By Kshitij Dhyani:
As the New Year progresses, it’s time to reflect on the national events of the past year; not only to think of things which could have been better or worse and cry over spilled milk but to learn from history and mend the future. We need honest and critical self-assessment without succumbing to the gloom such an analysis of multiple national level crises may bring to the picture. It would be better to find creative, local and democratic solutions which can turn our weaknesses into strengths while eliminating elements harmful to the functioning of our democracy.
India is a unique case, “an experiment unprecedented in world history,” as our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru put it. With it’s enormous geographical as well as demographic size and diversity, issues arise in multiple layers, making it difficult to find permanent or long lasting solutions. The ‘one size fits all’ approach, which our central government under various parties have been flirting with since independence – and one which our current one has a special ideological affinity for – also fails to provide desirable results. We can, however, look at individual issues and propose small, manageable, unique, and contextually custom designed solutions; hoping they would over time add up to a paradigmatic change. As an architect, I want to talk about the spatial urban issues, specifically about the identity politics of renaming cities and their elements, for it lies at the core of our relationship with our community and thence the country.
Since Independence, we have renamed numerous cities, roads and buildings, due to varied intentions and contentions. The reasons have ranged from pacifying local regionalist sentiments of the majority demographic group, like in the case of Mumbai; to attempting erasure of a colonial past by shifting to a name in the local language, like in the case of Kolkata; to downright communal reasons like in the case of renaming of Aurangzeb Road in Delhi to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Road.
The names are changed with bleak chances of rollbacks ever, and we the Indians (as ever), have moved on to other ‘sensational news products’. The issue is important because with every change of name, identities and associations of the people using the space face varied degrees of crisis. The nature and size of the crisis may depend upon the intentions behind the renaming exercise, to the size of the territory being renamed. The personal or communal crisis such an exercise may evoke also depends upon how they relate to it, in terms of political and social power, within and without the respective territory. Even though there is no dearth of unnamed or new and important roads, buildings, towns or cities in India, the easily avoidable harm has been done and we can now only look at possibilities for the future. Keeping in mind that such play of identity politics may never subside, we must now explore the opportunity to look within. We need to come up with strategies and policies for future naming and renaming exercises, which would make a positive contribution towards harmony in the country. The question that then arises here is how to name our streets, buildings, and cities in future? For this, I would like to invoke the father of our nation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose philosophical teachings of pluralism may pave the way to solving problems with multiple stakeholders.
“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the fact of the poorest and the weakest man/woman whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the steps you contemplate is going to be of any use to him/her. Will he/she gain anything by it? Will it restore him/her to a control over his/her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj (freedom) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away.”
– Mahatma Gandhi [Last Phase, Vol. II (1958), P.65]
Since our childhood, we are handed the CBSE books in schools, with the first page of every book dedicated to Gandhi Ji’s Talisman. The talisman is a tool to address doubts and confusion in any situation, at the moment of decision making, using sensitivity and humanism as a decisive factor. Gandhi suggests considering the path that leads to the betterment of the most marginalized and most disadvantaged, which according to him is also the common underlying message of all religions. This system can be applied to naming and renaming exercises, and instead of doing so for furthering any personal political agenda of a person or a party, this might be done more democratically, to not only honor local ideas and ideals but also to set ideological goals for our citizens. Thus, by channeling the intent behind renaming, we might be able to change the lives of people living in them in a more direct and positive way.
We can perhaps start by naming the streets in our cities after the poorest person who sleeps on that street at night, contributing to the lives of the citizens through the day through his/her hard-work, despite low levels of reward. We can name our parks after the benevolent senior citizens who come to spend their evening with children, feeding ants and birds and hence contributing to the mental-physical environment of the otherwise insensitive city-space. We must also honor the housewives who spend their lives in anonymity, trying to bring change to the lives of people around them and name our markets after them.
We can then perhaps extend the honor to not only those who have been heroes in the situations of our need, but also those who have been wronged by the system, as a gesture of apology in the spirit of magnanimity. Hence, we can start naming hospitals after women who were thrown out during labor pains due to lack of funds and were left to die on the streets, or name the streets outside the courts after the people who died waiting for justice as a victim of crime and subsequently of the slow judicial process. And perhaps make the biggest gestures of such a spirit by renaming the road that leads to our Prime Minister’s office after the widow of Muhammad Akhlaq (the chief victim of Dadri lynching) as Iqram Begum Marg.
Professor Jal R. Aria, a Mumbai-based ideologue and a celebrated professor of Architecture, suggests that in the spirit of community building and participation, these names can perhaps change with every generation, for everyone should get a chance to contribute to the identity of the city they reside in. Through this exercise, we can harbour a sense of belonging and bonding among citizens by respecting their individual and group identities. Such an exercise may be carried out through a democratic system of voting so that the personal heroes of the socio-political elites are not unjustly pushed as representatives of the identities of the local residents. The idea of such an exercise, however, is not to patronize the victims or guilt-shame the system into acknowledging its failure, but as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to create an India that is a Heterotopia, where personal utopias of every citizen and community can co-exist. Through temporal destabilization of the identity of a place, this exercise creates the possibility for an evolutionary generation of a healthy discourse around the issue of identity, for us as individuals, as a part of our community, and as Indians. Only when such issues are brought to prominence, perhaps our populace would be able to see through the drab rituals of any kind of uniformity of identity, fallaciously preached by the Sangh to be appropriate for enforcement throughout the nation.