation of the words gur (Jaggery) and gaon (village).”

It goes on to say that nothing of note happened in the region until the reign of Akbar (1556-1605):

History of Gurgaon is a normal path undergoing progression starting from a village to a subha of Akbar, the Mughal Emperor comprising of sikars of Delhi, Rewari, Suhar Pahari and Tijara. Tribal infighting gave the Britishers an excuse to step in acquiring the region in 1803 AD through Treaty of Surji[-­] A[nja]ngaon with Sind[h]ia ruler.

(; website of the Municipal Corporation, Gurgaon)

But, in truth, Gurgaon followed anything but a “normal path undergoing progression”:

Gurgaon, with the rest of the territory known as Mewat, formed in early times part of an extensive kingdom ruled over by Rajputs of the Jaduvansi or Jadon tribe. The Jadon power was broken by Muhammad of Ghor in 1196; but for two centuries they sturdily resisted the Muhammadan domination, and the history of the District is a record of incursions of the people of Mewat into Delhi territory and of punitive expeditions undertaken against them…

After Lord Lake’s conquests the District passed to the British with the rest of the country ceded by Sindhia in 1803, but was left in the hands of native assignees, the District of Gurgaon being formed piecemeal as their estates for one cause or another escheated.

(The Imperial Gazetteer of India [Vol. XII]—Einme to Gwalior; The Clarendon Press; 1908; pp 403-­04)


From “their pre-mutiny status as a spying post”, Gurgaonwasis turned patriots during the 1857 Rebellion and threw in their lot with Bahadur Shah Zafar:

The division of Dehli comprised, in 1857, the city of Dehli, and the districts of Gurgaon, Hisar, Panipat, and Rohtak.


The history of Dehli antecedent to and during the period of the mutiny, has been so completely told in the preceding volumes of this history that further reference is unnecessary. I therefore propose to pass at once to Gurgaon.


The district of Gurgaon possesses an area of nineteen hundred and thirty-­eight square miles, and it had, in 1857, a population of something more than half a million. It is bounded to the north by the Rohtak district; to the west and south-­west by the native States, Alwar, Nabha, and Jhind; to the south by the district of Mathura; to the east by the Jamnah; and to the north-­east by the Dehli district. Its principal towns were Gurgaon, the capital; Rewari, Palwal, and Farrukhnagar. The principal river traversing it is the Jamnah.

Its fate decided by that of Dehli

Of this district it will suffice to say that its fate was decided by its proximity to the imperial city. Its chiefs and its people, especially the former, threw in their lot with the representative of the House of Taimur. Its fate, then, followed that of Dehli. In the fourth volume I have told how, after the conquest of that city, Brigadier Showers marched a column into the Gurgaon district and put down all opposition. After that exploit it ceased to have a history.

(‘The Agra and Rohilkhand Divisions’; Chapter 4, in Colonel George Bruce Malleson (ed.) Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 (Volume 6); WH Allen & Co, London; 1896; p 139.)

Terrified of another rebellion, the Victorians played a balancing game between elite Indians seeking self-governance and their own apprehensions about letting the least whiff of parliamentary democracy into their greatest colony.

But what actually gave Gurgaon some cachet in Old Blighty was famine, with the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (April 1st, 1884) writing: “The partial failure last autumn of the crops is now beginning to make itself felt in various parts of India. Among the districts most seriously affected is the one of Gurgaon.”

It is this rural misery that inspired Frank Lugard Brayne (1882-1952), an Anglo-Indian deputy commissioner of Gurgaon (1920-28). He was behind the much-lauded ‘Gurgaon Experiment’, or ‘Village Uplift movement’, which attempted, according to the ‘Brayne Collection’ of photographs “illustrating rural upliftment [sic] in India” at the British Library in London, to transform lives “lived in the most unnecessary squalor, misery, suffering, degradation and disease”.

Gurgaon, a few miles south east of Delhi, was one of the most backward tracts in the Punjab; a sandy, famine-­stricken area on the fringes of the Rajasthan desert. The crops were poor: with unreliable rains and inadequate irrigation, the cultivators had to grow low-­value, drought-­resistant millets … The Meos, who made up the bulk of the population in the southern tehsils, constituted a race apart: isolated, illiterate, impoverished. Yet Brayne knew that if he could change the Meos, he could change peasants anywhere in India. So he hurled himself into an orgy of uplift. He set out to transform the entire lifestyle of 700,000 people, from their soiled cradles to their premature graves by making them industrious and thrifty.

(Anglo-Indian Attitudes: The Mind of the Indian Civil Service, by Clive Dewey; The Hambledon Press, London; 1993; pp 61-62)

Brayne tried to change how the local farmers lived and worked, introducing compost pits, Persian waterwheels, iron ploughs and pedigree bulls. But he was haunted by one question:

Will this work last and spread? Alhas no! This work is not being done by villagers determined to leave a better life but by villagers determined to please their district officers. A good enough motive in its way but not the motto we are looking for. There is no permanence about this kind of work. What if the district officer’s attention is diverted elsewhere, or he want something different does, or in a different series of villages?

(Better Villages, by Frank Lugard Brayne; Oxford University Press, Madras; 1937)

In 1947, Gurgaon was far enough from the Radcliffe Line to escape any direct Partition-related violence. But it was still close enough for Hindus and Muslims to act according to rumours. The disturbances drew the attention of Lord and Lady Mountbatten who, on the very day that the programme for Partition and independence—the 3rd June Plan—would be made public, fit another stop into their day’s itinerary:

Viceroy visits Gurgaon

The Viceroy and Viscountess Mountbatten accompanied by the Governor of the Punjab, Sir Evan Jenkins, visited this morning some of the areas of the Gurgaon district which have been affected by the recent disturbances.

They left New Delhi at 7-­30 am, met the Governor at Palam airfield, and returned after hang visited five of the burnt out and desolated villages. At Palwal, Their Excellencies visited the mission hospital and saw some of the victims.

Viscountess Mountbatten has arranged for some much needed medical supplies to be sent immediately to Palwal.

(The Indian Express; June 3rd, 1947)

A decade after Partition, fallout from the linguistic reorganisation of states would hit the region, and the Hindi-speaking population of Punjab would rise up against the hegemony of Punjabi-speakers. Still a decade later, Haryana would be born:

After the Hindi Andolan—a combined assertion of the Hindus from both regions (North and South) of the state against the imposition of Punjabi as a compulsory language for all in Punjab—another important instance of the assertion of identity of the southern region of Punjab was the Parliamentary by-­election of the Gurgaon Constituency in 1958. In 1957, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had been elected from this constituency, but his death necessitated the by-­election the next year … The defeat of the Congress candidate in this election was significant in that it implied a warning from the emerging power of the Arya Samaj and the Jat peasantry, clearly heading towards demarcating a political territory of their own in which they would call the shots.

(‘Towards the Creation of Haryana 1957-1967’; Chapter 3, from Power Politics in Haryana: A View from the Bridge, by Bhim S Dahiya; Gyan Publishing House; 2008)

In 1971, Indira Gandhi’s sociopathic younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, went to Gurgaon to set up a manufacturing unit for India’s first small car. He failed; but India’s automobile dominator today is, literally, his legacy: he named it Maruti, after the Hindu god of the wind, and he was its first managing director. In a sense, Gurgaon gave India wheels.

As Vinod Mehta, him of Lucknow Boy: A Memoir (2012), wrote in The Sanjay Story: From Anand Bhavan to Amethi (1978):

Having obtained his Letter of Intent Sanjay’s next objective was land, a plot where he could construct a factory capable of delivering 50,000 vehicles a year. Bansi Lal had been following the Maruti license age with more than neighbourly interest. Beginning as a “phaticar vakil” (bankrupt lawyer) he had quickly become Chief Minister of Haryana, thus providing an Indian version of the rags to riches story. One would have thought that he had reached the pinnacle of his ambitions.

This was nowhere near the truth: Bansi Lal had grander visions. Being a wily and scheming politician, he understood that his grand visions would remains illusory unless he was able to ingratiate himself with someone at 1, Safdarjung.

The obvious choice was Indira Gandhi. But toadying to the Prime Minister meant facing competition. There were scores of Bansi Lals in India trying to further their political careers by demonstrating “unstinting loyalty” to the Prime Minister.

To his credit it must be said that Bansi Lal was the first to spot Sanjay Gandhi as a man of the future, a man to hitch your bandwagon to. As his initial offering the Chief Minister of Haryana offered Sanjay choice real estate for his factory, and offered it at a knock down price.

Bansi Lal made sure his offering was not spurned. Since Sanjay would continue to live with his mother, the plot had to be within driving distance from Delhi. And so it was. Gurgaon district is situated 7 kilometres from Delhi, and the site selected was on the Delhi-­Gurgaon highway. Bansi Lal offered Sanjay 296.7 acres of land on this highway.

I had always thought that the roadsidemeeting anecdote about Kushal Pal Singh Teotia (KP Singh), chairman and CEO of DLF Limited, the country’s largest and most politically-influential real estate developer, and Rajiv Gandhi was apocryphal. But apparently not, and their chance meeting changed the face of urbanism in North India. In a recent review on of KP Singh’s book, Whatever the Odds: The Incredible Story Behind DLF (HarperCollins; 2011), Raman Kirpal wrote:

During the summer of 1980, K P Singh recounts, it was a chance encounter with Rajiv Gandhi in a deserted part of rural Haryana near Qutub Minar, when K P Singh had eyed an area of around 40 acres to set up what is now Gurgaon city.

He was chatting with a villager when a speeding jeep screeched to a halt nearby. Rajiv Gandhi, who was driving the jeep, emerged from the vehicle and asked if he could get a can of water as his engine was overheating. Rajiv Gandhi had just given up his pilot job with the Indian Airlines and had taken his ‘first hesitant steps’ into politics after the death of his brother Sanjay Gandhi.

Rajiv Gandhi, who often used to take this route to visit his Mehrauli farmhouse, asked Singh what he was doing in such a desolate place at the height of summer. Then Singh told him all about his vision of Gurgaon as the international city and how the government laws are not helping him to create this city and not providing private developers a level playing field.

K P Singh writes: “He (Rajiv Gandhi) became interested and pressed me on the issue. What is holding it up and why don’t you do it, Rajiv asked.

“At that time, DLF had no money or business worth talking about. Banks were forbidden to give loans to purchase land. There was no such thing as housing loans. The only capital that DLF had was my optimism and determination to revive the company and make it a real estate giant. Rajiv sensed that… In fact, it was this one incident that was to transform Gurgaon from a rural wilderness into an international city,” Singh says in his book.

Rajiv Gandhi and Singh sat there for an hour and half, “in the middle of nowhere, engaged in detailed discussions about the idea of creating an integrated, world-­class township in Gurgaon”.

Rajiv Gandhi then asked Singh to make a presentation on Gurgaon before Arun Singh and him at his Delhi office. A string of meetings followed. The final consensus was that Gurgaon should become a model city through substantial private sector development. At the same time, it was decided, that while licences will be granted to the developers, they would have to make sure that the weaker sections of the society benefited from the project.

The policy was changed and the first licence to DLF was issued in April 1981 to develop 39.34 acres.

From then on, Gurgaon and DLF Limitedhave been synonymous: DLF builds andruns some of Gurgaon’s most expensive realestate—214 million square feet of it, all withthe insularity of a gated development. Outside,Gurgaon is an ode to future decrepitude: buildfirst, rebuild later, plan never.

In a city where the brutal utilitarianism of modern India meets the dark comedy of public administration, a satire akin to The Onion seems to offer more truth about the state of things than reality could hope to, and the following holds as true today as it did when it was written:

Murphy’s Law in Gurgaon

A mock disaster management drill in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon ended in disaster on Friday as a participant in the drill was crushed under a fire tender [fire truck].

The mock drill was choreographed by the newly-­set up National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to fine-­tune preparedness to face disasters.

There was not much that could go wrong with the drill. After all, participants had rehearsed the drill for four days before inviting the media. And if organisers were under any stress, they did not show it.

But what is it about Murphy’s Law that rings so true? It says that anything that can go wrong, it will.

Sepoy Ramanand Negi, a para-­military trooper seconded to the National Disaster Response Force, was crushed under a speeding fire tender when the drill was simulating a chemical leak.

If a death can happen in a mock drill, one can well imagine the situation in an actual emergency. But organisers did not seem in the least bit shaken by Negi’s death. Says Vice-­Chairman of NDMA General NC Vij: “The police immediately acted and he was evacuated in seconds.”

It doesn’t matter that he was already dead. But at least someone was being honest. “Nobody knew what was happening where, and as has been said, there were so many people there,” says DC Gurgaon, RP Bhardwaj.

However, some like Lt Gen JR Bhardwaj, a member of NDMA, seemed satisfied with the drill: “Everybody’s performance has exceeded expectations.”

If a real disaster was to strike a high-­rise building, Gurgaon does not even have snorkel fire tenders to deal with the situation. It could take at least 45 minutes to rush a snorkel like this from Delhi to Gurgaon to deal with the situation.

The incident has raised questions about the coherence of disaster management drills and the ability of Government agencies in handling a real calamity.

(‘Mockery of a mock drill in Gurgaon’, by Vishal Thapar; CNN-IBN; December 2006)

Byline: Sidin Vadukut
Illustration: Reshi Dev

Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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