From Rajpath for Kartavya Path: How new India is shedding its colonial burden and baggage
The change of names is reflective of newfound confidence; it is a marker of the emergence of a new India that is asserting its past, is self-assured of its present, and is confident about its future
What’s in a name, you may ask. But the fact remains that the name of roads, towns, cities, and even countries, changes when history is rewritten, when course correction is underway, and when popular opinion and prevalent narrative change.
New Amsterdam changed to New York, Siam to Thailand, Ceylon to Sri Lanka and the list continues. The change of name of places has always raised questions over motives behind the decision that range from allegations of selective rewriting of history to populist politics to communal motives.
The reason for name changes of places can be different for different persons. But the current spree of name changes from rechristening Allahabad to Prayagraj or Faizabad to Ayodhya is nothing less than reclaiming of the civilisational insignias and sweeping clean the last vestiges of colonial history and India emerging as a self-confident nation, assured of its rightful place in the comity of the nations.
On 8 September, Rajpath was rechristened as ‘Kartavya Path’. The renaming of the ceremonial boulevard in the heart of New Delhi was said to symbolise a shift from the erstwhile “Rajpath being an icon of power, to Kartavya Path being an example of public ownership and empowerment”.
Speaking on the occasion Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the countrymen to shed all traces of colonial mindset, and take pride in their roots. Before this, on 2 September, Prime Minister Modi had unveiled the new naval ensign that draws inspiration from the seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, replacing the old ensign consisting of a St George’s Cross.
And, the most notable change in this series of rechristening was the renaming of India’s most famous address — the street where the Prime Minister’s residence is located — from 7, Race Course Road to ‘Lok Kalyan Marg’ in 2016. The street was named after Delhi’s race course and it signified the highest seat of power. It made sense to rename the street identified with the highest democratically elected office, after something that talks about people’s welfare rather than something that reeks of privilege, elitism, and entitlement.
The change of name of places should not be and cannot be seen as a procedural course correction; instead, in all measures, it is a substantive justice, one that a nation-state initiates when it emerges from self-doubt and is confident of its socio-cultural moorings and roots, as in case of present-day India.
An obvious question can be: Why should India bear the name of a despot or a colonial henchman as an identifier of the places that matter greatly to it. Why would a prominent road of the national capital be named after a tyrant whose intolerance cast numerous and irreparable losses to India’s civilisational and cultural ethos?
What is wrong with changing the name of Aurangzeb Road — a street not far from the prime minister’s residence, to former president APJ Abdul Kalam who inspired generations? What’s wrong with renaming Curzon Road to Kasturba Gandhi Marg, Irwin Road to Baba Kharak Singh Marg, King Edward Road to Maulana Azad Road?
For thousands of students coming to the North Campus of the University of Delhi which boasts of having the most prestigious colleges in the university, getting a seat in a college hostel is the first priority. But not all are lucky and most of them have to adjust to paying guests’ accommodations and rented flats in the neighbourhood colonies whose names inspire a strange sense of amusement and contempt when you do a random Google search about them.
One such residential colony located barely 2km from the Faculty of Arts, University of Delhi, is Hudson Lane named after William Stephen Raikes Hodson, a British leader of irregular light cavalry having played a significant role in crushing the rebellion of 1857 which we prefer to call India’s first war of independence.
Similarly, another preferred accommodation option for students in the area surrounding the University of Delhi is Outram Lines, named after yet another British Lieutenant General known for having fought the 1857 rebellion.
Not only Delhi but different parts of the country are punctuated by such markers of coloniality and reminders of several dark episodes of history that no nation would like even to recall, let alone celebrate by naming its roads and cities after it.
Since 2014 several cities and places have been rechristened and this has led to fierce debate among the groups who favour it and those who see it as mere political gimmickry. But neither the trend of changing names is new nor limited to any specific geographical boundaries.
In September 2021, New Zealand’s Māori Party launched a petition to change the country’s name to Aotearoa, which means “land of the long white cloud” in the indigenous Te Reo Maori language. The petition which was signed by around 70,000 people said, “It’s well past time that Te Reo Māori was restored to its rightful place as the first and official language of this country. We are a Polynesian country — we are Aotearoa.”
There is much in the name, as it’s more than just an identifier.
The renaming of Allahabad as Prayagraj was not just to reclaim the name that finds mention in India’s most ancient religious scriptures that includes the eternal Vedas, Puranas, Mahabharata, and Ramayana. It was reclaiming the civilisational insignia that was looted and destroyed by the conquerors.
Prayagraj finds a mention in the Tirthyatra Parv of the Mahabharat. It reads, “O hero, this meeting of the Ganga and the Yamuna where Brahma, our grandfather, the soul of all beings, performed sacrifice long ago, is world famous. For this reason, O best of the Bharatas, it is known as Prayag.”
The change of names is reflective of newfound confidence; it is a marker of the emergence of a new India that is asserting its past, is self-assured of its present, and is confident about its future. It is a new India that sees an unbreakable strand connecting its past, present, and future. Given this scenario, it would be naïve to think that this India will allow some colonial insignia to define its politics and some skewed notion of secularism to undermine its civilizational ethos.
It is a new India that as a nation has found a firmer footing and is making a long stride towards reclaiming its ancestral antecedents. It is only a matter of time before this change of name will extend to other domains like attire and food.
One should recall how India’s premier engineering institute, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, in the year 2017 chose to shed its “colonial robes and headgear” and walked up to the stage in ethnic Indian wear as they collected their degrees during college’s 50th convocation ceremony.
Seen as a historical course correction, the change of name of places or rituals such as convocation dressing in robes and headgears is a result of changing narrative being crafted by a nation that has found a new voice to demand its dues.
More rechristening is on the anvil, for name-place-animal-thing.
Let us wait and watch.
The author is a journalist and researcher based in Delhi. He has worked with The Indian Express, Firstpost, Governance Now, and Indic Collective. He writes on Law, Governance and Politics. Views expressed are personal.
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