Renaming of Rajpath is an attempt to represent state power to the public, in a sanctimonious manner filled with a for-show hyper-morality.
The renaming of Rajpath, one of New Delhi’s shortest and widest roads, may or may not mark the dawn of a new era. But it does remind us that the naming of public objects is an act – literally, a performance ? of power. It follows that the act of renaming is meant to signal a change, the arrival of a newer, stronger power.
Since the wisdom of those wielding power today declares the humanities and social sciences to be basically worthless, it may come as a revelation to many that there is an established field of study devoted to the naming of public places. Indeed, I myself was pleasantly surprised to discover the sub-field of “critical toponymy” or the study of the politics of place names.
It is not so surprising, however, to find that historically, regime change is often followed by name change. The 20th century seems to have been particularly eventful in this regard because it witnessed a wide variety of regime changes. The overthrow of right-wing dictatorships in Europe began the trend, with Germany being the most famous case, but Italy, Spain and Portugal must not be forgotten. This was followed by the wave of decolonisation in Asia and Africa that brought independence to many countries. Then, towards the end of the century, the collapse of Soviet and East European communism led to further regime changes. This was quickly followed by the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In each case, the transfer of power was followed, sometimes immediately, sometimes with a lag, by a spate of name changing. Provinces, cities ? and, of course, roads and streets ? were vigorously renamed in an effort to exorcise the past, whether fascist, colonial or communist.
That naming and renaming are an integral part of the struggle for hegemony is demonstrated by the more complex and entangled histories of countries like Ireland, Israel, Poland, Zimbabwe, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and, most poignantly today, Ukraine. In these cases, the identities of victor and vanquished are unstable and continually contested. If renaming public spaces is seen as especially important even in such contexts, it is clear that names matter and renaming is not a trivial act.
The 21st century has brought an entirely different variety of name changes with a commercial motivation. This takes the form of corporate “naming rights” where a company’s name and/or logo are attached to a prominent public place or institution in return for payment of royalty. This development is a product of the neoliberal era with its imperative for the monetisation of previously “price-less” entities, and its discouragement of state spending on public goods and services. Starved of public funding, many institutions, including city governments, find themselves unable to resist corporate “sponsorship”. This is a worldwide phenomenon which now has a fancy name ? “toponymic commodification”.
The Rajpath-Kartavya Path makeover does not fit any of these models. The claim that it marks the moment of true decolonisation in 2022 is unconvincing, to put it politely. The original name Kingsway certainly stood for British imperial power. However, the post-Independence name, Rajpath, need not be interpreted as a mere translation of Kingsway. It is more plausible that the name stood for the postcolonial state, particularly since in Indian languages, the one who rules – or exercises raj ? need not literally be a king or queen. Raj or rule is more properly understood as the exercise of legitimate power. It would be more in keeping with historical fact to say that this is a weak attempt to obscure the embarrassing role of the Sangh Parivar in the context of our freedom struggle. If they are to be used in debate rather than for abuse, terms like “colonial mindset” must be accompanied by clear descriptions that allow us to separate it from, for example, love for Western power or its symbols like former President Donald Trump, or pride in the fact that an “Indian” almost became the prime minister of the UK.
What if we step back from such disputes to simply ask: What is wrong with a name like Kartavya Path? The answer requires us to revisit earlier instances of renaming. I must confess that I was pleased when my home town was renamed from the anglicised Hubli to Hubballi. This came after much bigger changes like Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Though there was some resistance, usually from middle-class cosmopolitans, particularly in Mumbai, these changes were broadly in keeping with popular local usage. They could arguably claim to be in the people’s interest.
Now consider another set of changes with a very different motivation. When renaming is done or proposed for cities like Allahabad, Mughalsarai, Ahmedabad, or Muzaffarnagar there is little doubt about the intention. It is an effort to erase and deny our shared “Muslim past”. An interesting case here is the conversion – if one might call it that – of Aurangzeb Road to APJ Abdul Kalam Marg, where the “bad, powerful Muslim” is replaced by the “good, Hindu-ised Muslim”. Also interesting, in a related but different sense, are instances like the renaming of Gurgaon (Gudganvaan in Haryanvi) to Gurugram. Once again, the motivations are transparent.
The Rajpath to Kartavya Path story does not fit any of these models either. The only comparable case is the rebirth of Race Course Road (where the Prime Minister lives) as Lok Kalyan Marg (People’s Welfare Path). These changes are not about colonialism, communal politics, or Sanskrit-oriented shuddhi or purification. They are attempts to represent state power today, or “Modi raj”, to the public in a sanctimonious manner filled with a for-show hyper-morality. After all is said and done, perhaps it is only fitting that this regime renames an ornamental, little-used road — which runs perpendicular to the people’s path (Janpath) ? as the path of duty.
Courtesy Indian Express