July 25, 2020
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Your Name, Basanti?

Governmental India often has a Nehru-Gandhi tag. And the remedy doesn’t lie in aggressive renaming.

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Your Name, Basanti?
Rajiv Chowk—the arterial metro station in New Delhi
Photograph by Sanjay Rawat
Your Name, Basanti?

Before we get to ‘right-wing revenge’ renaming, let’s get this old peeve off our chest. Is it sheer paucity of imagination? Why can’t we extricate ourselves from a profusion of names from the Nehru-Gandhi parivar, attached to a heap of national assets all over the land? Why do we, for instance, have to call the Hyderabad airport the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport? (Unless it’s something to do with his pilot days!)  A planetarium (or two) named after Nehru, one can grant, tips a hat to his passion for science and modernity—but five of them? In Bhubaneswar, one has the Indira Gandhi Memorial Ayurvedic Medical College and Hospital. Surely, there’s no compelling evidence that Mrs Gandhi was a renowned ayurveda lover. Over the years, luminaries from the ‘first family’ have monopolised the monikers of several hundred central and state government schemes, sports tournaments, geographical landmarks, power plants, educational institutes, national parks, roads and awards.

This naming spree has risen to such levels that we hardly ever ascribe names of local heroes—musicians, artists, film stars or sportspersons—to landmarks. Surya Prak­ash, chairman of Prasar Bharati, objected to the bias and took the matter to the Election Commission in 2009. “The way the Con­gress has gone about commemorating its icons, it’s like from birth to death everyone from among the rural and urban poor has to remember the party,” he says. Starting with the Rajiv Gan­dhi Nati­onal Creche Scheme for the Children of Working Moth­ers, there’s a veritable armada of projects that are meant to follow millions through their lives, such as the Rajiv Gandhi National Drin­king Water Mission, Rajiv Gandhi Gram­een Vidy­uti­karan Yoj­ana, Rajiv Gandhi Shilpi Swasthya Bima Yojana or the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. Roughly, about 450 central and state government programmes, projects, national and state-level institutions involving public expenditure of hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees have been named after the Nehru-Gandhi clan.

“Congress governments after the ’70s just over-glorified the dynasty. But that wrong can’t be rectified by deleting Nehru’s legacy.”
Sudheendra Kulkarni, Columnist and politician

Now there’s anger and bemusement at a reverse saffron wash of nameplates, which is driven by pique and animus towards ‘Muslim invader’ names—thankfully still limited to less controversial figures like Deendayal Upadhy and A.P.J. Abdul kalam (rather than Golwalkar). Instead of going into a ping-pong polemic, there are important questions we must ask: What is the importance of a name in the act of memorialisation? What are the problems posed by frequent acts of renaming? Should there not be a committee of independent experts to decide on how to make naming more democratic? Also, why can’t we draw inspiration from our culture, ecology, society or even local festivals to make nomenclature more neutral? Environmental act­­i­­vist Bittu Sahgal says, “In my view, parks should be ideally named after places, but then consider Corbett Nat­­ional Park. Naming some parks after people who have devoted their lives to the creation or protection of specific geographies sounds reasonable.” Writer Anil Dharker bel­i­eves names should be relevant to the context. “The Indira Gandhi International Airport could have been named after J.R.D. Tata, the pioneer of Indian aviation, or the Sea Link could have been named after an eng­ineering pioneer and not a political head.” But renaming can’t happen randomly, bec­ause the past is part of our nation. Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan, too, believes naming a park after Nehru is understandable, but trouble begins when you start naming countless laboratories and bus sta­nds after him. “We have legends, myths, folklores, histories, heroes and leaders that need to be recognised.” To stem the tide of this excess, Surya Prakash thinks a national com­mittee should reduce the number of institutions after the Nehru-Gan­dhis and ren­­ame them after other figures.

The Indira Gandhi Planetarium in Lucknow

Photograph by Nirala Tripathi

Does this obsession stem from a sycophantic ‘maharaja syndrome’? Carn­atic musician T.M. Krishna thinks so. He beli­eves the idea that everything be named after the king/queen is part of our culture, and was entrenched during colonial rule. “This idea that somebody is doing us a fav­our, a benevolence...there’s an ing­rained servitude in this thinking. Undo­ubtedly, as far as the Centre goes, the Congress has probably vulgarised it to the point that we have become numb to it.” He says we should ask why we name projects after people. “The same thing is argued by saying we have no local consciousness, therefore name ever­ything after a Hindu king. This is to me as abusive as naming it after Rajiv Gandhi.” Economist Narendar Pani agrees naming by definition is a matter of glorifying an individual. “For me, the issue is we tend to forget our own local history in the process, which is far worse.”

“Parks should be ideally named after places but, as in Corbett National Park, they can be named after people who’ve devoted their lives to the place.”
Bittu Sahgal, Environmental activist

The British used architecture, streets and statuary to imprint a notion of race superiority on the minds of colonial subjects. Independent India, like other post-colonial states, used naming and renaming to mark its own history. So, roads/gardens named after Ashoka, Prithviraj Chauhan, the Lodhis, Sher Shah, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb call to minds a seamless parade of our illustrious past. Author Amrita Shah believes Indira Gandhi’s autocratic personality gave the phenomenon a personal, dynastic turn. “But political entities that challenged the Nehru-Gandhi grab tactics have gone on to perpetuate the same—the Thackerays in Mumbai, for instance, and the BJP, eager to replace Congress figures with their ideologues.” Congress leader Anil Shastri thinks the motive behind naming assets after top leaders is to keep their legacy intact. “Renaming is a trivial concern. Ide­ally, we should set up institutions for a cons­tructive purpose and name them  more sensibly.”

Recently, many people have decried the attempt to market government progra­mmes as munificent offerings from a single family. There was an outcry on social media when actor Rishi Kapoor (ironically, himself a third generation dynast) backed the renaming of public assets to diminish the Nehru-Gandhi halo over them. “Change Bandra/Worli Sea Link to Lata Mangeskar or J.R.D. Tata Link Road.... do they consider it family property?” he tweeted. Actor Anu­pam Kher vociferously backs him. “There are many other Congress leaders who des­erve attention, like Narasimha Rao or Lal Bahadur Shastri. In the future, naming sho­uld be given more thought, and people with significant contributions should be factored in.” Even sportspersons have voi­ced concern. While dynasty names are ubiquitously stamped on tournaments and stadiums, only a few sporting legends get a look in. The ones that come to mind are the Major Dhyan Chand National Sta­dium in Delhi and another inside the Sports College in Lucknow. The only other prominent sports arena named after an athlete is Delhi’s Karni Singh Shooting Range. “There is nothing named after the late shot-put­ter and discus thrower Pra­dhuman Singh Brar, who won three Asian Gold medals in 1954 and 1958,” says Gur­ba­chan Singh Randhawa, who won the 1962 Asian Games Decathlon gold. Former India team kabaddi coach Ejjapu­reddi Prasad Rao, a Drona­ch­arya award winner, thinks sports too is a highly politicised domain. “When I was coaching in Japan in 2003-04, I found an indoor stadium at the Taisho University exclusively for kabaddi. I expect a tournament being named after an India kabaddi player ten years from now.”

Anil Kumble Circle in Bangalore

Photograph by Kashif Masood

But places have histories. Naming public spaces indiscriminately after the Nehru-Gandhi family is a sort of violence too. Take the Shamshabad Greenfield Air­­port in Hyderabad, for example. It was started under Chandrababu Naidu’s regime, but completed under Congress rule. “The Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government indulged in not-so-subtle flattery by naming practically everything after Rajiv or Indira Gan­dhi,” says historian Nar­endra Luther. He asks if it would not have made greater sense to name the airport not after Rajiv Gandhi but Sha­mshul-ul-Umrah, a Hyderabadi noble whose jagir extended till Shamshabad. “Or we could easily have named it after a Telugu poet or writer. The Telugu Desam wanted it named after NTR and the Congress after Rajiv. It is a little sickening to find these names repeated time and again when naming airports, roads or national monuments,” says Luther.

Well-known heritage conservationist Sajjad Shahid believes that since Hydera­badis are a hospitable lot, names are often thrust upon them. “For example, in Ban­jara Hills, we have a Kaifi Azmi Road. Why? He was a non-mulki damaad of Hyde­rabad. Instead, it could be named after sons of the soil.” While talking about the Hyd­erabad airport, Shahid says, “They could have named it after Hyd­erab­adi Babar Mirza, a pioneer in aviation, or P.M. Reddy, another aviation hero of the Deccan, who founded Hindustan Aero­nautics.”

“The idea of a benevolent king/queen is ingrained in us. And the Congress has vulgarised it to the point that we have become numb to it.”
T.M. Carnatic musician

Calcutta, too, is no stranger to renaming runs by the government of the day. Corn­field Road, at the juncture of a busy market area, has been renamed Dr Radha Kumud Mookherjee Road after the eminent scholar and historian, an MP in the Nehru government. Mookherjee’s grandson Pradipta rec­alls the renaming, effected by the former Left government. “The then PWD minister, Prasanta Sur, a close friend of my father, Pradyumna Mukherjee, was keen to have Cornfield Road renamed after my grandfather.” To counter the Nehru-Gandhi family imprint on nomenclature, the Communists made it a point to use names of local heroes. Now, the Trinamool is doing the same, though, in righting some wrongs as they perceive it, they’re careful that the per­son chosen is not too Left-leaning. There are, of course, big icons like Netaji Sub­hash Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, but some local heroes too, like the martyr Khu­­diram Bose. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee, known for her penchant for renaming, has a long list of names for the metro stations in the city—Shahid Khudiram, Kabi Sub­hash, Kabi Nazrul and Mah­­a­­nayak Uttam Kumar—named after the martyr, poets and an actor.

Many believe that diversity, in according recognition to local and national heroes, has to be done in a more nuanced way. Saleem Iqbal Shervani, a Congress politician, thinks the party held sway over India for six decades, and achieved several milestones. “In my opinion, it isn’t fair to fight over contributions. The Mughals gave us the Taj Mahal; we cannot change its name, can we? Random, short-sighted thinking should make way for the larger picture.” Even Sudheendra Kulkarni, columnist and politician, believes it would be ungrateful to ignore or deny the sacrifices Nehru made during the freedom struggle. “He laid a firm foundation for democratic gov­­ernance and ensured that India remained a secular rep­ublic after the trauma of Par­tition, even though the word ‘secularism’ was enshrined in the Preamble of the Consti­tution only in 1976.” At the same time, he points out that successive Congress governments, especially after the split in the party (1969) and the Emergency (1975-77), over-glorified the Nehru-Gan­­dhi family to the exclusion of other great leaders both within and outside the Congress. This was reflected in the orgy of naming. That was wrong, and the wrong should be rectified. But it can’t be done by committing another wrong—by disrespecting and del­eting the legacy of Nehru,” he says.

Other nations, too, like the US, identify their important landmarks with the names of political leaders like Lincoln, Kennedy or Washington. But there’s also a great deal of diversity in their naming of scientific, cultural or artistic projects. Paris’s largest int­ernational airport is named after the soldier-statesman Charles de Gaulle, who in no way monopolises names. In Ban­gladesh, the naming history of the Dhaka airport is significant: from Dacca Inter­national Airport, it was renamed in 1983 the Zia Internatinal Airport (after former president Zia-ur Rahman). In 2010, Sheikh Hasina renamed it after Hazrat Shahjalal, the famous Sufi mystic of Bengal.

In India, too, there’s a chorus for more diversity in names. “Yes, arterial roads and boulevards in cities should be named after our war heroes, and all great universities and scientific institutions should be named after renowned engineers, doctors, teachers, artists, scientists,” says Surya Prakash.

While this tug-of-war over naming, ren­aming, over-naming and under-naming spills ink and airspace in the media and convulses the virtual world, one could even step away from the whole issue and wonder if streets can’t be named for the place they’re in, or they’re going to.


Mumbai Must Salute

  • J.R.D. Tata
  • M.F. Husain
  • Lata Mangeshkar
  • V. Shantaram
  • Sunil Gavaskar

Bangalore Must Salute

  • Sujata Rangarajan
  • Pankaj Advani
  • K.K.S. Murthy
  • K.K. Hebbar
  • Rudresh Mahanthappa

Calcutta Must Salute

  • Ritwik Ghatak
  • Satyendranath Bose
  • Jamini  Roy
  • Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay
  • Leslie Claudius

Full list of Schemes/institutions named after the Nehru-Gandhi family. Visit: http://asuryaprakash.com/

By Priyadarshini Sen with Ajay Sukumaran, Dola Mitra, Madhavi Tata, Qaiser Mohammad Ali, Stuti Agarwal, Siddhartha Mishra and Aheli Basu

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