Article: The Renaming Epidemic: Can and Should One Re-Write the Past?

Pushpa Sundar

Among other more serious epidemics, there is one global epidemic which has escaped comment. This is the renaming of institutions, roads, buildings, parks, or whatever, for a variety of reasons, among them political correctness, historical reappraisal, religious bigotry or ethics.

India began the renaming game soon after Independence, but was by no means the only one, being followed by other erstwhile colonies freed from imperialism. In India, Kingsway became Rajpath, and Queensway Janpath, in an effort to wipe out the colonial past. Names of well-known freedom fighters –  Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Nehru – replaced those of viceroys and British royalty in statues or institutions.

Another round of renaming was done for the sake of linguistic correctness. Names of towns or places which had become anglicised were restored to their original colloquial usage. Thus Bombay became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata, Madras became Chennai, and Bangalore, Bengaluru, to name but a few. Some changes were made to project pride in a regional hero. Thus to celebrate Shivaji, the Marathi warrior, the pride of Maharashtra, Victoria Terminus became Shivaji Chatrapati Terminus, amongst other well-known landmarks named after him like the Prince of Wales Museum.

Reorganisation of states on linguistic lines and later bifurcations provided another occasion for changing names. By 2022, an estimated 57 cities and at least nine states were renamed, among them United Provinces becoming Uttar Pradesh and Madras state becoming Tamil Nadu. Gurgaon, the bustling Infotech city, became Gurugram allegedly to honour the great Guru of the Pandavas – Dronacharya of the Mahabharata times.

Memorialising leading members of the ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty made for another spree of renaming – of airports, parks and so on. Though Connaught Place – named Rajiv Chowk after the tragic death of the then prime minister – has retained its place in people’s memories as CP, colonialism be damned!

Till 2014, the renaming was largely a political decision, but not necessarily guided by a particular political ideology. But after that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s strong Hindutva ideology, with its desire to erase the Muslim heritage, and assert “ancient India’s glory” gave a particular religiopolitical turn to the renaming business. Thus Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was renamed as Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road, on the ground that Aurangzeb was a cruel, anti-Hindu despot who destroyed Hindu temples. In the same tenor, Allahabad became Prayagraj and Faizabad Ayodhya. Religion and religious beliefs are playing a bigger part in today’s renaming than pure power politics, which was more intent on glorifying its own heroes than obliterating others.

Many believe this thinking is driven by an unscientific approach to history, wherein mythology is presented as the actual past and an era of infinite glory, and the heritage, especially the Islamic heritage, is denigrated as despotic. The objective behind the renaming, whether done earlier or being done now, is to erase the prevailing memory of the good done along with the bad by the other, while simultaneously super-imposing history as interpreted by the current rulers as the flawless truth.

But as mentioned earlier, India is not alone in being obsessed by the renaming mania, though the reasons elsewhere, at least currently, go beyond religion, politics and political ideology. The demand for renaming is due to a reinterpretation of history from the lens of a modern value system in which racism, injustice against indigenous peoples, charity funded from unethical fortune-building practices, such as the slave trade, and illegal drugs, and gender insensitivity or exploitation of women, are unacceptable.

Demands by civil society

While the renaming in India is largely due to political demands, and led by political figures or parties, the renaming demands in other parts of the world come more from civil society, especially the “woke” citizenry.

For instance, in Canada, a social media campaign is mounting to have the Muzzo name removed from public buildings, especially, the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, where the Muzzo family were major benefactors. The campaign for the removal of the donor family’s name came after the scion of the family caused the death of five people, including three children, due to drunken driving. Ryerson University has been renamed the Toronto Metropolitan University as retribution for his actions harmfully targeting Indigenous peoples. Similarly, statues of Canada’s first Prime minister John A. Macdonald have been removed or doused in red paint for his role in the much-hated Indigenous residential schools which harmed their culture and well-being.

In Africa, thanks to public anger, statues of slave traders and hated colonialists like Cecil Rhodes are being defaced or toppled, and their names are erased from institutions memorialising them.

In the US, the most severe outcry in recent years has been against the Sackler family which has been a major donor to many cultural and educational institutions, amongst them Harvard and Oxford Universities, the Tate Galleries in Britain, and the V and A Museum. There is a demand for erasing the Sackler name because their money came from making opioid drugs causing addiction and misery to thousands of people.

Can and should one re-write the past?

The renaming raises several questions, among them, what purpose does it serve? Is it a way of erasing unpleasant public memories, a salve for collective emotional wounds caused by history and historical figures? Or is it a form of retributive justice, and a warning for current generations? Or simply a way of replacing heroes of one generation with those of the more recent past with whom they have more connections and from whom they can draw inspiration?

A second question that comes to mind is, should one apply the ethical and other standards of one generation to a different historical context? It implies a reductive reading of history, losing sight of context. History is inevitably subjective, to a large extent. As A.K. Ramanujam pointed out there are at least 300 versions of the Ramayana, each locating the action in different places, and interpreting the main characters in different ways.

The statues of famous people or institutions named after them are representative of the general attitudes and values of the people of the time. It was racism and a sense of cultural superiority among the people in general that moulded the personalities of the colonial heroes or slave traders. The behaviour of philanthropists or colonial rulers was acceptable in the particular historical context in which they lived.

Do we, now in a different time and context with different standards and values, condemn their behaviour and remove their names from institutional history or public memory irrespective of any vestige of good they may have done, or do we use their presence in our midst to remind us that such behaviour is no longer acceptable?

If some Muslim rulers were cruel and unjust should Hindus retaliate by practising reverse religious bigotry, forgetting the contribution made by other Muslim rulers and citizens to enrich their art, architecture and learning?

As Ken Coates in a thought-provoking article in the Toronto Star has pointed out, renaming buildings or defacing statues of leaders, though it serves some immediate purpose also deflects attention from where responsibility properly rests – with society at large. In his words:

“The past is a complicated place. It should not be reduced to memes and social media messages. Historical leaders are people, with personal foibles, living in and reflecting their places and times. Democracies hold leaders accountable during their political lives. Historians and the public determine their legacy. Attitudes towards the leaders, and their actions change over time. But these discussions should be handled with caution.”

Or else we will be living with distorted history.

The remedy for the historical guilt of a leader or a community does not lie in renaming a few buildings or removing statues but in the re-education of present societies in the wrongs they represented.

Pushpa Sundar writes on social issues, civil society,  philanthropy and development, and is an author of several books on these topics.

%d bloggers like this: