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Aurangzeb To APJ Abdul Kalam: What Does The Renaming Of A City Or Road Truly Represent?

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By Kshitij Dhyani:

If 2014 Lok Sabha elections were a watershed moment in the history of the nation, 2015 Bihar elections at least for now are being discussed by political pundits as the beginning of the end of an era, that started taking roots in 1990’s with the Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra (led by L.K. Advani). Even if for right now this claim may seem to be a far-fetched idea, we can still see it as primarily a politics of identity, in which Nitish Kumar outdid Modi. The politics of identity is not new to India, and almost starts with the cult of great pre-independence leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah etc. who enjoyed the status of a demigod for the average populace. These demigods propagated their versions of national identities, which were used to move masses to fight against the supremacist-imperialist identity of the Colonial British. Post independence, Nehru-Patel-Maulana tried to float a new national identity for Indians, based on national integration. This identity is now under threat due to the Hindutva Nationalism based identity of Sangh Parivar.

Coming back to Bihar election of 2015, firstly it was a battle of the cults of personalities, on one hand, led by Modi (pro-Hindutva brigade), and Nitish-Lalu (pro-secularism, pro-Dalit, pro-minorities, and leftists) Mahagathabandhan on the other. But this politics is closely tied with the politics of place or location (context), and that is why the Bihari against Bahari debate, as strategized and perpetuated by Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, became the focal point and a master-stroke to victory. So let us look at this close relationship of personality-politics-place more closely, with a different example, in our capital city.

Politics Of Place

apj_abdul_kalam_20091005(2)Towards the end of August of 2015, amidst much controversy, on the suggestion on Mahesh Girri (BJP’s MP), and approval of Delhi’s CM Arvind Kejriwal; NDMC changed the name of Aurangzeb Road to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Road to honour him and his contribution towards the nation, posthumously. The two major opposing ideas in the general discourse around the event quite echoed the current post-2014, polarized sentiment of the nation, which hasn’t since shown signs to subside at any point in near future. According to Harrison, S. and Dourish, a place is a socially constructed space. Hence the road is merely a space, and with this exercise of allegedly politically motivated naming and renaming, it has developed a sense of place in our public discourse. As an architect, I believe that we only deal in the politics of spaces to create places, and would hence like to indulge in this discourse.

On one hand in this debate are the people who welcomed the name change, due to various reasons. Firstly, of course, the personality of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and his popular public image gives him an identity as one of the most cherished, respected, and talked about people in India. His rise to fame during the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998 was only followed by his reign as the 11th President of India (2002-2007). Dr. Kalam’s public image was of a pantheist, Muslim born Brahmachari, technological genius, ambitious underdog from an underprivileged family, overachiever, and people’s president; to the point that he was supported even by the party in opposition. In short, he was everything a common Indian person could relate with, and aspire to be. That coupled with his scholarship as a scientist and an author of multiple best-selling books; only to be topped with multiple awards embellishing his career, from Von Barun Award to Padma Vibhushan to end with Bharat Ratna. Dr. Kalam was undoubtedly a person who deserved a road to be named after himself in India, for he was our public hero who fulfilled all of the duties expected from ideal citizen, and beyond, while presenting himself as an example of national integration at its best through his cultural syncretism.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Aurangzeb Alamgir, sixth Mughal Emperor to rule over most of Indian subcontinent in 16th century (for almost half of it), despite his major role in the shaping of contemporary Indian subcontinent; in comparison carries a popular image marred by his authoritarian rule based on brute state force, expansions through attack and conquest (which later emptied Mughal reserves), and his abandonment of pluralistic attitude that Mughal emperors before him are known for. Hence, despite the efforts of multiple historians to request Indian populace to take into account the nuances in the personality and rule of Aurangzeb by debunking multiple hoaxes and misinformation spread in his name through folklore and contemporary political propaganda, he still holds an identity of a merciless and bigoted tyrant. Hence, the general public of the nation only welcomed the idea of removing his name from a road in the capital city, to be replaced with a persona they want to honour, idealize, and immortalize through this gesture.

Politics Of Personalities

Objectively speaking, on the surface there seems nothing wrong with this argument. To begin with, Aurangzeb Road was located in the part of Delhi known as Lutyen’s Delhi, after the British Architect who designed it, which is a complex built in British Raj less than a century ago. Despite its historical value, the road doesn’t bear any direct connection with Aurangzeb’s rule, empire, ideas, or his endeavors; either historically or stylistically, for this part of Delhi was built to represent the identity of British Raj’s supremacy. As a matter of fact, quite contrary to the austere lifestyle that Aurangzeb led, this particular road passes through the most expensive area in India, with some of the richest of the nation living in the bungalows on this road. According to an editorial published in EPW (Vol L No. 36), the said road was named by British, like few other roads in the complex, after a Mughal emperor since they sought to derive the legitimacy for their colonial rule from the preceding empire. Previous governments of India took a rather generous attitude to such naming, accepting them as a legitimate part of our history, and continuing with the usage. Today a big chunk of Lutyen’s Delhi is under 2002 World’s Monument Watch and considered a part of our heritage.

Hence, at least till here, there is no reason we should not be able to rename these roads to honour the heroes and ideas popular in the current general consciousness of our populace that better represent the identities we idealize in our times. The legal and official inconvenience it may cause thus can be a rather petty issue for the greater good of recognizing, valuing, and legitimizing new ideals for the people, giving them something they can better relate to. However it must be done in the spirit of public participation, and not an exercise in mischief with historically established identities, like in the case of renaming certain other Indian cities and major monuments (e.g.- Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai etc.). Here, at least superficially the change doesn’t seem to be germinating from a similar jingoistic, communal, majoritarian, and sectarian rhetoric; especially since the official announcement of the change was first made quite cheerfully by the CM of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal, who has shown an ideological shift from staunch atheism to secular Hinduism (a legacy of Gandhi-Nehruvian thought, followed knowingly and unknowingly by most Indians) during his election campaign. Dr. Kalam himself leading a pluralistic lifestyle was revered by both Hindus and Muslims of the nation equally, and hence his name doesn’t invoke the kind of polarization and violence that can be raised with the use of other prominent historical figures, e.g.- Chhatrapati Shivaji in Maharashtra. In the defense of BJP, the exercise involved replacing the name of one influential Muslim from the map, only with one who seemed more suited (according to Sangh) to be presented as a role model for the nation.

Identity And Ideology

With Sangh ideology in the background, Modi has aspirations of a Hindutva-wadi Aurangzeb of today, and two of a trade seldom agrees. It hence comes as no surprise that the latter had to leave Delhi, and make way for the former. Modi may come nowhere close to the authoritative strength of Aurangzeb, but represents a cult whose extremist ideologies and blatant bigotry would put even him to shame. With renaming of roads and cities, we have witnessed the effect of politics on places, and with Bihar elections we have even witnessed vice-versa. Now it is for us, both academic and professional experts on the matter of place or politics, as well as all other Indians enjoying the right to bring political shift in the centre (and thus national discourse) through their vote, to recognize this issue, and make sure it is not used against them. Especially as an architect myself, I call for ways of using the complex dynamic of personality, politics, and place in a constructive fashion, for the betterment of the society.

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