Politics and emotions behind renaming Mumbai’s streets
Elphinstone Road to Prabhadevi, Colaba Causeway to Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg, Victoria Terminus to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Bombay to Mumbai — 71 years after independence, Mumbai’s colonial past is still at the heart of its politics. In 2018, the renaming of the city’s roads, buildings, junctions and monuments was the second-most discussed issue in the civic body, according to a report by the Praja Foundation.
Why do away with colonial names for legacy structures so many years later, what goes into the renaming, and, will old Mumbaiites ever use the new names?
The patron goddess of the local Koli community, Mumbadevi, took centrestage in the city’s politics in 1995, the year Bombay became Mumbai. The Shiv Sena, the party in power that year, pushed for the change to champion the cause of the Marathi-speaking “sons of the soil”. Today, the renaming of cities is back to being a top agenda for politicians, with the Sena pushing to change the names of two Maharashtrian cities — Aurangabad and Osmanabad — after cities in Uttar Pradesh were renamed.
But, what does it mean for a diverse city like Mumbai? It’s part of the city’s natural evolution, said Tasneem Mehta, trustee of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, known till 1975 as the Victoria and Albert Museum. “The museum is about India and Indian traditions,” said Mehta. “Bhau Daji Lad was instrumental in setting it up, he raised the funds, he did the research. I think it’s a very appropriate choice.”
Mehta, however, added that a name change doesn’t mean the history is lost. “The history will always be there, but perhaps, it has greater relevance to the community now.”
There are others who believe renaming public spaces goes hand in hand with the politics of statue removals, which first gained momentum during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement of the 1950s and 1960s — and again over the past few years. It was the Samiti that had demanded the creation of a separate Marathi-speaking state from the State of Bombay — which at the time covered both Maharashtra and Gujarat.
“After the statue of Queen Victoria was removed from the Victoria Terminus [now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus], no one knows where it was taken,” said Aadil Desai, a member of the Bombay Local History Society (BLHS). “The statue of the prince of Wales that was at Kala Ghoda was moved to Rani Baug.” Incidentally, Rani Baug was originally called Victoria Garden. Its name was changed to Jijamata Udyan, after Shivaji’s mother Jijabai – a reminder of how the Maratha king still serves as a potent symbol of Marathi identity.
In some cases, the new Indian names have nothing to do with the monument or its origins. For instance, the Prince of Wales Museum was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. “Since we are doing away with colonial names, Prince of Wales had to go. But a simple name such as ‘Museum of Western India’ would have better defined the architecture and scope of the museum,” a city historian pointed out.
Meanwhile, there is an emerging voice amongst Mumbaiites who believe the name-changes remain on paper.
“The old name is the old name. A true Bombay man will die saying Altamount Road (even though it was renamed SK Barodawallah Marg almost three decades ago),” said city historian Deepak Rao. “If you tell a taxi-wallah to go to Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, he will not understand.” What is today Shahid Bhagat Singh Road was actually four areas in south Mumbai — Colaba Road, Colaba Causeway, Custom House Road, and Mint Road, Rao explained.
Then, there are those concerned about the logistic challenges the name changes pose. “Many street names are important, not only because they represent the local history of the area, but also for navigation,” said Pankaj Joshi, president, Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI). “This especially happens with the renaming of chowks. So, if you are travelling by a BEST bus, you may end up going to Colaba while you’re looking for something in Byculla.”
Joshi said to do away with this confusion, there was a suggestion in the heritage committee several years ago to keep the new name but also mention the old name in brackets. “That way, you have the historical reference and people won’t get confused, at least for a few years.”
The zeal to Indianise localities and roads has also left in its trail some faux pas.
“When a name change is proposed by an elected representative in the civic body, it is referred to the respective ward officers. The ward officers are responsible for inspecting the area and ensuring the new name falls in line with Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s norms,” said a senior civic official. “One of these norms is that the name of a road cannot be changed if it is an Indian name.”
There is a renewed interest in naming streets and railway stations after the 19th century social reformer Jagannath (Nana) Shankarshet, said Desai of the BLHS. “Gunbow Street, renamed Rustom Sidhwa Marg, was a name given by the British to honour an Indian, Ganba Shet, one of Nana Shankarshet’s ancestors. Gunbow was a corrupted form of Ganba,” Desai said. “But Gunbow Street was renamed Rustom Sidhwa Marg as it was assumed to be a colonial name!”