As Delhi transformed rapidly with the influx of refugees after Partition, a new set of names — those of prominent persons from the nationalist movement — became a part of the lexicon of places of the swiftly expanding city. While Madan Mohan Malaviya found a place far south of New Delhi, and east of Mehrauli; Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad found their places to the west of the Delhi Ridge Forest. Kamala Nehru’s name emerged to the west of Civil Lines, while Lala Lajpat Rai’s came up to the Southeast of New Delhi.
Malviya Nagar, Patel Nagar, Rajender Nagar, Kamla Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Jawahar Nagar, Subhash Nagar — refugee settlements named after ‘heroes’ of the new nation — took the place of villages around the existing city.
According to noted historian Dr Narayani Gupta, the creation of these settlements on the outskirts of the existing urban landscape was “something desperate that had to be done”.
After Partition, with the influx of refugees from Punjab, Sindh and the North West Frontier Province, Delhi’s population grew by a little over a million between 1947 and 1951, writes historian Sohail Hashmi.
As a largely urban population migrated to Delhi, the agricultural lands of villages surrounding the capital were identified by the government as the most economic sites for settlements. According to Hashmi, Patel Nagar and Rajender Nagar were developed on land acquired from the inhabitants of the villages of Shadipur and Khampur, among others. Dr Gupta said that it is most likely that what became Malviya Nagar had been the property of the peasants of Shahpur Jat.
According to Dr Gupta, these were nazul villages — land which had earlier belonged to Bahadur Shah Zafar and had been taken over by the municipal committee after the end of Mughal rule.
With the acquisition of these scattered agricultural lands for development of refugee settlements, the ‘heroes’ they were named after were dispersed across the topography of the city.
“If the people had agency, they would have probably named their settlements after the places that they left behind; like New Multan Nagar, for example. But in most cases in Delhi, with the government developing the settlements, they named them after their heroes, those they wanted to memorialise,” said Hashmi.
The new heroes of an independent India were an addition to names in the city, with the creation of new settlements post-independence. Commemoration of persons through names of places, a practice introduced by the British, had previously been extended to kings and dynasties — Akbar, Aurangzeb, Feroz Shah Tughlaq — and viceroys — Canning, Chelmsford, Hardinge.