Low-hanging fruit gathered with minimum effort and pain are any politician’s first choice for action. Renaming cities, infrastructure projects or roads to celebrate a distinguished political or thought leader, a sportsman, a war hero; a historical event or a way of life (Queensway turning into today’s Janpath in New Delhi) are par for the course.
Revolutions and the end of colonial rule provide a bonanza to cash into the popular sentiment against the vanquished as did the end of British rule in India. Kingsway became Rajpath. Note that little else changed in the way the government functioned except that at the Raisina Hill end of the road, there was now an indirectly-elected Rashtrapati with limited powers, just like the King or his representative, who he replaced.
Some changes are truly baffling. Curzon Road linking India Gate with Connaught Place was renamed Kasturba Gandhi Marg. Kasturbabai was Mahatma Gandhi’s spouse — surely not reason enough to be honoured thus, while many others with more direct and weighty contributions to the freedom struggle remained unacknowledged.
In 1996 the New Delhi Municipal Council under the Congress renamed Connaught Place as Rajiv Chowk — commemorating Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991 — and somewhat inappropriately, also renamed Connaught Circus, the circle of shops around it, as Indira Chowk — commemorating Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984.
Even as Delhi’s roads were being renamed to obliterate visible signage from the British Raj, parallel efforts got under way in western and southern India to de-Anglicise the names of cities. In 1995, the Maratha nationalist Shiv Sena government — which also sought to ban the entry of non-Maharashtrians into Bombay — renamed India’s business capital as Mumbai. In the south, Tamil Nadu was the first off the block, possibly driven by the strong regional sentiments around the language and culture of the Dravida movement. In 1996 Madras became Chennai. It took neighbouring Pondicherry, a Union territory, another decade before the Government of India bowed, in 2006, to the “god of regional sentiment” by renaming it Puducherry.
Also, in the 1990s, Kerala de-Anglicised all its cities and towns. Its capital Trivandrum became Thiruvananthapuram; Cochin became Kochi, and so on. West Bengal (which might become Bangla — or Banga — if Mamata Banerjee has her way) followed suit under the CPI(M) government in 2001 and Calcutta, the first capital of the British Raj, became Kolkata. Its neighbour Orissa took another decade to rename itself Odisha in 2011, under Naveen Patnaik’s BJD government. Karnataka, India’s Silicon Valley, also renamed Bangalore as Bengaluru in 2014 under Siddaramiah’s Congress government.
This de-Anglicising fever appeared to have died down by the end of the first decade of the noughties. There is only one town (with a population less than one lakh) — Ellenabad — in Haryana, whose name evokes the Raj.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-led NDA government has revived the renaming trend with a twist by targeting the other colonisers of India prior to the Raj — the Great Mughals.
The first salvo was fired in September 2015 by renaming New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road to honour late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. The move was carefully calibrated — replacing the name of a Mughal emperor who is widely perceived to have persecuted Hindus — though this is disputed — with the name of a much-loved and respected President of India — also incidentally a Muslim.
More recently, sensitivity for the sentiments of Muslims has taken a back seat as elections loom. The Gujarat chief minister intends to rename his capital Ahmedabad to Karnavati to wipe out memories of Ahmed Shah, who founded a new city in 1411 next to the older Karnavati (11th century).
On the border between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the important railway junction of Mughal Sarai was renamed after RSS ideologue and Jan Sangh founder Deen Dayal Upadhayay. Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh, is to become Prayagraj. The Indian Railways, which started a premier train — Prayagraj Express, connecting Delhi and Allahabad, four decades ago —seem prescient in retrospect. Faizabad, the district in which the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi is located, is to be renamed Ayodhya. The RSS/BJP in Telengana has promised voters that if they win the state elections in December this year, Hyderabad will become Bhagyanagar, after Goddess Bhagyalaxmi.
Maharashtra will go to the polls in 2019. But the BJP is fail-proofing its victory by promising to rename Aurangabad, the hub for the Unesco heritage sites of the Ajanta and Ellora caves, as Sambhaji Nagar, after the son of Chhatrapati Shivaji.
This rash of restamping history is unlikely to end till the opportunities for extracting easy electoral benefit are exhausted. Strikingly, despite three centuries of Mughal rule, out of the 1,961 cities and towns with a population above 20,000, there are only 93 cities which evoke Mughal/Urdu names — merely 4.7 per cent of the total. Not surprisingly, Uttar Pradesh accounts for 43 per cent of these opportunities.
The real question is whether such electoral tactics have diminishing value. Renaming towns, from the crass political point of view, makes sense only if there is a net gain. Every change consumes some political capital, which could be better used for broadening consensus rather than deepening cleavages.
It’s not as if there are no home-grown examples of sensible renaming. The Lady Willingdon Gardens in Lutyens’ Delhi became the far more appropriate Lodhi Gardens, after the kings whose tombs dot this green lung majestically. Daryaganj Road was renamed after Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, a freedom fighter. Safdarjung Road, on which stands the Indira Gandhi Memorial, opposite the elite Delhi Gymkhana Club, with Safdarjung Tomb at the end of the road, still stands unchanged. A part of Mathura Road was renamed Bahadurshah Zafar Marg — the city’s Fleet Street — after the last great Mughal and poet, externed by the Raj to lonely Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma (Myanmar).
As the Bard said, there’s nothing much to a name except for those who link it with memories — both pleasant and painful. Names herald the times and change is necessary to resonate with the prevailing culture. But change driven by mere pique is far too expensive. Must we go out of the way to inflict pain without commensurate benefits in return?