On January 28, the government announced that it had renamed the Mughal Gardens in the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex “Amrit Udyan” – the Garden of Nectar. A few days later, on February 2, the Madhya Pradesh government announced the renaming of Islam Nagar village in Bhopal district as “Jagdishpur”.
In 2018, the Uttar Pradesh government had renamed the Mughalsarai Railway Station as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay junction while in 2015 New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road was renamed after former President, the late APJ Abdul Kalam.
The government’s loathing for Mughal-era and Arabic-Persian names is bound to lead to collective amnesia and a disastrous distortion of history. It is the Mughals who enriched gardening by introducing the Persian Chahar Bagh style in India.
Mughal Emperor Babur had built the Aram Bagh garden in Agra where he was temporarily buried before his remains were shifted to Kabul and interred at the Bagh-e-Babur. Mughal-style gardens surround the majestic Taj Mahal in Agra and the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi. Srinagar’s Shalimar Bagh, built by Mughal Emperor Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan in 1619, is another of India’s breathtaking Mughal gardens.
English gardener and landscaper William Mustoe designed the garden of Rashtrapati Bhavan along the lines of Shalimar Bagh and named it after the Mughals. For the government to change its name now reflects the unwarranted inferiority complex of present-day moguls as well as their aggressive, parochial chauvinism.
Erasures, right and wrong?
When the Japanese handed over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Government, he renamed the island groups “Swaraj Dweep and Shaheed Dweep”.
On January 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the renaming of three islands as a tribute to Bose. Ross Island was renamed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep. Bose had fought against the British, an imperialist power. Hence, replacing a colonial relic with a patriotic memory is justified.
But the Mughals, unlike the British, French, Portuguese, and Danish colonisers, never siphoned off the subcontinent’s wealth. Before the Mughals there were the ancient nomadic Saka or Indo-Scythians from the first century before common era, the Indo-European Kushan from the second to third century before common era and the Indo-Greeks to the dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate.
Like them, the Mughals came to the subcontinent and became a part of its civilisation, leaving behind a rich legacy. To erase Mughal heritage is to truncate India’s kaleidoscopic history.
The names of places and buildings hold history fond and bitter. Fond memories bring euphoria to the national psyche while the bitter ones hold lessons not to be repeated. For instance, Chandni Chowk or Moonlight Square in Old Delhi was built in the 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan and designed by his daughter Jahanara. It was a glittering Mughal-era market.
But the Gurudwara Sis Ganj in Chandni Chowk has a gory past. The ninth Skih guru, Tej Bahadur, was beheaded in 1675, on the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Would it be just to erase Chandni Chowk, an emblem of Mughal glory, and retain the name of the Gurudwara Sis Ganj, a reminder of Mughal cruelty? But history is neither black nor white, but grey.
Renaming sprees are generally the leisure activities of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. In 2002, Turkmenistan dictator Saparmurat Niyazov enacted a law to rename all the months and most the days of the week. The names were chosen according to Niyazov’s tailormade national scripture, Ruhnama.
January was named Türkmenbaşy – “the leader of Turkmen” – the self-proclaimed name of Saparmurat Niyazov, while April was renamed Gurbansoltan after his mother, and September after his book Ruhnama.
In 1972, President and dictator of Uganda Idi Amin too went on a renaming spree to shed the country’s colonial baggage. Uganda’s Lake Edward was renamed Lake Idi Amin.
There is an apocryphal tale about Amin’s obsession with renaming. The story goes that Amin was possessed by the idea of naming Uganda “Idi” after himself.
A western diplomat is said to have told him politely: “Your Excellency, there is a country called Cyprus and her peoples are called Cypriots. If you name your country ‘Idi’, your countrymen would be called ‘Idiots’.” Amin may have dropped his plans, but India’s rulers, meanwhile, carry on.
Faisal CK is Under Secretary (Law) to the Government of Kerala. Views are personal.
Also read: Gardens in India have surprisingly ancient and sprawling roots