And so now Aurangzeb Road has been wiped off the official street map of Delhi, if not the collective memory of those who daily drive upon it. City taxpayers will pay for the removal and instalment of new street signs, while a select few residents, businesses and embassies will scrub the name of the last Great Mughal off their calling cards and address plaques. It is a process that has been repeated in many Indian cities, many times.

Of course, much more is at stake here. Aurangzeb Road is the latest casualty in the often absurd and selective process of renaming landmarks in Indian cities. The importance we assign to street names is actually of relatively recent vintage. Peer at a map of any pre-colonial or early colonial city, and you will find that names of roads and paths (if they are named at all) most often reflected geographical features, the type of business transacted upon it, or the dominant community residing in the vicinity. At most, they would bear association with a major property owner. It was mainly chowks or principal bazaars that bore names.

Thus, Mughal Delhi’s chief thoroughfare, Chandni Chowk, got its name from the square and glistening pool situated midway down the avenue. The city’s gates referred to cities or regions located in a particular direction: Ajmer, Kabul, Kashmir. In early colonial Bombay, Bohra Bazaar and Parsi Bazaar reflected where two of its preeminent trading communities lived and conducted business. Ahmedabad’s Manek Chowk, it is true, honours a local saint, Baba Maneknath. But, as certain historical accounts suggest, Ahmed Shah, the sultan of Gujarat, might have done this in order to appease a significant figure in the locality where he wished to build his city.

British practice

It was the British who consolidated the practice of naming roads after individuals. The nomenclature of Mumbai’s old street names reveals who was in power, both in the municipality and erstwhile presidency, as the city expanded northward. By the early 20th century, there were already some critics of this practice. Samuel Sheppard, compiler of the 1917 tome Bombay Place-Names and Street-Names, noted how urban development distorted the legacies of particular individuals: “We associate, for example, Sir Philip Wodehouse with the era of flats and high rents, Sir Bartle Frere with bad road surfaces, Sir George Arthur with desolation.”

But it was in New Delhi that the British took their street naming practices to new heights. As the city took shape in the 1920s, they mined history for people to honour. Of course, there were thoroughfares obligatorily named after Queen Victoria, King George, and the like. However, there was also Albuquerque Road, named after the terrifyingly brutal Portuguese general who captured Goa in 1510 while pillaging much of the rest of the Indian Ocean littoral. Lying uncomfortably close to Raisina Hill was Dupleix Road, honouring the Frenchman Joseph-François Dupleix, who mounted a fearsome challenge in the 18th century to the growing British foothold in the subcontinent. New Delhi’s roads were not always named after celebratory individuals in either the British or Indian narratives of the country’s history.

Full circle

Which brings us full circle to Aurangzeb Road. Aurangzeb, to be sure, committed some terrible crimes during his reign. But that, unfortunately, is the nature of being a king. No one is clamouring to rename Ashoka, Tughlaq, or Akbar roads. Yet Ashoka launched a bloody offensive against the state of Kalinga, in modern-day Odisha. It was the utter scale of this slaughter that led Ashoka to embrace Buddhist precepts of nonviolence, although some historical evidence suggests that the emperor continued to wage conquests after this supposed conversion. The Tughlaqs, who ruled from Delhi for most of the 14th century, were no less bloody. Muhammad bin Tughlaq spared neither Hindus nor Muslims when he arbitrarily decided to shift the entire population of Delhi to his new capital at Daulatabad in today’s Maharashtra. Finally, even the celebrated Akbar has blood on his hands – for a man who conquered so much of India, how else could it be?

In this context, as many historians have pointed out, it is difficult to single out Aurangzeb as a particularly vicious or violent ruler, or even a rabidly anti-Hindu one. Surely, he officially clamped down on certain Hindu religious practices, but he did not purge the Mughal nobility of Hindu mansabdars. He destroyed certain Hindu places of worship, but he also patronised many other Hindu temples. Historians have noted that, like any other successful king or ruler, Aurangzeb was predominantly concerned with maintaining his authority, raising adequate revenue, rewarding his supporters, and punishing his enemies. Yes, Aurangzeb was far more orthodox than many of his Mughal predecessors, but, at his court, political and economic motivations probably still trumped religious ones. If Aurangzeb had been so violently anti-Hindu – and so inimical toward the overwhelming majority of his subjects – then it would have been impossible for him to remain on the Mughal throne for nearly five decades.

A final word about our obsession with renaming things. As I have noted, by dedicating roads for particular individuals, Indian politicians are by and large aping a colonial practice. No doubt, some of our erstwhile imperial masters would rejoice at our gusto in naming strips of tarmac after people. But, picking up on Samuel Sheppard’s line of thought, we have also added a degree of absurdity to the process. Mahatma Gandhi would no doubt go on an interminable hunger strike if he knew that Delhi’s congested Ring Road – which symbolises everything about modernity that the Mahatma detested – bore his name. I fail to see how Marine Drive in Mumbai reflects the legacy of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

APJ Abdul Kalam, a man who enjoyed broad popularity and inspired some of India’s poorest about what they could achieve, is now memorialised with a road in one of Delhi’s most elitist, exclusive quarters. Instead of this tony strip of tarmac, wouldn’t it be better to honour him with a new educational institution, a library, or by improving science education in public schools? Roads, after all, are terrible memorials. People drive, spit, and urinate on them. And that is no way to honour anyone – neither a popular head-of-state nor a controversial Mughal ruler.