It is taking an enormously long time for the BJP to fulfil its promise of a temple to Lord Ram in Ayodhya. So Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, thought he might as well give the people of Mumbai a railway station by that name. Accordingly, the Oshiwara station - a new stop between Goregaon and Jogeshwari on the Western line was named Ram Mandir, but not before a fierce contestation between both sides – those who wanted it named Ram Mandir after a Ram temple nearby and those who wanted it to remain Oshiwara, after the area named for a river that flowed nearby.
But while `Ram Mandir’ might have some justification, there clearly is none for renaming the Elphinstone Road station Prabhadevi, except for civic elections due in February 2017. There indeed is a temple to the Goddess Prabhadevi some distance across – which the Portuguese had tried to destroy but the idol was saved by worshippers and hidden away for 200 years. It was brought back in the last century and consecrated again. But neither the temple nor the area named after it is within easy reach of the Elphinstone Road station which continues to be dark and dingy and in a poor state of repair despite the fact that it receives 100 times more the footfalls it did when only textile workers used the station. Now posh glass-and-concrete commercial and residential buildings have come up all around the Elphinstone Road station but the railway station continues to remain low-lying and its environs get heavily flooded during a heavy shower.
There are two Elphinstones – uncle and nephew -- who have had great association with the `Bombay’ of yore. Montstuart Elphinstone, the uncle, as Marquis of Hastings, became Governor General of Bombay in 1819 soon after the Third Anglo-Maratha war in 1818 when the British appropriated all Maratha territory to themselves. The Peshwas-Marathas had a footprint from Tanjore in the south to Peshawar in the North, Gujarat in the west to Orissa in the east and, of course, all of the Deccan (barring the Nizam’s territory) and Central India. Conscious of the importance of their culture to Indians, Montstuart Elphinstone walked a tight rope between allowing Indians to practice their traditions and strictly outlawing some horrible practices like sati and the ostracism of those who supported widow remarriages. However, his greatest contribution to India – and Bombay – was in the education sector – the institutions promoted by him were free of discrimination, which meant that not just Brahamins but people belonging to all classes and castes were offered access to education. The Elphinstone College is named after him.
The Elphinstone Road station is, however, named after Baron John Elphinstone, Montstuart’s nephew, who was first Governor of Madras province and then of Bombay. Unlike his uncle, he had less empathy for Indians and their culture and is known to have put down rebellions in and around Bombay – including one led by a minor potentate in the hinterland of Maharashtra -- during the 1857 war of Independence. There might be less protest about changing a railway station named after him than there was about Oshiwara.
The game of the name change has been undertaken at a furious pace by the Fadnavis government with an eye to civic elections due in February where it is up against the Shiv Sena and is making a concerted bid to capture Marathi hearts. It is also after capturing Maratha hearts and thus has expanded the names of both Mumbai’s arterial railway station, formerly the Victoria Terminus and now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, and the airport to Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Airport.
Name changes, however, are not specific to the BJP. The biggest of them all, of course, was undertaken by Bal Thackeray, who compelled his government in 1995 to change the name of Bombay to Mumbai. Thackeray believed the British had corrupted `Mumbadevi’, the resident deity of Mumbai to `Bombay’. Actually these seven islands, which were joined into a whole by the British who inherited it from the Portuguese as dowry on the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Prince Charles in 1661, bore the Portuguese name `Bom Bahia’ which means a good bay, and this was anglicised to `Bombay’.
Thackeray, however, managed a smooth name change of Bombay to Mumbai but came up against fierce opposition to a name change of Aurangabad to Sambhajinagar - the city is named after the Moghul emperor who had camped in the area for nearly a generation to defeat the other Muslim dynasties of the Deccan and bring the whole of India under his rule. He lies buried at Khuldabad in a tomb nearby but Thackeray had wanted rhe name changed to do justice to Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji raje, who had been brutally blinded and dismembered by Aurangzeb before his death when he refused to accept the supremacy of Islam or reveal the names of collaborators in his army. A petitioner went to court against this renomenclature.As it was considered hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims, the Supreme Court ordered a stay on the move. Some years later the Congress government withdrew the resolution for the name change and nothing came of it.
However, when then Chief Minister Manohar Joshi attempted to change the name of Charni Road station to Girgaum, he was told that `Charni’ was not British and was derived from grazing lands that had existed nearby. He then quietly dropped the move. But many other railway stations -- like Sandhurst Road and Reay Road -- might have to undergo a name change between now and the February elections.
What will it to do to people’s topographic orientations? Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus continues to be popularly referred to as `VT’. It was renamed by then Railways minister Suresh Kalmadi of the Congress government of PV Narasimha Rao in 1995 against bitter opposition from Thackeray who had wanted it named after Sir Juggonath Sunkarsett who, along with Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy was among the only two Indian members on the board of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, headquartered at Victoria Terminus, of course, named after Queen Victoria.
But once named after Chhatrapati Shivaji, Thackeray could do little to change the name again. It remains `VT’ in common parlance. Kemps Corner and Peddar Road were renamed by past governments in the 1980s after 19th century Indian reformists; they continue to be referred to by their old names. And does anyone know which stretch of Mumbai’s iconic road is named after Netaji Subhash (Chandra Bose)? Well, it has the `Queen’s Necklace, sometimes twinkling gold with sodium vapour lamps at the Shiv Sena’s insistence, and sometimes sparkling diamonds with energy-efficient LED lights as the BJP wanted. The three and a half km stretch of `Netaji Subhash Road’ that no one knows about is Marine Drive!