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India: The Pen Defeats the Sword (on One Street at Least)

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Asia Life

India: The Pen Defeats the Sword (on One Street at Least)

The renaming of Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road as APJ Abdul Kalam Road would be a masterstroke in the politics of history.

India: The Pen Defeats the Sword (on One Street at Least)
Credit: Narendra Modi

One doesn’t have to look far to find some curious facts about street names. Balbo Drive in Chicago is named after a fascist politician, Mussolini’s aide Italo Balbo. In Warsaw, a street bearing the name Ludwik Kondratowicz, a Polish 19th century poet, is not far from a street named after Władysław Syrokomla, even though Syrokomla was Kondratowicz’s nom-de-plume. And in the capital of India, Aurangzeb Road meets Aurangzeb Lane. This last example, however, may soon change.

On August 28, the New Delhi Municipal Council decided to change the name Aurangzeb Road to APJ Kalam Road. Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was a Mughal emperor, while the recently departed APJ Abdul Kalam (1931-2015) was a scientist and president of India. The decision, which comes from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is a carefully considered act of politics, as both the street and its new patron have been carefully chosen.

For Indians, Aurangzeb needs little introduction. He is usually remembered for getting rid of his three brothers in a fierce struggle for power and for putting his father (the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shahjahan) into custody, which ended in the latter’s lonely and sorrowful death. Aurangzeb is also famous for the constant battles that nearly made him the ruler of all India. In Hindu nationalism, he is consistently portrayed as a cruel and fanatical ruler who waged religious wars against non-Muslims, persecuting them and destroying their sacred places. This view is in fact shared by many outside the Hindu nationalist fold. Taking this into consideration, the renaming of Aurangzeb Road comes as no surprise. Indeed, it is surprising that it has taken so long, as the street name had been there since the British period.

Take a step away from popular opinion and enter the realm of historians, and the view of Aurangzeb becomes more nuanced – albeit only slightly. For example, while it seems certain that he was personally a pious man, it is debatable whether his wars should be called “religious” in nature or whether they were primarily fought on political and economic grounds. But the bottom line remains: Aurangzeb was both a devout Muslim and an aggressive ruler who ruthlessly crushed his enemies. War, torture and destruction were quite commonplace in Aurangzeb’s day and he should not be singled out for his practices, he certainly managed to outdo many of his contemporaries in brutality.

All of which makes Aurangzeb a perfect target for the renaming exercise. The British colonial government had left the names of certain members of the Mughal dynasty, as well as other Muslim rulers, as New Delhi’s street patrons. Any endeavor to rename many of those roads would have proven controversial, but Aurangzeb cannot hope to find more than a handful of defenders. Had the authorities sought to implant the name of a Hindu king in place of the Muslim emperor, they would have certainly landed themselves in an ideological and religious battle. (It was in fact recently suggested that Tegh Bahadur, the spiritual and political leader of the Sikh community executed under Aurangzeb’s rule, should replace the emperor on the street signs.)

The choice of Abdul Kalam will, however, probably prompt as little opposition as the erasure of Aurangzeb’s name. As one of the country’s most noted scientists, Kalam took part in Indian satellite and missile programs and earned the nickname “Missile Man.” Only pacifists could oppose his candidature regarding this aspect of his life. Kalam went on to become the president of India from 2002 to 2007, but remained largely aloof from political tussles and divides. Interestingly, although hailing from a Muslim community, he was chosen by a coalition led by the BJP, the same Hindu nationalist party that is now removing Aurangzeb’s name (so politically the party is also promoting its “own” man). The BJP has mostly Hindu members and voters, and its mother organization, the RSS, does not even admit non-Hindus. The representatives of these entities often do not mince words about Islam. Thus, in the rare cases when the BJP promotes Muslims to party or state posts it is done to show a more benign face of Hindu nationalism. This ideology claims that only liberal and patriotic Muslims are true Indians (or even that being a liberal Muslim is a prerequisite to being patriotic). Eventually, the symbol of this renaming may be perceived by many as a stereotypical confrontation between the image of a “Good Indian Muslim” and that of a “Bad Muslim.” Although these political considerations are certainly important, in the end Kalam is deserving of his own street. He is widely remembered as a soft-spoken person and the meaning of his last name (kalam means “pen”) makes it tempting to compare it with Aurangzeb’s rule by the sword. Moreover, Kalam’s recent death created a need and a political climate to commemorate him.

Those opposing the decision claim that until now the New Delhi Municipal Council strove not to change the historical patrons of the streets. Technically, this may be true. However, the larger context shows clearly that naming and renaming is an important part of Indian politics of history. The party that ruled India throughout most of its independence, the Indian National Congress, named numerous streets, institutions, and projects after party members and leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi but also Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The BJP does the same. The fact that it has achieved much less in this regard is only because it has held the reins of power for a handful of years. Its past decisions to name part of a road in north Delhi after K.B. Hedgewar and an airport in the Andaman and Nicobar islands after V.D. Savarkar – both radical Hindu nationalist leaders – were in fact much more controversial than the choice of Kalam.

That this choice is politically safe and perhaps even beneficial can be inferred from the fact that one of the first to spread the word about the council’s decision was Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi. Although Kejriwal expressed his satisfaction with the renaming, he is in fact the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, a bitter political rival of the BJP. While Delhi as a territory is ruled by his party, the New Delhi Municipal Council that took the call is dominated by BJP personnel and the original proposal to rename the street was forwarded by a BJP member. If even Kejriwal has jumped on the BJP’s bandwagon in this case, then the prospects for the renaming process certainly look good.

Lastly, even when Aurangzeb Road becomes APJ Abdul Kalam Road, it will still border Aurangzeb Lane. The emperor’s name will remain inscribed on the city’s map anyway – at least for now.