Cantonments: Serene Oases

I recently came across a fascinating 2017 publication titled ‘Cantonments: A Transition from Heritage to Modernity’. This coffee table book has been brought out by the Director General of Defence Estates, which has ‘the task of Cantonment Administration and Land Management of all the defence land in the country’.

The word cantonment is derived from the French word canton, which means corner or district. Originally, it referred to temporary arrangements made for armies to stay during campaigns or for the winter. However, with colonization, the colonial powers had to set up more permanent military stations, and in India and other parts of South Asia, such permanent military stations came to be referred to as cantonments. In the US too, a cantonment is essentially ‘a permanent residential section (ie., barracks) of a fort or other military installation’. In India, the very first cantonment was set up by the British at Barrackpore about 250 years ago (though Danapur in Bihar also makes a claim to be the first!), and they grew in numbers in the 18th century.

Coffee table book on Indian Cantonments
A Coffee table book on Indian Cantonments

There are 62 cantonments in India, classified into four categories, depending on their size and population. The total cantonment land in the country totals to over 2 lakh acres. Cantonments are mixed-use areas, with both military and civil populations, unlike Military Stations which are exclusively inhabited by the Armed Forces. Cantonments are governed by the Cantonments Act, 2006, and the ultimate decision-making body is the Cantonment Board, which has equal representation of elected and nominated/ex-officio members.

Coming back to the book I started the piece with, it is a fascinating display of visuals from cantonments, and a great showcase of the diversity that cantonments are home to.

I learnt a lot of things I was not aware of. For instance, that the site of the Kumbh Mela, the Sangam, is within the Fort Cantonment of Allahabad. During the Kumbhs, the state government takes over the management of the area. Or that the Agra Fort, to which all of us troop, to get a glimpse of the Taj as Shah Jehan did a few centuries ago, is within a cantonment. Or that the Allahabad Cantonment houses an Ashokan pillar with edicts. This pillar is unique in that apart from Ashoka’s inscriptions, it contains later inscriptions attributed to the Gupta emperor, Samudragupta of the 4th century (an early case of state-sponsored graffiti?). Forts at Ahmednagar, Belgaum, Cannanore etc., are also part of cantonments.

Dr. Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, was born in Mhow Cantonment—his father Ramji Maloji Sakpal held the rank of Subedar in the British army. Mhow is in fact today officially called Dr. Ambedkar Nagar. The Cantonment houses the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Smarak, a marble structure which has an exhibition on the life of the leader.

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore spent considerable time at the Almora Cantonment Board and is said to have written a number of books, including parts of the Gitanjali, during his sojourn here. The building where he stayed is now called Tagore House.

Cantonments house excellent buildings—the Flag Staff House built in 1828 on the banks of the Hooghly is now the Barrackpore home of the Governor of Bengal. The Rashtrapathi Nilayam at Secunderabad is part of a cantonment.

Expectedly, many war memorials are also housed in various cantonments, including the Madras War Cemetery, the Kirkee War Cemetery, Delhi War Cemetery, etc.

These areas also have a number of old and revered places of worship, from churches to temples to masjids.

And of course these are biodiversity havens—especially the ones up in the hill reaches of Shillong, Ranikhet, Landsdowne etc. Migratory birds visit the Danapur Cantonment, and thousands of open-billed white storks breed here.

We have all seen/passed through/visited/lived in cantonments, and have to admit they feel like serene, clean, green, well-ordered oases.  But cantonments are not without their controversies. Not only are they criticized as Raj-era relics perpetuating colonial mindsets, but also, there have been several tussles between civilians and the Forces establishment—whether public access to roads that run through these areas, or the issues of civilians who live within them—they cannot for instance, access home loans or government housing schemes.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has been rather scathing with regard to the management of lands under Defence Control. The Army itself at some stage has wondered if it can afford the money spent on the upkeep of these areas. In a major development, at the start of 2021, the PMO has asked for views on the abolition of all cantonments.

So it seems there is some kind of a push at the top levels to do away with them. But one wonders—is that throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Would it not be better to re-conceive them to give a fair say to all stakeholders, and make the management more inclusive and responsive? And learn lessons from them on how to run our urban settlements well?

–Meena

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