Had the municipality in a northern or central Indian town renamed the local Ghantaghar Chowk after former President APJ Abdul Kalam, it is unlikely the news would have featured in the ‘national’ media. Renaming streets and public buildings, especially those with a hint of the colonial past, is a bipartisan national preoccupation. The Victoria Terminus in Mumbai (earlier, Bombay) is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus; Dalhousie Square in Kolkata (earlier, Calcutta) is now Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh; and St Thomas Mount Road in Chennai (earlier, Madras) is now Anna Salai. Occasionally, the renaming is accompanied by a touch of irony: in 1969, the Left-controlled Calcutta Corporation renamed Harrington Street, on which the US Consulate is located, Ho Chi Minh Sarani.
Nor is this renaming frenzy confined to India. Thanks to political turbulence, Europe (with the possible exception of Britain) has experienced unending name changes. Almost all the buildings and streets named after Lenin, Marx and Stalin — not to mention lesser apparatchiks — have been renamed, some even getting back their pre-Communist and pre-fascist identities. In that part of Poland which used to be East Prussia until 1945, every trace of the German past has been sought to be removed: Konigsberg is now Kaliningrad and Danzig is now Gdansk.
Some would doubtless argue that renaming buildings, roads and towns to something more in keeping with contemporary political fashion is a violation of history. Mercifully, history isn’t read by poring over atlases and street maps. Aurangzeb won’t be airbrushed out of the history books just because one of the principal avenues in New Delhi is no longer named after him. By that curious logic, the seminal although controversial role of Lord Curzon in modern Indian history would have been replaced by a chapter on the life of Kasturba Gandhi — and all because of a road renaming.
How we choose to name public places is important in establishing local and national identity. History, as disseminated by historians, is a trifle more complex than judging whether something of the past was good, bad or ugly. In the popular imagination, however, the past is a series of value judgments. People honour the great men and women of preceding generations with commemorations in public places. The less worthy aren’t necessarily wiped out from the collective memory; they aren’t accorded a place of honour.
Germany may be an exception. In modern Berlin there is nothing named after Adolf Hitler. Yet, the gruesome memory of the Third Reich is kept alive through commemorations of the victims of the Holocaust. “Where in the world,” asked a former Israeli ambassador to Germany in 2008 after attending a moving ceremony in memory of Hitler’s victims, “has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalize its own shame?”
Aurangzeb is part of our history, but doesn’t figure in the roll of honour.
Most countries don’t — not because they don’t remember but because they don’t want to be constantly reminded. Maybe the residents of Varanasi would disagree. There, a particularly disagreeable memory of Aurangzeb persists in the form of the walls of the old Vishwanath temple merging unhappily with the Mughal emperor’s insensate assertion of his fanaticism, not his piety.
Regardless of what some ‘progressive’ historians argue, the memory of Aurangzeb is deeply troubling for most Indians. In the popular imagination he is an earlier equivalent of the invader from Ghazni, who specialized in vandalising holy places. Such a perception may well disregard the complexities of power politics in late-medieval India, but it is nonetheless real. Aurangzeb’s iconoclasm has left a deep scar in the collective psyche and has contributed immeasurably to deepening an unfortunate sectarian divide. He doesn’t warrant being counted among India’s great and good.
The real problem was the location of Aurangzeb Road at the centre of national capital. Delhi’s history may well span the ages, but the Lutyens zone symbolises the power centre of independent India. Its ambience must be supra-local, embracing the national experience and not merely histories of the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule. An inspirational man from Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu who epitomized today’s modernist impulses has a better claim to be honoured in the Capital than an emperor who is a byword for bigotry.
There is history and there is a national roll of honour. Aurangzeb belongs firmly to the past.