Renaming roads and buildings is an important exercise in decolonization and the urge is just another expression of language and cognition.
Ashish is the co-founder of Pragyata and Upword and the Director of Operations at The Indic Collective Trust.
A name is a symbol for a particular aspect of reality and language is essentially a set of names or sounds, spoken as per the outer rules of syntax but comprehended according to an inner universal grammar. The relationship between name and idea, or word and thought, is so intimate that they’re often treated as identical. But a careful examination reveals that the two are indeed different entities. Just like a thing may have two or more names, a name may be associated with more than one idea. “The arms dealer got arrested” but not because he was trafficking human forelimbs across the border. Clearly, the spoken word encodes an idea and comprehension is the act of decoding the sound of the word, according to the context in which it is heard, to reveal the idea. That is to say, thought is the thing that is communicated while the word is only a vehicle, making ideas much more fundamental to our cognition than words.
Things can get really messy in the real world of politics and power struggles because of this very subtle relationship between ideas and words. Take the case of India. The word means different things to different people. To an uninformed American teenager, it would conjure up mental images of a strange place abounding with elephants and snake charmers. For a cricket enthusiast, it may only remind him of the national cricket team of the country. To someone, it may denote the modern democratic republic that emerged after the end of the colonial rule in 1947 while for another, India could be the land of her ancestors going back all the way to the stone age. In all the above cases, it is obvious that the meaning ascribed to the word ‘India’ changes based on the context in which it is thought of and each of the above meanings is valid, as long as the context is clearly defined.
History is the investigation into how the contemporary physical, ecological and cultural structures of a place have evolved over time. It sheds light on how a culture or geographical region, as we see it today, emerged from the ruins of yesterday. It looks for continuity to as far back in the past as it is possible to establish and identifies the disruptions in this continuity and the possible reasons thereof. In other words, a historical account separates a living tradition from the dead relics of the past, distinguishing its continuity from the numerous disruptive events it encountered. When we speak of a civilization, we refer to this very continuity, which reflects in simple everyday acts of a people like the popular daily Hindu ritual of chanting the Gayatri Mantra, even though it was composed thousands of years ago. Now, as the sense of history is at the very core of one’s identity, it is an easy prey for those with an ideological or political agenda to further, in their quest for attaining power. Therefore, it becomes imperative for a community or an ethnic group to guard themselves against distortions in their own history, failing which they are sure to mutate into something totally new and since the said mutation is not voluntary or spontaneous but rather a consequence of political manipulation, it is likely to be exploitative of the interests of this very group.
The recent controversy over the renaming of India to South Asia in American History textbooks is a pertinent illustration of such an attempt to tinker with history through a semantic sleight of hand. By a simple manoeuvring of context, some South Asia faculty members built up a seemingly strong case for the replacement of the word ‘India’ with ‘South Asia’ because according to them, India didn’t exist before 1947 and any reference to India before that year would be incorrect. Although it is fair to point out that the usage of the word ‘India’ goes back a few centuries, there is a more serious objection that must be raised, which is whether the idea of India, regardless of the word used to represent it, was also born only in 1947. While the phrase, ‘idea of India’ is a bit of an overkill in secularist circles and credit must go to them for turning it into a cliché, the authentic idea itself is actually not what they believe in. The idea, as historical data and archaeological evidence show, is thousands of years old, deriving its vitality from Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism, which incidentally was also under the scanner of the South Asia faculty, waiting to be renamed to “ancient Indian religion”. The concerned faculty members failed to see the irony in their assertion that there was an ‘Indian’ religion even though there was no ‘India’. Fortunately, in an admirable display of unity and courage, some Indians from within the American academia, successfully defeated this sinister attempt to distort Indian history through a puppy-faced proposal of replacing a couple of words in school textbooks.
Coming back to names, it can be safely said that naming things is simply the most elementary manifestation of the language instinct and the urge to assign names to objects is the primary impulse that differentiates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. We name things, places, people as well as how we relate to each of these entities. So, for as long as humans have had a sense of belonging to a place or land, people have chosen to name places, not just their own but also those that they consider foreign to them. In fact, a powerful indicator of the subjugation of a people in the past and the continuing sway of its repercussions on the present is the names of the places they inhabit. For instance, the fact that the residents of Boston in the United States don’t refer to their city as Shawmut is testimony to the genocide of Native Americans and the consequent annihilation of their way of life by the Europeans, a few centuries ago. Similarly, the widespread substitution of words from a foreign language into the native tongue is also a strong marker of the skewed power equation between the two concerned linguistic groups at some point in their shared history. To put it simply, when conversing in colloquial Hindi, if you casually refer to the institution of your primary education as school and not paathshaala, it fits the pattern of usage of a native language in the post-colonial world.
Just like the ‘South Asianists’ were attempting to do away with India, it is believed by many that the renaming of roads and cities in India is also an attempt to ‘saffronize’ Indian History. They believe that for good or bad, the Muslim dynasties have a legitimate place in India’s history and that their memory is worth honouring. As there is little doubt about the process of naming being the most fundamental building block of language and cognition, it is worth exploring how a society assigns names to its monuments and landmarks. It may be noted that the act of naming roads and buildings is again a way of transmitting a set of ideas about the history of a place and not all historical events and personalities are worthy of commemoration. Hence, it would be near impossible to find a road in Israel - or anywhere else for that matter - named after Adolf Hitler, even though Hitler did play a major role in Jewish history and even contributed, inadvertently and posthumously, to the creation of the state of Israel. As pointed out earlier, names are vehicles of ideas and how we name things determines how we distinguish the parts of history that are worth celebrating from those that must be mourned. The distinction is extremely important for a most obvious reason expressed in the following adage: “Those who do not learn from History are condemned to repeat it.”
Taking a look at the map of Delhi, the capital of India and zooming in to its heart in the Lutyen’s zone, it is hard to miss the logic of naming major roads. Hindu rulers, ancient or medieval, are conspicuously missing but there is a plethora of Muslim rulers from the medieval era: from Tughlaq to Lodhi to Suri to the entire Mughal clan. While most names of British colonialists have been wiped out in recent decades, Connaught Place being the most prominent example, the Muslim rulers have somehow been uncritically accepted and revered. The common refrain is that ‘unlike the Britishers, they were not invaders and they promoted a syncretic culture that strengthened the idea of India… thus they must be commemorated.’ As we shall see, both these assertions are built on very shaky grounds.
In the seventeenth century, at the dusk of the Mughal rule, Francois Bernier, a French physician while on his visit to India writes:
“...the Great Mogol is a foreigner in Hindustan, a descendant of Tamerlane, chief of those Mogols from Tartary who, about the year 1401, overran and conquered the Indies, consequently he finds himself in a hostile country, or nearly so...”
Of course, here Bernier is speaking of Aurangzeb, the last strong emperor of the Mughal dynasty but this sentiment is equally applicable to all his predecessors, even Akbar. Although Akbar was a far more tolerant and enlightened ruler than his predecessors or successors, his hands were not free of the blood of innocent, native infidels, whose slaughter he justified by appealing to the obligation of jihad demanded by his faith. Further, it is a matter of debate if Akbar’s Deen-e-Illahi was a universal faith akin to Sanatan Dharma or a manifestation of the emperor’s secret desire to elevate himself to the level of a prophet. In any case, even if Akbar is given the benefit of the doubt, he is still very much part of a lineage that never pretended to be one with the natives and just like the British colonizers who came later, they were on a sort of civilizing mission too. Says the eminent historian K.S. Lal in Theory and Practice of Muslim State in India:
“It has been correctly said that the Muslim invaders and rulers did not belong to Hindustan. Muhammad Ghauri, Iltutmish and Balban ruled with the help of Muslim soldiers from abroad. The Khaljis and Tughlaqs may be considered Indian, but they also regularly recruited warriors from outside India for extending their dominions and spreading Islam in India. Many Muslim rulers depended upon the caliphs of Baghdad or Cairo for moral support. The Mughal invader Babur did not belong to India. He was forced by circumstances to march into Hindustan. His officers and soldiers disliked the country and clamoured to return home to Afghanistan. Babur himself had no love for the country and as per his wishes his body was taken and buried in his homeland.”
From the above, it can be inferred that even if certain rulers were Indian by blood, their worldview was so alien to the natives’ ethos that they needed the support of Central Asian tribes to retain control over their own territory in India. The Belgian indologist, Koenraad Elst, expresses a similar opinion regarding Islamic conquest of India in his eye-opening book, Negationism in India, on the systematic denial of historical crimes against Hindus:
“The Muslim conquests, down to the 16th century, were for the Hindus a pure struggle of life and death. Entire cities were burnt down and the populations massacred, with hundreds of thousands killed in every campaign, and similar numbers deported as slaves. Every new invader made (often literally) his hills of Hindu skulls. Thus, the conquest of Afghanistan in the year 1000 was followed by the annihilation of the Hindu population; the region is still called the Hindu Kush, i.e. “Hindu slaughter”. The Bahmani sultans (1347-1480) in central India made it a rule to kill 100,000 Hindus every year. In 1399, Teimur killed 100,000 captives in a single day, and many more on other occasions. The conquest of the Vijayanagar empire in 1565 left large areas of Karnataka depopulated. And so on. But the Indian Pagans were far too numerous and never fully surrendered. What some call the “Muslim period” in Indian history was, in reality, a continuous war of occupiers against resisters, in which the Muslim rulers were finally defeated in the 18th century.”
Now that we have the questions of nativity and intent of the Muslim invaders out of the way, let us address another common concern of progressive secularists. It is often alleged that the process of renaming is a sorry symptom of an unfulfilled desire of the radical Hindu to return to some imagined perfect past. But as explained earlier, the endeavour is not to return but to remember and further strengthen the narrative of resilience that helped us survive a thousand years of an uninterrupted onslaught. Moreover, this business of renaming is not just confined to India but is carried out with as much zeal in all erstwhile imperial colonies in Asia, Africa or anywhere else. However, this funny attribution of delusional motives to anyone approving of name-changing politics deserves a bit of scrutiny and it would be a good idea to refer to some primary sources to determine what a name like Tughlaq Road is really supposed to signify. Ibn-e-Batuta writes:
“First of all, daughters of Kafir (Hindu) Rajas captured during the course of the year, come and sing and dance. Thereafter they are bestowed upon Amirs and important foreigners. After this daughters of other Kafirs dance and sing... The Sultan gives them to his brothers, relatives, sons of Maliks etc. On the second day the durbar is held in a similar fashion after Asr. Female singers are brought out... the Sultan distributes them among the Mameluke Amirs...”
Here, the legendary traveller provides an account of sex slavery that was rampant under the rule of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. To be fair to Tughlaq, he was not an exception but rather an exemplar of Muslim dynasties in India, which enforced sex slavery, along with other forms of slavery, on the native infidels. As expected, this morally degraded institution simply did not exist under the rule of Hindu kings. Therefore, it beats common sense as to why someone would have a problem with associating the landmarks around us with more uplifting thoughts and deeds than what is presently done. Though it is common knowledge among politically aware Hindus, it must still be stated explicitly that the naming of roads and areas in our modern cities has been done in such a way that the popular narrative of India’s history avoids mention of atrocities and genocides committed on the native population under numerous foreign rulers and paints a rosy picture of Islamic dynasties that has no basis in reality. This is also reflected in the little or no attention given in school textbooks to native resistance by dynasties like the Marathas, Jats, Rajputs, Ahoms and Sangamas, much less of their final success in taking control back from the intruders.
Given the dismal politics in independent India, there is good reason to believe that parties that include name changing in their agenda do so out of a cynical motive to whip up passions and demonize a section of contemporary society for historical crimes they played no role in. But that is not a good enough reason for stopping such initiatives because there are hundreds of other ways in which historical fault lines between different communities can be exploited anyway. Some people suggest denoting roads with numbers or codes, which besides making a city sound dull, loses the opportunity of adorning it with symbols and ideas from our cultural heritage. It can’t be said enough that the names of places around us bind us more firmly to the land and its history, fortifying our collective identity, elevating our civilizational narrative and even blurring historical fault-lines that have been sharpened by decades of one-sided discourse. Behind every name is a thought and behind every thought is the intent. Let our intent be to uncover the truth, howsoever unpleasant the truth may be.