Some years ago, I spoke at the Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh. The day after my talk I was taken to see the sights of the town. These included the Jawaharlal Nehru State Park and the Indira Gandhi State Museum.
I was reminded of that visit when reading about the renaming of New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road after APJ Abdul Kalam. The renaming was greeted with great acclaim on social media, and beyond. The enthusiasm was in part a mark of the esteem in which Abdul Kalam was held; in part an expression of Hindutva hatred for that hateful Muslim ruler Aurangzeb; in part a sense of relief that the days of naming roads, airports, parks, museums after the Nehru-Gandhis or their acolytes were finally over.
The renaming of Aurangzeb Road led to an outpouring of suggestions on who should next be honoured. The entrepreneur Mohandas Pai tweeted: ‘Are there any roads named after Chatrapathi Shivaji, Ranjit Singh, Maharaja Pratap, who fought to save us, in New Delhi?’ The tweet was widely endorsed, suggesting that many middle class Indians wished these rulers to have their names on roads in New Delhi currently named after Humayun, Babur, Akbar, and the like.
I know and admire Mohandas Pai. He is a public-spirited philanthropist, who has given much of his wealth to social schemes aimed at alleviating poverty and human suffering. But in this case he had let his exuberance get ahead of his historical understanding.
There are three reasons why the renaming of New Delhi roads after figures such as Shivaji, Rana Pratap and Ranjit Singh is a mistaken idea. The first is that it shall feed into the majoritarianism that has become a creepingly dangerous presence in our body politic. This majoritarianism seeks to demonise Muslims and to exalt Hindus and Sikhs instead. Although Pai is himself non-communal, many others among these energetic renamers are not. They seek to pull down Muslims figures from the past, so as to taunt or provoke Indian Muslims in the present.
A second, and more important, reason not to honour the likes of Shivaji and Rana Pratap in India’s capital city is that these were essentially regional figures. To say that they ‘fought to save us’ is a gross misrepresentation of history. Pai’s home town is Mangalore; my home town is Dehradun. While they ruled and fought, Shivaji and Rana Pratap were unknown to the residents of the Konkan coast and the Doon Valley; and these regions and their inhabitants were likewise unknown to them. There is a Maharana Pratap Park in Udaipur; and an airport, a railway station, a museum and doubtless much else named after Shivaji in Mumbai. These expressions of Rajput and Maratha pride respectively make some sense in regional contexts; less so in the capital of our large and diverse country.
The third, and indeed most important, reason why we should resist the renaming of New Delhi streets after Shivaji, Ranjit Singh, etc, is that they were all lords in an age of feudalism. Like the Mughals, these Hindu and Sikh rulers also maintained and endorsed caste hierarchies, and like them again, they also consolidated scriptural and social practices which led to the subordination of women.
The British, when they built New Delhi, saw themselves as successors to the pan-Indian rulers and imperialists of the past. Hence the naming by them of major roads after Aurangzeb and Akbar, but also the Buddhist emperor Ashoka. At least one Hindu king, Prithviraj Chauhan, also had a road named after him in Lutyen’s New Delhi.
Those who now ask for New Delhi’s roads to be named for other medieval rulers (even if they be Hindu rather than Muslim) unconsciously endorse the profoundly imperialist and anti-democratic tendencies of the British Raj. But for more than six decades now, India has been a democratic Republic. The mistaken zeal shown by the admirers of Shivaji and Rana Pratap is decidedly at odds with the values and ethos of the Indian Constitution.
Abdul Kalam was himself born in a humble home. His ascent to the highest office in the land could only have been possible in a post-Independent India. He was, if you will, a republican hero. And there are many other republican heroes whom the capital of the Republic can honour. Why not have a road named after the greatest modern scientist of India, CV Raman? And another after the most remarkable modern Indian woman, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, whose extraordinary life included a major role in the freedom movement, a major role in the resettlement of refugees, a major role in the revival of handicrafts, and much else besides? Great film-makers like Satyajit Ray, great musicians like Bismillah Khan, great artists like Nandalal Bose, may be others we might likewise honour for having enriched the history of independent, democratic, India. Thereby, we shall recognise real distinction and achievement, beyond the narrow prism of party or community.
That Aurangzeb Road will now be renamed after Abdul Kalam is more or less a fait accompli. But what next? There is a way backward, but also a way forward. Would that we choose wisely.
( Correction by the author: Since the article was published, alert readers have pointed out that Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Ranjit Singh and C V Raman do in fact have roads or lanes named after them in Delhi or New Delhi. The errors are regretted. )
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. He tweets by the handle @Ram_Guha. The author's views expressed are personal.