Erasing the past

To rename the 150-year-old Mughalsarai railway station in Uttar Pradesh after Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who was mysteriously found dead on the railway track close to the station in 1968, doesn’t make much sense if the objective is to systematically erase Mughal history. Islamic and Hindu cultures mingled in India for centuries, leaving a plethora of shared or overlapping nomenclature — too many to wipe out. How far do we go back in history and what do we choose to excise?

Yet this prominent example is but one in a long list of stations, roads and other venues that are slowly and steadily being renamed. Are we witnessing a movement that seeks to rewrite or erase parts of history?

Some seek to justify this process and draw parallels to movements in other countries, such as the movement against Confederate monuments and memorials in the U.S., or the movement to bring down the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford in the U.K. But these are not the same. In the U.S., fierce debates continue to rage over allowing Confederate statues — symbols of the country’s dark history of slavery and white supremacy — to stand, and parks bearing the names of Confederate leaders have been renamed Justice Park and Emancipation Park. The net impact has been to bring a measure of solace or closure to those who suffered racist attacks. And in the U.K., students have led protests to bring down the statute of Cecil Rhodes, the British-origin Prime Minister of Cape Colony who espoused racist views, yet left behind a generous and lasting corpus of funds in higher education. This hints at a broader social realisation of the legacy of colonialist racism.

In India, the last of the Mughals became the symbolic leaders of a revolt against white rulers. Yet, Aurangzeb, not the most popular of Mughal rulers in public memory, has been so demonised in school textbooks that alternative readings of him have become impossible. As historian Narayani Gupta once remarked to this newspaper, “Ultimately, it comes down to the appalling way we teach history in terms of good and bad kings. It shows a lack of imagination, a lack of a sense of history, a smallness of mind.”

The clamour for renaming roads is also unlike the movement to erase the names of British rulers from the roads of Delhi. Colonialism differed from Mughal rule in that the British government’s motives were resource extraction and strategic control. Thus, an argument could be made for relabelling roads named Chelmsford, Curzon, and Connaught after Indian leaders. However, isn’t India’s Mughal legacy an indispensable part of its history, culture and cuisine? There are always new roads and railway stations waiting to be named after Indian leaders. So, why attempt to wish away history?

The writer is an Associate Editor with The Hindu in New Delhi