Name games

Name games

It’s Akbar’s turn now and the victim, as always, is history

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The practice of giving names of famous people to streets and lanes is a modern western one. (Express Photo)

So now it’s Akbar’s turn.

“Many of the streets (in New Delhi) have been given the names of historical characters in the history of India. Look at the names of the streets and see if you know anything about the names given” wrote Percival Spear, teacher of history at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, in a book on Delhi’s architecture for schoolchildren published in 1943.

The practice of giving names of famous people to streets and lanes is a modern western one. It marks a conscious shift from the local to the national, from the personal to the impersonal. In medieval European towns it was otherwise. As in India,where patha/sadak were sometimes referred to by their function or destination-point, and galis/kuchas/mohallas/ pols/paras by the name of a haveli-owner, or of the occupation/ethnic identity of the inhabitants. By contrast, streets/avenues in the three British Presidency cities, roads in civil lines and cantonments were named after senior officials and army officers. The atmosphere was also different — it is fun to saunter along Chandni Chowk, with its roadside distractions and conversations, but it is possible to feel almost disoriented if one has to trudge down the deserted pavements of New Delhi’s wide streets. The first is a public space, the second is a corridor. They are not part of a locality, do not encourage the leisurely stop-and-chat progression of older streets. They take people from individual bungalows to the Secretariat or Parliament House, buildings where the “national” rules, not the local.

Living for a few years in a bungalow in this island of privilege is one of the most coveted fruits of electoral victory or official seniority. Anxiety about hierarchy can create major headaches for the Union ministry of urban affairs. There was the senior gentleman who would not move into the bungalow allotted to him until a portico was added (it was explained in all seriousness that without the shelter of a portico a few specks of dust might spoil his black coat when he stepped out of his car).


In the transition from elite bungalow to street, from private to public, from individual to national, very different kinds of emotions take over. The green-and-white boards announcing the name of the road appear as a challenge. The board saying “Akbar Road” recalls the Amar Chitra Katha of their schooldays, which gave them technicolour history. They recall Chetak, Maharana Pratap’s horse. and they feel they now have the power to right the “wrong”.

Astoundingly, TV anchors seem to have accepted that names of Delhi streets can be changed if a political figure suddenly calls for it. Equally, they assume that the question should be discussed by political spokespersons. If you shut your eyes, the cacophony sounds like a debate between ill-prepared Class 8 students. Some days ago, one of the spokespersons earnestly asked why roads have been named after people from Central Asia like Taimur. I wonder where she locates Taimur Road? Another gentleman talked darkly about Akbar slaughtering 30,000 Hindus in battle. Will someone from Odisha demand that Ashoka Road’s name be changed? Our departments of history need to encourage well-researched courses on military history, to work on the logistics of battles, then and now, and put paid to the exaggerations in hagiographies.

To return to New Delhi. After the roads were laid out in the 1920s, they had to be given names. The practice in England was to recall the original land-owner (hence the crowd of Russells in central London), the French honour men of literature and philosophy, and “great” political leaders, the Americans use numbers, cardinal directions, and the names of the presidents, strictly in order. The last was what came nearest to what was done in New Delhi. Percival Spear was asked for a list of names of rulers of India, which were then allocated to the roads. Akbar not only got a road for himself, but also for his commander-in-chief Man Singh, who led the army against Rana Pratap, and for his advisors, Todar Mal and Raja Bhagwan Das. The minister who is trying to defeat Akbar by removing his name from a road should, to be consistent, boot out these Hindu lackeys too.

The standard gambit by politicians in power is to defend themselves by saying “but they did it too”. True, they did. Every regime plays games with names. Since the 1960s, we have seen statues carted off, roads and institutions renamed. The history lesson was severely edited.

The names of governors-general were eliminated one by one. Somewhere in the 1970s there was an attempt to check this: A government resolution said street-names should not be changed, but sometime later this was modified by an order creating a “Road Names Committee”. The resolution was forgotten, the committee had only one meeting. We need to think again about this, and revive the committee, with citizens well-represented, instead of wasting the time of the minister of urban development.

But there is a crucial and disturbing difference between earlier name-changes and those being proposed. There is now a hysterical eagerness to attribute all manner of virtues to the favoured ones, to argue that some rulers were “foreigners” and “invaders” (even Amar Chitra Katha must have known that Akbar was born in Sind, and Aurangzeb in Gujarat), and that others were “nationalist” and “sons of India”. The victim in all this is not the original name of a particular road. The victim will be our history, the reduction of its multicoloured brilliance to a set of black-and-white images of good kings and bad kings, a deliberate blurring of the modern concept of nationalism.