It’s Wednesday evening, and the traffic on the two carriageways under Minto Bridge is smooth. A couple of men are sleeping under it on the footpaths, undisturbed by the vehicles going past them — there’s nothing at all to show that this is the place, where, on Sunday, a mini-truck driver drowned in the waterlogged rail underpass. Even earlier in the day, the carriageways were closed for an hour. For almost seven decades, Minto Bridge — a large segmental arch spanning the width of the road — gets flooded during the monsoon, becoming a metaphor for eternal civic apathy.
But Minto Bridge is not just Delhi’s flooding yardstick — it has many other stories to tell.
AK Jain, an architect and former commissioner (planning) at the Delhi Development Authority, says the Hardinge and Minto bridges were built by the British in 1926 as part of the realignment process of the railway line for New Delhi railway station. The British also had a larger objective in mind.
“The memories of the 1857 Mutiny were fresh in their minds and they wanted the new realigned railway line to New Delhi station to serve as an embankment for the defence of New Delhi. The British felt that in case of a threat they could close the Minto Bridge and the Hardinge Bridge underpasses, the only two entry points into New Delhi and virtually seal the city,” said Jain, who has written several books on Delhi.“And they kept the height of Minto Bridge low to ensure an unhindered visual link between the Jama Masjid in the walled city, Central Park in Connaught Place, and Parliament.”
Curiously, though Minto Bridge and Hardinge Bridge were renamed Shivaji Bridge and Tilak Bridge respectively, the first refused to shed its colonial name, unlike the latter, whose old name is known only to a few. Many believe that it has to do with Minto Bridge’s persistent penchant for remaining in the news — often for wrong reasons.
Minto Bridge witnessed violence during the riots at the time of Partition. There are several accounts of how those fleeing the walled city — on foot and in tongas — to refugee camps in Purana Qila and Humanyun’s Tomb were ambushed and killed near Minto Bridge.
“One night, a Muslim friend named Badruddin Tyabji showed up at [Jawaharlal] Nehru’s door to alert him to an especially troubled area — Minto Bridge, which Muslims fleeing their Old Delhi neighbourhoods had to cross to reach the safety of refugee camps in New Delhi,” reads an account in Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari. The book, published in 2015, chronicles Partition and the riots that followed. “Many people coming from the Walled City were waylaid at Minto Bridge and massacred. We had to close our shops for a few days ,” says Satish Sundra, 84, who runs Ram Chander & Sons in Connaught Place, a couple of hundred metres from Minto Bridge.
Ironically, the man the bridge was named after — Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, the Fourth Earl of Minto and Viceroy of India from 1905 to 1910 — too had a controversial legacy.
Minto received a delegation of Muslims aristocrats, led by the Aga Khan, at the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla in October 1906, and promised to meet their demand for separate electorates, which was eventually awarded under The Indian Councils Act 1909, commonly known as the Minto-Morley Reforms, enacted by the British Parliament. The act was formulated by John Morley, secretary of state for India between 1905 and 1910. This was seen as an attempt to wean away Muslims from the nationalist movement. Barely three months later, on December 30, 1906, the All-India Muslim League was founded and held its inaugural session in Dhaka.
The name of Lord Minto, who ruled India from Kolkata and Shimla, has lived on in New Delhi, thanks to Minto Bridge, which first started hitting the headlines in the early 1950s for water-logging. Back then, it would often be closed for a couple of days for traffic – usually tongas, buses, and phat phatis (three-wheeled vehicles powered by old Harley Davidson motorcycle engines ) — while the water was pumped out.
In the late 1960s, Minto Bridge area became Delhi’s cabaret destination with the opening of Blue Star, which soon found thousands of patrons, tucked by the side of the bridge. “There used to be three shows between 9pm to 12pm, which were a major hit. In fact, following Blue Star’s massive success, several new “restrobars” offering cabaret came up in areas such as Anand Parbat and Naraina,” said Kuldeep Chauhan, 68, a real estate agent and a restaurateur in Connaught Place. “Its reputation ensured that not many honourable men wanted to be seen anywhere near it in the evenings,” added Singh.
“Not that Blue Star had introduced cabarets to Delhi. There were in fact very fine restaurants such as Alps at Janpath that offered cabarets in the 1950s, which were classy and artistic performances, but the same could not be said about the Minto Bridge cabaret destination,” said Sundra.
Now abandoned, Blue Star is a derelict building with overgrown plants. There is a burnt hall inside, with a few trousers and shirts hanging from the hooks on the walls. A fire broke out inside the abandoned bar in 2010. “This place is a haven for drug addicts,” Rajesh Kumar, an elderly taxi driver said. He was aware of its colourful past. “It made Minto Bridge a nightlife destination.”