Roads are a city’s arteries, and when they are given new names, the old lose their connect, and with it a part of history is lost. The Bharatiya Janata Party has picked on Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to rewrite New Delhi’s history by renaming a road named after him. Aurangzeb is the archetypal villain in the Hindu nationalist imagination — the cruel ruler who put a sword to people’s heads, offering them a choice between Islam and death. And a despot who hated music so much he ordered it buried deep so that no sound could escape and reach anyone’s ears. Perhaps much of it was true, but often the nuance is lost in textbooks where the process of internalisation of history begins at a young age. Not only cruel, Aurangzeb for the BJP is an outsider, a part of Mughal history, and history it desires to wish away. And when the party decided to replace Aurangzeb with another Muslim, a former President who was the antithesis of the Mughal ruler, a man who loved to play the veena, a benevolent man who pardoned many people from being marched off to the gallows, it was hard not to miss the political statement being made. Mahmood Mamdani wrote in his paper, ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective...’: “Whether in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Pakistan, Islam must be quarantined and the devil must be exorcized from it by a civil war between good Muslims and bad Muslims.” In India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then, was a good Hindu-Muslim. Twitter broke into applause and exhaled a happy sigh. A piece of history was erased for good, some Twitter handles proclaimed. Of course, once the process of correcting perceived historical wrongs begins, there is no stopping it. Delhi and other cities have many roads named after Muslim rulers, and the clamour for change has only just started.
It is a good question to ask whether the departed President could have some other road named after him. When > The Hindu first reported the renaming plan (on July 30, 2015), the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee suggested that Aurangzeb Road be spared to be named after Guru Tegh Bahadur, who died defending the Hindu faith, and another road be chosen to be named after Abdul Kalam. It is fair to ask whether the BJP could have chosen to rename Prithviraj Road or Rajesh Pilot Marg after Kalam. The Congress would then have broken into more than a rash. The party had gone on a spree of relabelling roads named Connaught and Curzon after Indian leaders, and defended the decisions saying it was shaking off the colonial legacy. But Aurangzeb is a part of India’s (pre-colonial) history. A part acknowledged through this road named after him. This renaming is an attempt to excise that part.