Governments often try to show that they operate in an imagined space where the past and the present coincide. According to a report in Firstpost, the Modi government too is attempting to create such an impression with its reported plan to rename Lutyens’ New Delhi as the “Imperial City of Delhi” and the walled city that many call the Old Delhi as the “Imperial City of Shahjahanabad”.

Though no confirmation of the news reports has come as yet, it is likely that some such name change will take place – at least for the government to leave a footprint in the sands of time if not, as an official professed, to attract tourists and obtain the UNESCO heritage city tag. Name changing has been a national pastime with dispensations of all hues and the present government is not alone in trying to embed itself into the history of a city by renaming it instead of achieving the arduous task of transforming it into a postmodern city.

Delhi richly deserves the “heritage city” tag, of that there can be little doubt. From its northern tip to Mehrauli in the south, Delhi’s streets are paved with history. According to some experts, it has the second most historical monuments in the world after Athens. The Archaeological Survey of India has done a reasonable job of preserving these colonial and Mughal monuments, and for some years now the Aga Khan Foundation has been working with the ASI to upgrade most of these.

But why the two names?

By splitting the city, the government is saying that there are two Delhis: one colonial and the other Mughal. Even if they have coalesced into singular in the mind of the Dilliwalla, there is still a distinction between them for the government. It has not appeared to the government that the Metro’s foray into Old Delhi (Chandni Chowk, Sadar Bazar, etc.) has created a seamless integration. Even if it cleaves the city into two on the surface, below the ground the two parts have irrevocably become one.

Colonial understanding

Delhi’s proposed renaming and division is an attempt by the ruling elite to capture for themselves the glowing colonial part of the city, its lush parks, bungalows and tree-lined promenades, while dismissing the lesser populace to the outer limits and then eventually cut them off. This is how colonialists too had imagined the city structure: the “unsanitary” would be pushed to the fringes, while the elite would inhabit the centre (the chawls in Mumbai are a product of this thinking).

“Understanding our fascination for Bombay was the desire for modern life,” wrote Gyan Prakash in Mumbai Fables. This desire to embrace modernity and leave behind the unwashed villages is a basic feeling in all urban residents and thus linked to the growth of all cities.

However, intriguing is this latest process of renaming. While other governments have chosen to obliterate the colonial past (Mumbai, Chennai, etc.), here the attempt is to recall its virtues. The renamers are obviously under the simplistic impression that a colonial tag is a shortcut to a heritage tag and more tourists will flock to an Imperial City, rather than a plain and dull New Delhi.

Gyan Prakash wrote this about Mumbai’s renaming: “By Indianising street and building names, by officially naming Bombay Mumbai, the postcolonial present suggests that colonial control is over. Charting transformations primarily in terms of native-versus-alien rule however is to miss the histories lodged in the city’s double parasitical birth and development. It assumes that the colonial past can be bleached out of Mumbai’s existence as a metropolis and neatly appropriated by the post colonial era.”

In Delhi, the reverse process is at work, and a clear emphasis is being placed on the colonial past with the use of the appendage “imperial”. Perhaps the idea here is to present the Modi government as the “new imperial” power, which will dislodge or “bleach out” the work of the previous governments and once and for all appropriate the imperial city of Delhi.

Corrections and clarifications: After the publication of this report, it was brought to our attention that the news report from which the writer obtained information on the proposal was incorrect. We regret not independently verifying the information. It is the state government of Delhi and not the central government that has made the proposal.