Indian Names: Pride and Prejudice

India’s renaming of streets, cultural sites and cities, shows the country’s reluctance to reconcile its complicated history with its nationalist present.

road renaming

In a hurried cab ride from Peddar Road to Bhaudaji Lad Museum in Byculla, albeit before the lockdown, I asked the taxi driver to take me via N.M. Joshi road as I plotted the journey on google maps. He turns around, bewildered and asks, “What’s that?” Equally confused I provided a landmark, to which he responded, “You mean Delisle Road?” Shaking his head in disapproval at my ignorance at Bombay’s street names, he speeds on. Streets across the city have old and new names, from Falkland road being renamed PB Marg despite its role in Manto’s Bombay Stories, to Lamington Road, renowned for its electronics, being renamed to Dr A Nair road, with locals usually knowing the former name, not the latter.

Mumbai, India’s financial hub, a bustling megapolis of 20 million people is best known for its traffic, Bollywood, and businesses. To the average Mumbaikar, or Bombaywallah, depending on your taste, it is better known for its complicated street names, which confuse families that have been there for generations and newly arriving migrants. Under the Shiv Sena, a regional Hindu nationalist party, the city of Bombay was renamed to Mumbai in 1996. Mumbai was the original name of the city some 1000 years ago, before it became a trading hub.

While the move against colonial rule is justified as a way to overcome the horrors the country faced under the British Raj, in recent years, this renaming trend has moved past British rule. The ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), has renamed sites and cities built by the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty that ruled India between the 16th and 18th centuries. Recently in Delhi, Aurangzeb Road, was renamed Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Marg, after a Muslim President of India, since Aurangzeb is considered anti-Hindu, while Dr Kalam is considered what some on the right call a “good Muslim,” as if Muslims have to prove their loyalty to the nation. The city of Allahabad was renamed Prayagraj, its original Sanskrit name, five-hundred years later. A local BJP politician remarked that the renaming of Allahabad was a way to “rectify the mistake made by Akbar,” arguing that the Mughal ruler eroded the city’s ancient traditions, while ignoring the contributions Akbar made to the country. 

The typical justification for this anti-Muslim stance is that the Mughals were invaders who destroyed the glory of Hindu civilisation, while disregarding the centuries-long influence the dynasty had in shaping Indian culture. The secular and unifying foundations of Indian nationalism devised India’s founding fathers during and after the freedom struggle, are disregarded by the current government in favour of a Hindu nationalist vision of the country.

These small steps, in conjunction with more concerning actions such as the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, the passage of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and recent Delhi riots, seek to marginalise Muslims and undermine their contributions to the country, has prejudiced a country against 182 million people. Criticisms of the government result in online abuse from the BJP’s troll army, as faced by Rana Ayub, and sadly, in more extreme cases, the murder of Gauri Lankesh. Charges are filed against those who express their dissent against the government. The renaming efforts to the BJP now, and the Shiv Sena 23 years ago, are justified as a matter of national pride. Instead, they have prejudiced the nation against the millions of religious and ethnic groups that contribute to the country’s uniqueness. 

Contact Vibhav Mariwala at vibhavmariwala ‘at’





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