Why renaming Aurangzeb Road after APJ Abdul Kalam is a silly idea
- History wars in India are often fought on issues of renaming places
- Aurangzeb Road in Delhi has been renamed as APJ Abdul Kalam Road
- This was done at the initiative of East Delhi MP Maheish Girri
- He claims that this is aimed at addressing historical wrongs
- Though maligned, Aurangzeb wasn\'t different from any medieval ruler
- His alleged anti-Hindu actions were political in nature, nor religious
- Renaming places based on biases of those in power can become a tedious process
- There should be a better way of honouring heroes
- Naming places makes little sense as the name and its meaning soon lose relevance
For a long while now, history wars in India have been fought, not in textbooks, classrooms, and seminars, but in courtrooms, legislatures, and streets. They have also been about streets and public places.
Cities, are of course the most important sites of such contests, since streets and street corners have long been the embattled space occupied by marginalised groups wanting to flaunt local power: a flag pole, a small statue, a plaque marking a new or old identity, a shrine.
This is what restores to our cities the narrative time of which they have been emptied, as they have yielded way to the more strictly economic uses of time and space.
If these are signs of a flourishing democracy, if they are proof of a participative citizenry, then why is there growing disquiet about the renaming of Aurangzeb Road as APJ Kalam Road?
Cities as spaces for contestation
One could start with the municipal objection: that such renaming confuses delivery boys, residents and other sundry users of that space. Like all such practical objections, it can be argued that once the signboard paints have been paid for, with time, such a change will become part of the new common sense.
Have not all major arteries in nearly all Indian cities, such as South Parade in Bengaluru for instance, been named after the great Parent of the Nation, MK Gandhi?
But is all renaming the same? This brings us to the second and perhaps more important objection to the speed and manner in which the proposed name change is happening.
Wikipedia has, with its customary speed, already announced the renaming, even while the legal rectitude of such an act is being debated. Our history is a rich, complex and very hotly contested one. We are living in age that is chaotic, disorderly and fragmented, and from which no shared understanding of who is to be honoured and dishonoured could possibly arise.
Will cities end up reflecting the biases of the party in power or any social group that flexes its biceps?
Will the Indian city then be a space of continuous flux, reflecting the tastes, angers and anxieties of whichever party is in power? Of whichever social or cultural group flexes its biceps?
In that case, will those proposing the renaming of Aurangzeb Road be willing and ready to have the Ambedkarite Dalit groups rename all arteries which bear the name of the person who betrayed the cause of the Depressed Classes on the question of separate electorates in 1932? That such a demand has not been made is testimony to the sense of history that some groups may have, as opposed to the sense of hurt which colonises the minds and hearts of much smaller imaginations.
The victory of a group that claims to undo some historical grievance, whether real or imagined, is brief testimony to its legislative, electoral, demographic, or plain muscle power, and makes such demands worthy only in retrospect.
What will renaming Aurangzeb Road achieve?
What is the little triumph that will be accomplished by this proposed renaming? In the words of our worthy East Delhi BJP MP Maheish Girri, the change will "correct the mistakes made in our history." Aurangzeb, the sixth and last important Moghul, is considered, by the MLA and his ilk, the polar opposite of the Good Muslim, APJ Kalam.
Streets, chowks and mohallas were once named after their important residents, or benefactors. It was the British who chose to mark these paltry streets, squares and spaces as the achievements of colonial rule by naming them after not just administrative heads, but those quite remote to that space, such as Viceroys.
Now, what happens when we replace "achievement" as the qualifier for the naming of our public spaces with "goodness" which is largely attested by the person's followers?Many a hero would jostle for a street in this time of digital democracy and facebook followings.
Many outraged citizens have argued that such choices as naming and renaming can only be undertaken with the approval of a fact-respecting historian.
Such historians will insist that the imposition or abolition of the infamous jiziya, or the tax on non-Muslims, as happened in Akbar's time, in 1564 and 1575 respectively (before being abolished again in 1579, before the time of Aurangzeb) must be understood in the context of medieval statecraft rather than as the result of any genius, evil or otherwise.
Ditto with temple desecration: places of worship were destroyed and desecrated throughout Indian history, but not only by Muslims.
But our friends of the people, in whose name history is being "rewritten" have neither the patience nor the taste for such well known historical facts or complexity.
Isn't there a better way of honouring a hero?
So let us provide them with a reflection on the meaning of their actions: is the street name the best honour to bestow on any hero? Also, these names are bound to get distorted and lose their meaning in a society driven by the pursuit of material happiness.
When the boards honouring these heroes are plastered over by notices for entrance exam coaching, against whom will outrage be expressed? No wonder the former CM of Karnataka Nijalingappa pleaded that no statue of his ever be erected, since he dreaded the inevitable consecration of pigeon droppings.
In a contentious society such as ours, it is better to name streets the way a PWD engineer in Bengaluru does: by calling the street for what it is, as Mains and Crosses. But it will not be long before someone in our benighted republic spots a Christian hand even in such banality.