Past midnight on September 4, New Delhi altered a bit of its history. Aurangzeb Road, one of the richest neighbourhoods in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, changed its name.
It is now called APJ Abdul Kalam Road, named after the former president who passed away on July 27.
Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Kalam became a national icon when he led the nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998. One of India’s most popular Presidents, he was a great promoter of science and innovation. Children loved the ‘People’s President’.
Mughal emperor Abul Muzaffar Muhiuddin Muhammad Aurangzeb never had such fan following. In the popular narrative, he is the one who destroyed temples, beheaded Hindus and Sikhs including Guru Teg Bahadur, reintroduced jaziya (a tax levied on non-Muslims), imprisoned his father, killed his brother, and forbade arts and music promoted by his forefathers.
But it is never easy to judge history. “All things are subject to interpretation,” said German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” Not surprisingly, the controversial road renaming has drawn so many contradictory views.
Names of our roads are an integral part of a city’s contemporary history and popular imagination. Renaming a city landmark is altering that living history.
Sometimes the associations citizens build with their streets and neighbourhoods are hard to change.
Ask a Purani Dilli resident for directions to Lok Nayak hospital, there is good chance you will draw a blank. But ask for ‘Irwin’ and they’ll know the route like the back of their hand. For the newer lot of migrant rickshaw-pullers, the hospital’s name may have got corrupted to 'Arvind', but they would never go wrong with directions.
It is 38 years since the name of Irwin Hospital (named after Viceroy Irwin who laid the foundation stone in 1930) was changed. In 1977, it was renamed Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital and shortened to Lok Nayak hospital in 1989. But most residents of Dilli-6 refuse to acknowledge the new name. It is not for some unexplained love for Lord Irwin or disenchantment with JP. Most residents don’t know of either. Many just don’t care.
As for me, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital will remain Willingdon hospital (and Mother Teresa Crescent always Willingdon roundabout). This is the hospital my mother rushed us to each time my brother and I had a minor medical emergency.
This is the first big roundabout I learnt to negotiate when I took driving lessons.
Also, in the pre-Google days, many of us learnt about famous characters in contemporary world history thanks to street names of New Delhi. As we bicycled down the central ridge through Chanakyapuri, we would wonder who Simón Bolívar, San Martin or Benito Juarez were. Some of us got answers from our parents, others searched encyclopaedia in the school library.
We didn’t judge these personalities on their political ideology. We were just proud that Delhi was “international” enough to name its streets after world leaders. On a visit to Peru recently, I surprised many Peruvians when I told them in far and distant New Delhi we had prominent roads named after their liberators.
While the older residents stick to the older names, the newer entrants to the city take to the changed names faster. Over time, renaming of roads and landmarks erases what went before. Some may still recall Kasturba Gandhi Marg was once Curzon Road, but how many remember Baba Kharak Singh Marg as Irwin Road or Tilak Marg as Hardinge Avenue?
It is precisely for this reason that the Union home ministry way back in 1975 made it clear that “changes in the names of streets/roads not only create confusion for the post offices and the public, but also deprive the people of a sense of history.”
There are many ways to honour our heroes. The authorities could have identified an unnamed road and named it after President Kalam. A more fitting tribute, though, could have been building a science park or a centre of excellence named after him. The city could have benefited and not lost a historical landmark.