It is important for every nation to know its history. Indians are obsessed with the past (ironical really when one considers the general disdain the middle classes have for the formal study of history). The renaming of Aurangzeb Road — hardly a main artery for the national capital — in the memory of former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has occupied more column inches in newspapers and more characters on Twitter and associated social media than the stalled construction of any number of new roads, which, if and when built, would actually improve the quality of life for the capital’s citizens. Given the country’s strong preference for the study of engineering over history, unbuilt roads/brand new roads should agitate/excite us more than renaming old roads.
But the fact is this. In popular consciousness, India’s past occupies a more important slot than India’s future. It’s a peculiar phenomenon for a nation as young as India where 2/3rd of the population was born after 1980, hardly the distant past. At this stage of its history, India should be obsessed about writing, proficiently, the empty pages of the future. Instead, it is insistent on constantly reinterpreting and rewriting a cluttered history for which most Indians have no expertise.
The renaming of Aurangzeb Road elicited triumphalism from some quarters. After all, was he not the Mughal who tried his utmost, with ruthless tactics and horrific consequences, to impose his version of Islam on India? Therefore, he ought not to find a mention in modern India. For others, it was a naked act of revisionism by Hindu fundamentalists for whom the Sanskritised Kalam is a better Muslim role model than Aurangzeb. I am unable to comprehend how renaming a single road makes any difference, whichever way. Frankly, most Delhi natives would immediately associate Aurangzeb Road with the great wealth and power of 21st century Delhi — the country’s top industrialists and leading politicians/bureaucrats occupy the palatial houses of the leafy road — rather than the evil rule of Aurangzeb. Now and in the foreseeable future, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road will be associated with that same image of wealth and power, hardly the things the former President stood for.
All that the renaming has achieved is to reinforce individual (and communal) biases and caricatures of history and the present. There is a place to study history, even to rewrite it. But not on the road signage of Indian cities. Aurangzeb did much wrong, but we cannot erase him from India’s history. Chances are that most Indians will find fault in their rulers of the past, whether Hindu, Muslim or British. Just look how critical the country is of its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in just half a century after his death. Nehru’s economic policies and his festering of a political dynasty may have harmed India, but there is little point in trying to erase him from history. History is always a mix of the good and the bad and if we don’t try and understand the bad, tragic bits, we can’t have a proper understanding of our present
And let’s also start agitating about our future — an impassioned campaign for many new roads anyone? — with as much passion as we agitate about our past. That’s the only way to deliver the country from its sometimes troubled past.