The politics of naming and renaming public spaces in India
The renaming of the Motera cricket stadium as the Narendra Modi stadium created a flutter before the India-England Test match. Some saw it a justifiable tribute to the man who is a Gujarati icon, has contributed immensely to Ahmedabad’s infrastructure and also headed the state’s cricket administration. Others saw it as the hubris and vanity of a leader who allowed a stadium to be named after him during his lifetime.
Naming and renaming of public spaces are a complicated and political business in most countries, especially so in India. After Independence, we saw a flurry of name changes as India sought to physically erase markers of the colonial legacy. In Delhi, names of landmark roads were changed — Kingsway to Rajpath and Queensway to Janpath, for instance.
This was also true in Kolkata, once the second city of the empire, where, over the years, British names were assiduously dispensed with. So Dalhousie Square, named after Governor General Dalhousie, in the heart of the city, was renamed Binoy Badal Dinesh (or BBD) Bagh (or Bag). Numerous other city landmarks were also peremptorily renamed. For instance, the name of Minto Park, named for a former viceroy, was changed to Shaheed Bhagat Singh Udyan. More interestingly, Auckland Square, named after yet another governor-general, was changed to Benjamin Moloise Square after the South African poet.
The internationalist tenor, prompted by India’s leadership of newly independent nations, was most pronounced in Delhi where roads were named after now forgotten figures like Benito Juarez. Perhaps the most amusing of the changes was in Kolkata where Harrington Street, where the American consulate is located, was renamed Ho Chi Minh Sarani during the Vietnam War. Some of these names have not stuck, the best example being Rajiv Chowk that replaced Connaught Place.
A similar impetus, but driven more by nativism, was responsible for the renaming of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore and a host of other cities from the mid-1990s. The Shiv Sena’s first stint in power in Maharashtra from 1995 also saw an aggressive championing of Marathi icons, most notably Shivaji. Several Mumbai landmarks, including the Victoria Terminus and Prince of Wales Museum, as well as the airport, were renamed after Shivaji. Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, the renaming impulse has been motivated by the erasure of India’s Islamic heritage and Muslim rule. Perhaps, the prime example is the renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj. Others include the renaming of Faizabad district to Ayodhya and Mughalsarai, a major railway junction, to Deen Dayal Upadhyay Nagar after the BJP ideologue and leader. There are more on the anvil, most notably the renaming of Ahmedabad as Karnavati.
If India has gone through bouts of renaming, the act of naming government buildings, projects and schemes has been queered by the Congress hegemony for much of independent India. While every respectable town has at least one road named after Mahatma Gandhi, the Nehru-Gandhi family has reigned supreme. According to an RTI query in 2013, a staggering 12 central and 52 state schemes, 28 sports tournaments and trophies, 19 stadiums, five airports and ports, 98 educational institutions, 51 awards, 15 fellowships, 15 national sanctuaries and parks, 39 hospitals and medical institutions, 37 other institutions, chairs and festivals and 74 roads, buildings and places were named after Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. There are many who insist that the renaming of the Ahmedabad cricket stadium must be seen in the context of pushing back at the Nehru-Gandhi legacy.
However, it is more than that. Modi is the first Indian prime minister in office to get a stadium, or any other public place for that matter, named after themselves. If one looks for examples outside India, he is not in great company either.
Whatever the rationale for the renaming, it is ironical that most stadiums in India are named after politicians and administrators, and rarely sportspersons. The renaming of the Ahmedabad stadium, the largest cricket stadium in the world, perpetuated that trend.
Ronojoy Sen is senior research fellow, ISAS & SASP, National University of Singapore
The views expressed are personal