It has become an accepted practice for political parties, when in office, to tune the urban landscape according to their worldview. Some prefer nonverbal communications, like Mamata Banerjee, who painted Kolkata blue and white when she became chief minister in West Bengal. But generally, the favoured mode of self-expression is to erase the names of the presiding deities of the previous dispensation from street signage, and replace them with names from one’s own pantheon. This requires only political will and a bucket of paint, and hardly raises eyebrows any more.
The renaming of New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road has drawn attention only because political meaning has been read into it — the memory of a “bad Muslim” is seen to be overwritten by the commemoration of a “good Muslim”. Otherwise, the residents of Aurangzeb Road may have quietly changed their letterheads and email signatures and carried on with their lives. It has happened before, like when Connaught Place was transmogrified into Rajiv Chowk to erase the memory of the duke of Connaught. It will happen again, simply because it’s so easy. Sometimes it’s good fun, too, like when the communist government in Kolkata turned Harrington Street into Ho Chi Minh Sarani to discomfit the US consulate, which is located on it.
Is the urge to rename peculiar to South Asia? The French, for instance, do not see it as a compulsion. Admittedly, they developed collective amnesia about the location of Alesia, where Vercingetorix lost Gaul to Julius Caesar. But there was no geographical revisionism after the next great upheaval in French history, the revolution. The Bastille prison was razed, but the Place de la Bastille still bears its name. There is wisdom in resisting renaming. If names were dictated by current fashion rather than history, having to live on Grumpy Cat Marg would become an imminent possibility.