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Politics of Renaming and Punjab’s Law of Historical Memory

Gagan Preet Singh (gaganjnu@gmail.com) teaches at Indraprastha College, University of Delhi.

A number of places named by India’s colonial rulers have been renamed since independence. The Punjab government has proposed introducing a bill that aims at erasing memories of British rule by renaming places that have English names. The proposed bill and the politics of renaming are rooted in the “nationalisation” of heritage. It misses the complex ways in which the British were actively engaged in fashioning what is now considered “national heritage.”

Since 1947, several places that were originally named by the British have been renamed. Till today, several decades after independence, this seems to be a never-ending project. Nowhere was the need for renaming places felt with greater urgency than in the capital, Delhi. And, given that Delhi was also the imperial capital, nowhere were there more places to be renamed. So, after independence, Kingsway Road became Rajpath, and Queensway became Janpath; Irwin Road became Baba Kharak Singh Marg; King Edward Road was renamed Maulana Azad Road; Viceroy’s House, understandably, became Rashtrapati Bhavan; Willingdon Airport became Safdarjung Airport; Lady Hardinge Serai changed names several times, and now houses the Maulana Azad Education Foundation. The War Memorial to the Indian Army was renamed Teen Murti, while the Commander-in-Chief’s House became Teen Murti Bhavan, and the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities became the National Museum. Later on, Curzon Road became Kasturba Gandhi Marg, while Alipore Road became Sham Nath Marg. More recently, Race Course Road was renamed Lok Kalayan Marg, whereas Dalhousie Road became Dara Shikoh Road. Despite these attempts, there remain a large number of places in today’s Delhi that remind us of British rule: Kingsway Camp, Civil Lines, Hudson Lane, Willingdon Crescent, Andrews Ganj, Coronation Park, Outram Lines, Cavalry Lane, and Gwyer’s Hostel in the University of Delhi are some of the well-known examples.

Historians have often bemoaned the practice of renaming places. On the recent move to change the name of Dalhousie Road, well-known historian Irfan Habib observed,

It is sad that one after another, streets are being renamed. History is always the first victim of politics and now, with a spree of rechristening, history has been distorted and appropriated. (PTI 2017)

However, this politics of renaming does not seem to be limited to India’s capital. In fact, regional governments are equally supportive of such drives.

This article discusses the “Punjab’s Law of Historical Memory” bill that is under consideration by the Congress-led Punjab government for introduction in the state legislature. It is aimed at condemning British rule in India and rechristening places that bear British names. If this bill comes into force, it would be an unprecedented move. Till now, such names have been changed in a piecemeal manner. But, with the passage of this bill, there would be a general crackdown on British names of public places. Such moves aim at enforcing a narrow frame of nationalism on cultural heritage. Above all, the supporters of renaming seem to be oblivious that their cultural notions of space are shaped by British rule. It shows how some skewed ideas of nationalism have determined what should be considered “heritage,” and how this project is deeply misinformed.

Law of Historical Memory

The proposal for such a “Law of Historical Memory” bill first appeared in the Punjab Congress manifesto for the state elections held on 4 February 2017. Authored by Manpreet Singh Badal, it had been approved by Congress President Sonia Gandhi as well as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The proposed bill intends to redefine the history and the heritage of Punjab as well as that of India.

Annexure II of the manifesto deals with the proposed bill. It carries a brief statement of its intent. It begins by saying that the law that the bill proposed to enact “aimed at a collective recognition of the region’s past, and identifying specific periods of both prosperity and decline” (Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee 2017: 121). It is difficult to convey what precisely is meant by “collective recognition” and “specific periods of both prosperity and decline.” The following lines, however, provide concrete examples of how the law is going to operate:

The era of Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh is to be celebrated as an era of greatness and strength, and special efforts will be placed on locating, preserving and displaying its relics. On the other hand, the British Raj is to be formally condemned as the single most unfortunate, cruel and humiliating phase of Punjab’s history, and indeed that of India. (Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee 2017: 121)

In short, periods of history are either to be lauded or condemned. But, the most controversial statement, which pertains to heritage, reads:

Any surviving colonial vestiges that serve as glorification of subjugatory, racist and imperialist policies, will either be destroyed, or displayed in a manner that clearly function as a reminder of inflicted injustice. (Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee 2017: 121)

The underlying assumption is that the state has to play an active role in shaping historical consciousness. The state, therefore, is posing as the custodian of historical memory, insisting that it has a moral obligation to cleanse it by removing, marginalising, or condemning “ugly facts.” British rule is to be condemned, while Ranjit Singh’s rule is to be glorified. It is pertinent to note that the choice of Ranjit Singh is a shrewd one, for it is in conformity with the Congress version of secularism. Had the objective been to glorify Sikh history, it would have led to further controversies.

Invoking the Past

The proposal for such a bill came in for much criticism. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, argued that no such bill would be introduced in the state assembly. But, the very idea behind this proposed bill suggests that political parties across ideological divides—the Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the Congress—share the perception that British rule in India should be condemned, and its “vestiges” should be cleansed.

The idea behind the proposed bill originated in the context of Punjab’s deepening socio-economic crises: stagnation of its agricultural economy, mounting burden of debt, industrial collapse, rising rates of unemployment, and high levels of drug addiction among its youth. Once one of India’s most prosperous states, Punjab seems to have lost its glory today.

In the election manifesto, Congress promised to regain that lost glory. It promised that, if the Congress came to power, “drug supply, distribution and consumption would be stopped in four weeks.” It also promised other ambitious schemes like Ghar Ghar Rozgar, which will ensure “one job for each family” during 2017–22 (Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee 2017: 24–25). In this context, when the morale of the youth is touching the lowest point, the proposed legislation wishes to mitigate despondency with a sense of pride. The act would create a new historical consciousness, the Congress hoped, which would instil pride in the people of Punjab by reminding them of their glorious past.

It is understood that the proposed bill, if passed, would rename all places, buildings, bazaars, and roads that were named by the British. For example, Lawrence Road in Amritsar—named after Henry Lawrence (1806–57), the first British administrator of Punjab—is likely to be renamed. Hall Gate has already been rechristened Gandhi Gate and has yet retained its popular old name, which is likely to be suppressed. However, it is argued that the act does not seek to demolish the colonial buildings, as they were built with public money. Thus, in the name of community pride—Punjabi identity, in this case—the past is to be redefined. But, this project of redefining history and heritage is based on a simplistic reading of the past. In fact, the British were involved in shaping India’s heritage to a much greater extent than we would like to believe.

Naming and Renaming

To understand how this politics of renaming is itself a result of British rule, we need to see how the practice of naming places has changed over time. Let us compare the names of places in the city of Shahjahanabad—now old Delhi, built by Mughal emperor Shahjahan between 1639 and 1648—with those in New Delhi, built during 1911–31 in the days of the Raj.

Let us begin with Shahjahanabad. It would surprise the present-day supporters of renaming that public places in Shahjahanabad were rarely named after individuals. Out of the seven gates of the city, most were named after places: Kashmiri, Kabuli, Lahore, Ajmeri, and Akbarabadi gates (Blake 1986: 156). The Mughal nobility did not name them after themselves. Again, roads that connected Shahjahanabad with other important cities were not named at all. The absence of proper names of such roads may be attributed to their shifting nature. Smritikumar Sarkar (2014: 24–25), in his study on eastern India, has suggested that roads in precolonial India were highly fluid. In Bengal, for instance, when the plains were submerged during the rainy season, roads become indistinguishable from flooded plains. Peasants sowed paddy everywhere, making it impossible to identify roads amidst paddy fields. Given how shaky the idea of the road itself was, it is likely that naming was considered pointless.

Most roads and bazaars within Shahjahanabad were also left unnamed. Most of these came to be named over time, after commodities or crafts in which those roads and bazaars specialised. For example, the street famous for sweetmeats came to be called Kucha Batasewalan, while Kucha Charkhewalan acquired its name from its skilled artisans (Chenoy 1998: 123). Localities were also not named after individuals. Rather, they were known by the specialisation of the craftsmen who inhabited them. Muhalla Suzanaran, for example, was the area where skilled workers manufacturing arms and ammunition lived. Qassabpura was the butchers’ neighbourhood. On the whole, it is difficult to come across any road or locality in 17th century Shahjahanabad that was named after the Mughal nobility (Chenoy 1998). Though Shahjahanabad was planned, its planners did not adopt a systematic scheme of naming places within the city. Such names, it seems, evolved over time, and in some cases, must have changed with time.

On some occasions, the Mughals did name places and buildings after individuals, especially canals and gardens. Shahjahanabad, of course, was named after emperor Shahjahan. But, these were exceptions. Naming places after individuals was not a policy of the Mughal state, even if the Mughals were aware of the symbolic value of such practices.

The idea that each road must bear a definite name came with British rule. Roads were no longer indefinite and shifting. Imperial expansion, together with British surveys and cadastral maps, introduced new ideas of land and property ownership. These gave the notion of roads much greater fixity. With the setting up of new postal systems, the idea of space underwent further changes. On the whole, notions of roads and public places went through fundamental shifts from precolonial to colonial times.

When the British built new settlements, they introduced systematic naming of roads, streets, localities, and even lanes and bylanes, especially in those localities that they inhabited. The naming of new roads could not be left to chance any more. These had to be recorded. The British settlements, for instance, were distinguishable from native settlements by their hygiene, planning, and, of course, their European-sounding names. As Gyanesh Kudaisya (2004) argues, the neat and clean British settlements, such as cantonments, demonstrated the superiority of British planning over the haphazard native cities.

Contrary to popular belief, the colonial government did not rename existing places. Towns and hill stations that were given English names were, in fact, founded by the British themselves. They seem to have been careful not to meddle with existing names of older places. This explains why older Indian cities and towns continue to bear the names from Mughal times right up to the 21st century. To rename places that have British names, therefore, seem somewhat absurd.

New Delhi provides good examples of British naming practices. According to Narayani Gupta, it was Percival Spear (1901–82), a historian who loved and wrote about Delhi and its cultural heritage, who suggested the names of roads in New Delhi (PTI 2017). Mindful of Delhi and India’s past, Spear suggested that the roads should be named after India’s great rulers: Ashoka, Firoz Shah Tughlaq, Akbar, Aurangzeb and so on. In certain respects, the naming of roads in New Delhi marked a rupture with the earlier practices of naming that the British themselves had pursued. It encompassed the history of India in its entirety, without attempting to suppress or promote any particular ruler. It was an effort to weave India’s political history within the spatial fabric of New Delhi. India’s political elite, who are now pre-occupied with renaming roads and places, appear to be pursuing a well-thought-out political programme. They also seem to be unaware not only that the British desisted from changing names of existing places, but that the very practice of naming places after individuals is largely a colonial legacy.

Nationalising Heritage

A narrow notion of heritage came to dominate India after independence. Coronation Park in Delhi is a good example of this cultural politics. The park, situated in the north-west of Delhi, served as the venue for three imperial durbars held in 1877, 1903, and 1911. In 1911, it also witnessed the celebration of King George V’s coronation, where the transfer of the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi was announced. Today, an obelisk stands at the site in memory of these historic events.

After 1947, the park was used for quite another purpose. Several statutes of British statesmen were scattered all over Delhi. The government decided to remove these statues from public gaze and shift them to Coronation Park. These included the statue of King George V, which had, till then, stood in front of India Gate. Once shifted, these fell into utter neglect. Over the years, most were either stolen or destroyed. Some even reached foreign destinations. Only four statues are at display in the park today. Even these four are in a pitiable condition. Some have been defaced and mutilated; some have broken limbs, while others have their noses knocked off. They do not even carry plaques. In recent years, the government tried to develop the site, but the work has been remarkably shoddy. One example would be the plaque that has been installed on the memorial pillar. It reads:

Here on the 12th Day of December 1911 His Imperial Majesty King George V Emperor of India accompanied by the Queen Empress in solemn dvrbar annovnced in person to the Governors Princes and Peoples of India His coronation celebrated in England on the 22nd day of Jvne 1911 and received from them their dvtifvl homage and alleciance.

Clearly, none have thought it necessary to even check the chronology. Of course, none of these structures were seen as part of “national” heritage, and hence were at the receiving end of thoughtless anti-British bias.

Coronation Park is only one example where objects related to the Raj have been systematically suppressed or destroyed. There are many other examples, including the war memorials that the British government erected to commemorate the wars they had fought in India. Scattered all over the country, they lie in complete disregard. None of these memorials appear in school textbooks, nor are they considered important enough for any serious historical discussion.

These stand in contrast, for example, to Ashokan pillars. These have become part of every school textbook, which dutifully reproduce inscriptions and images of the pillars. There are no clear answers to why the Ashokan pillars are a part of India’s cultural heritage whereas British artefacts are not. The thoughtlessness of this selective cultural appropriation becomes even more apparent when we recall that it was a British scholar, James Prinsep, who had first deciphered the script used in the inscriptions on these pillars. Prinsep’s discovery confirmed that the pillars were, in fact, constructed by Ashoka.

Conclusions

The proposed “Punjab’s Law of Historical Memory” is a latest version of the politics of renaming that began after independence. The proposed project, however, is unprecedented in its scale and reach. The proposed bill may intensify the neglect and apathy that colonial monuments already face in India. Perhaps, it is time that history and heritage should be liberated from the narrow frames of nationalism. “Purging” the past only raises our level of ignorance.

References

Blake, Stephen P (1986): “Cityscape of an Imperial Capital: Shahjahanabad in 1739,” Delhi through the Ages: Selected Essays in Urban History, Culture and Society, R E Frykenberg (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 152–91.

Chenoy, Shama Mitra (1998): Shahjahanabad: A City of Delhi, 1638–1857, Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Gupta, Narayani (1981): Delhi between Two Empires, 1803–1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kudaisya, Gyanesh (2004): “‘In Aid of Civil Power’: The Colonial Army in Northern India, c 1919–42,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol 32, No 1, pp 41–68.

PTI (2017): “History Being Meddled With: Scholars on Road Renaming,” India Today, 6 February, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/history-being-meddled-with-scholars-on-road-renaming /1/875961.html.

Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (2017): Manifesto, 2017–20, January, http://www.ppcc.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Congress-Manifesto.pdf.

Sarkar, Smritikumar (2014): Technology and Rural Change in Easter India: 1830–1980, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Spear, Percival (2008): Delhi: Its Monuments and History, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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