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The peril of renaming and its unintended consequences

By renaming, we sometimes try to pay homage to the greats. Sometimes, we try to erase a piece of history. Both can misfire

Rajiv Chowk has never really erased Connaught Place despite being the name of the Metro station.
Rajiv Chowk has never really erased Connaught Place despite being the name of the Metro station. (iStockphoto)

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There’s something wonderful about renaming things.

It’s like getting a full makeover without the trauma of a facelift.

The Mughal Gardens at Rashtrapati Bhawan are now Amrit Udyan. It’s a victory for Hindi over Lutyens’ English. Another “historic decision” that will enable India to come out of its “slave mentality” in Amrit Kaal, tweeted Bharatiya Janata Party leader Sambit Patra. Best of all, since the Mughal emperors never built those gardens, no Mughals were really hurt in renaming them.

The question is, where will this search for the Amrit Kumbh end? Will everything Mughal be subjected to Copy and Replace?

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In a recent column in The Times Of India, Shobhaa De writes about trying to order a Mughlai Paratha. She’s told to try some “newly introduced swadeshi parathas” which “look the same, taste the same”. Likewise, the Mughlai biryani and murg massalam have become tirangi biryani and apni murgi. De is writing with tongue firmly in cheek but it’s not implausible that someone will take her utterly seriously and launch a campaign to de-Mughlai our menu.

If Swiggy statistics are anything to go by, a biryani is consistently the most ordered item in India on food delivery apps. So no one wants to ban the biryani. So any change will be in the name, not the recipe. Likewise, the Amrit Udyan will still be laid out like a Mughal garden no matter what it’s called. These gardens were not called Mughal Gardens as fawning tribute to Mughal rulers. The British, who wanted to supplant the Mughals as rulers in the Indian imagination, had no incentive to do that. As Rajmohan Gandhi writes in a column on NDTV, “A ‘Mughal’ miniature is named thus not as a salaam to the Mughal Empire, but because the painting conforms to a particular style of art.” Mughal art, Mughal architecture, even the Mughlai paratha are not about emperors, they are about styles.

William Mustoe, the director of horticulture, had designed the gardens keeping the Kashmir gardens in mind and had named them Mughal Gardens to acknowledge that inspiration. India must have had gardens before the Mughals came and created their char bagh patterns bisected by water canals intersecting at right angles. We don’t know what those pre-Mughal gardens might have looked like. But a future generation will look at Amrit Udyan and assume they too must have looked like Mughal Gardens. In trying to erase one piece of history, the re-namers might have inadvertently muddied another piece of history.

That’s the peril of renaming. It’s full of unintended consequences. The government has just renamed three islands in the Andamans and Nicobar to honour Netaji—Ross Island becomes Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep, Neil Island is Shaheed Dweep and Havelock Island, Swaraj Dweep. The last two accomplish what Bose himself had wanted. In that sense, it is history righted. James Neill gained infamy hanging anyone suspected of being a mutineer in 1857 and retaliated for the Bibighar massacre of Cawnpore with utmost brutality, having people whipped with cat-o-nine-tails. Henry Havelock gained fame trying to relieve the siege of Lucknow. These are not people independent India needs to lionise and commemorate with islands. Ronald Ross, who discovered the malarial parasite, might be a different matter. It’s also another matter that most historians believe Netaji was himself not aware of the pitiful conditions of the Andaman islanders under Japanese occupation. That by no means implies the islands should retain the names of Havelock and Neill. It just means history is more complicated than a simple name-change whitewash.

Aparna Vaidik, who has done PhD fieldwork in the Andamans, wrote recently in The Indian Express that elderly islanders she interviewed found the Japanese occupation so harrowing they thought of the British reoccupation of the islands as a “day of independence”. She says the names, whether Havelock/Neill or Shaheed /Swaraj, do little to honour the real residents of the island in the 1940s—descendants of ex-convicts, Moplah rebels from Malabar, hill tribes of Burma, Bhantu, a so-called “criminal” tribe from Uttar Pradesh, Catholic labourers from Ranchi, not to mention the tribal people of the Andamans who have been there for centuries, before anyone else. In the naming and renaming tug of war, this rich history, a much longer history than Veer Savarkar or Netaji’s stint with the islands, gets short shrift. These islands have plenty of other shaheeds whose names remain unrecorded, whether they were natives who were exterminated by the British or massacred by the Japanese.

There is no real formula for renaming to be a sure-fire success. In Delhi, Rajiv Chowk has never really erased Connaught Place despite being the name of the Metro station. In her book Delhi In Thy Name, Adrija Roychowdhury writes that despite the sympathy wave sweeping the country after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the name didn’t catch fire in the public imagination. Even Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, who orchestrated the change, admitted as much to her. Aiyar had a grander vision—he wanted Connaught Circus to become Indira Circus and Connaught Place to become Rajiv Chowk so that “eternally the mother’s arms would be embracing the child, both of whom were assassinated. And with the grandfather in the centre, the entire family would be commemorated”. But he said shopkeepers were adamantly against the proposal not because it was cloyingly sycophantic but because Connaught had a brand value even though they had no idea who Connaught was.

He was the third son of Queen Victoria who happened to have come to India when Connaught Place was being built. That too was by chance. His nephew, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), was supposed to come but he could not. So his uncle, the Duke of Connaught, came instead and ended up with prime Delhi real estate named after him. Perhaps that’s what has allowed Connaught Place to survive so long as a name. If it had been named after some more prominent Britisher like Queen Victoria, or an infamous one like General Dyer, the name might have not survived. The Duke of Connaught’s relative obscurity probably helped Connaught Place cling on to its Connaught. Even Aiyar refers to it more often as Connaught Place than Rajiv Chowk.

By renaming, we sometimes try to pay homage to the greats. Sometimes, we try to erase a piece of history. Both can misfire. When the actor Suchitra Sen died in Kolkata, the government, in a burst of cinematic fervour, announced that the street she lived on would be renamed after her. Unfortunately, that street had already been renamed after another cinematic icon who had lived there—Pramathesh Barua. The city divided up the street between them, with Sen getting the lion’s share. But all taxi drivers still call that road by its old non-filmi name—Ballygunge Circular Road. Man proposes, taxi driver disposes.

It just shows that even if something is renamed, its past isn’t necessarily erased. One can imagine far into the future the Amrit Udyan of Rashtrapati Bhawan wistfully searching for its long lost Mughal Gardens, a name that once allowed it to make sense of its own design in a way even Amrit cannot, despite its promises of immortality.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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