The politics of road renaming

The renaming - 2. Tongue-in-cheek!
The renaming – 1. Tongue-in-cheek! Ho Chi Minh is spelt a bit differently though.

A recent case of every modern Indian city corporation’s pet peeve – road renaming – has caused national uproar. Add to it the predictable furore on social media tied with polarization and you have something a debate loving Calcuttan would froth at his mouth over!

The last line refers to me, by the way. And the reason I added the last is because politics of renaming is something the city has often seen. And what is unique is that the reasons for the renaming has been blatantly political, conflated with the eternal Bengali love for the “কাঠি (kaThi)” or what the Kanpuriya would call “चुंगी (chungI)”. The archetypal example of it is the (in)famous renaming of Harrison Street to Ho Chi Minh Sarani by the Left Front Government in Bengal, ostensibly because the American consulate in Calcutta was located there. So, yes, correspondence to the American consulate at the peak of the Vietnam War read somewhat like this : “The Consul General of the United States of America, 5/1, Ho Chi Minh Sarani, Calcutta”. Tongue-in-cheek? Of course. It was meant to be.

Most other renamings were, however, devoid of this entailing humour. Some, like renaming Park Street, the iconic party address in Calcutta, to Mother Teresa Sarani; or renaming Camac Street to remember Abanindranath Tagore, were simply done in order to ‘commemorate’ the greats. However, I don’t think people of the likes of Mother Teresa, forever (perhaps unfortunately) the face of poor Calcutta in the west, and Abanindranath Tagore need streets to be named after them to be remembered! Especially if the street names they replace have a history and the new name doesn’t.

courtesy -
The renaming – 2. Even the spelling of Park Street is wrong.

Say for example, if I walked down Free School Street with my child, for the first time, she might ask why Free School Street was named so! I’d tell her about the road leading to Park Street had a school for the Europeans, funded by the St. John’s Church. I’d tell her that the surrounding Park Street area was inhabited by first, the Europeans and Anglo-Indians, and later on, the rich Urdu-speaking populace and even later, after they were displaced during partition, the Marwaris of Calcutta. About other roads, I’d tell her about the Maratha Ditch which the Bengalis and Europeans built to save themselves from the ruthless Marathas, about how Dharmatala has so many theories after its name – the Dharmathakur of certain Bengalis, of Tipu Sultan mosque built by his exiled son, of Buddhist missions etc etc. I’d go into the history of the city and the streets. And history, taught with some amounts of physical acquaintance, is great (and lucky).

Now, my opponents would say that if the kid walked through Mirza Ghalib Street (the current name of Free School Street), she would ask about the great poet Mirza Ghalib and I’d tell her about it. Well, I would have, anyways, I think. And Mirza Ghalib street does not have anything to do with Mirza Ghalib or the history! It was in a building on Bethune Row where Mirza Ghalib stayed when he was in Calcutta for a sizeable amount of time to get his pension from the British. Had that street been named so, I’d have told her how this great Persian-Urdu poet had been devastated with the destruction of his love – Delhi – and the Mughal empire, at the hands of the British.  About how he had to run from pillar to post, to unknown places in the east, along the ancient cities of Varanasi and Gaya along the Ganga, to this new land named Calcutta, at the mercy of the people who sacked his beloved. But no, with her weak memory, Calcutta has almost forgotten that 133, Bethune Row was the place where Mirza Ghalib laid his tashreef.

Another reason that I believe renaming roads that are transfixed in popular parlance are useless, is exactly this : transfixed in popular parlance. A Park Street would remain Park Street; a Lenin Sarani wouldn’t belie the reasons why this place was called Dharmatala – a potpourri of ‘dharma’s; an Elgin Road wouldn’t be referred to as a Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani unless someone wants to wantonly get lost. Plus, there are pragmatic reasons. Why would one suddenly rename a road and cause confusion in addresses? Especially if they have no direct connection to the history of the urban space and collective memory. This goes (especially under the current Chief Minister) for metro stations and places too. It is a failure on the part of the education system and the sense of history of us Indians if one needs a metro station to remind oneself of Khudiram Basu or Surya Sen or the works of Tagore. Personal tastes (which are, if I may say, quite poor for a large part of who form the Calcutta Municipal Corporation) should not be a reason for renaming public spaces! Incredibly, it seems exactly that, nowadays, so much so that names are becoming scarce! Neither should needless anti-Anglification (notice my conspicuous use of Calcutta rather than Kolkata). To those who say they are corruptions and it is officially Kolkata and Bengaluru et al; I say, to me, it has always been Calcutta in English, কলকাতা (Kolkata) in colloquial Bengali, कलकत्ता (Kalkatta) in Hindi, কলিকাতা or କଲିକାତା (Kolikata) in older (shadhu) Bengali as well as Odia and what not? Isn’t Germany, Germany in English, Deutschland in German, Allemagne in French, Saksa in Finnish and Niemcy in Polish? If this nation can teach anything, it is that various identities can coexist, because of tolerance, a beautiful agreement on values we intend to share and a sense of history.

Sense of history. That brings me to what triggered this article. Aurangzeb Road. Now this is a curious case because Lutyens’ Delhi is hardly a century old and the modern city has been built from scratch, albeit carrying the legacy of centuries that have made Delhi their historic capital. Is it required to change the road name? Pragmatic reasons, no. Historic reasons, well there were none in the first place. Reasons of starting points of stories should I ever take my child to walk along it – no – because she’ll know of Aurangzeb and APJ Abdul Kalam before, I’d surmise.

When I first heard that the road name was being changed, I was emotionless. I’d seen worse. However, in this case what caught the attention of the national media is (1) it was in Delhi (over urban-Hindi-heartland fetish of national media) (2) it was by people who have a history of morphing history to suit themselves and hence others rushed to politicize the issue. Ask me personally, this is an issue that should not be given much importance in national media at all (but then this is a media that treats a murder case to be handled by the Indian Police to a matter of almost international importance). Yes, Aurangzeb was a tyrant. Yes, APJ Abdul Kalam was admirable. Has that got anything to do with the road renaming? Maybe, maybe not. Does it have undertones of a Hindutva agenda to remove the sense of continuity in Indian history? I don’t think so. That is already being done in full force by putting ideologues in positions of cultural power (read FTII, ICHR), claiming pseudoscience and myth to be science and history (read Indian Science Congress), murdering and threatening those who go against the major stream (read Kalburgi, Dabholkar, Pansare and Perumal Murugan), propagating prejudice in books in Gujarat taught to school kids etc; a road in urban Delhi with kids going to international schools will not be indoctrinated this way. So yes, this is not an issue. The murder of Kalburgi is, the success in homegrown cryogenic engines is, the rethinking of reservation is, the rethinking of central policies in Manipur is, so are the humanitarian crises in the Middle East and in India.

I strongly believe the media needs to grow up. Does this post qualify as an article by the fourth pillar, by the way? If so, this might go towards sanitizing the situation a bit. Somewhat like these articles, by Ramachandra Guha on road renaming, way back, or by two correspondents with The Telegraph, more recently.

All images taken from:


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