Along Mumbai’s busy Western Railway line that carries three million commuters every day, Elphinstone Road station was always the poor country cousin to the better connected and vibrant Dadar station nearby. After it was opened to commuters in 1867, only two of its four platforms were used by suburban trains, while the other two lay mute witnesses to fast trains trundling by. The two in-use platforms were narrow, almost always filthy, lacked basic services such as restrooms and clean benches, and the taps ran dry for most part of the year. The station was after all used by workers of textile mills and engineering factories in this central Mumbai area, including at the now-demolished Elphinstone Mill.

When the mills and factories were razed to make way for shiny corporate towers in the early 2000s, there was a marked shift in the commuter crowd with hordes of suit-and-briefcase executives thronging the station. Elphinstone Mill gave way to the gleaming India Bulls complex. As the area transformed into a financial and corporate hub over the last decade, little about the station changed. The platforms remained filthy, the access roads poorly lit, and the station itself gave no sense of the area’s history. Now, with the state government’s decision to change its name from Elphinstone Road to Prabhadevi, the station, too, loses its historical – though colonial – name. Another link to the city’s formative past is overlaid by contemporary political populism.

To be more accurate, what Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has done in the past three weeks is toponymic populism – toponymy being the study of place names. On the northern side of the western railway line lies Oshiwara railway station, named after the river that runs through the suburb, and now rechristened Ram Mandir. Oshiwara, the area, has grown into a mish-mash of antique furniture shops, upscale neighbourhoods and illegal shanties. It was but natural that when the long-pending railway station was finally completed this year, it would assume the local name. But, no, Ram Mandir it had to be.

In a move that would have made the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray proud, Fadnavis at once acceded to the demands of self-styled Maratha leaders and did some more name-changing. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the railhead for all Central Railway trains in South Mumbai, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport will henceforth be called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. The addition of the honorific Maharaj was necessary to give the Maratha warrior his due respect, the chief minister argued.

Prabhadevi is among the prominent patron goddesses of Mumbai – the others being Mumbadevi, Mahalaxmi, Gamdevi, Shitladevi – as well as the name of a mixed middle and upper-middle-class neighbourhood. But neither the temple to goddess Prabhadevi nor the area is anywhere near the station. In fact, those headed towards Prabhadevi prefer to use Dadar station. But who’s to argue with populist, or toponymic, sentiment?

It does not stop here. There are pending demands to rename Grant Road station in South Mumbai as August Kranti, after the historic maidan by the same name (originally Gowalia Tank) where the tricolour was raised with the Quit India call to the British regime in August 1942. And Charni Road station as Gamdevi. Also, Dadar as Chaityabhoomi, the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s cremation site, visited by lakhs of followers on his death anniversary every December 6.

The name game

The political, or more specifically electoral, games being played with this renaming spree are not lost on most people. With less than two months to go for the all-important municipal elections in Mumbai and neighbouring cities such as Thane, and given that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is pulling out all the stops to wrest the corporations held by the Shiv Sena, Fadnavis is clearly using his executive powers to appeal to local sentiment.

For decades now, the Shiv Sena has positioned itself as the voice of Maharashtrians and Marathi-speaking people. The BJP, on the other hand, has been the party of businessmen and traders, traditionally the Gujarati, Marwari and Jain communities. The Sena’s decent performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections meant the BJP would have to think beyond the Modi effect and make itself appealing to Maharashtrians.

The BJP’s leaders have realised that the archetypal Sena sympathiser – practitioner of its sons-of-the-soil theory, the sort who would do anything for Thackeray and the party – can be kept happy with tokenism. Hence, the renaming of Elphinstone Road station, preparations for the bhoomi-pujan of the multi-crore memorial to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the Arabian Sea, and, moving a few steps ahead, a memorial to Thackeray.

The Dalits have not been forgotten. The Fadnavis government has got the Ambedkar memorial project moving on a 12-acre plot in the Dadar area. Election season is usually the time for tokenistic gestures and announcements. But even by that cynical yardstick, this government has taken it too far.

As for poorly lit, badly equipped Elphinstone Road station, if renaming it Prabhadevi would somehow magically upgrade its facilities, there might have been less reason to argue against the new name. But substantive changes to its accessibility and usability are not on the agenda here. Fadnavis will point the finger to railway authorities for upgrading the station’s facilities. But the name change? That was the easy part.

History of urban geographies

One or many, toponymic changes offer evidence of political agenda at work. The renaming of Marathwada University in Aurangabad as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar University back in the 1990s, assorted government programmes bearing the names of the late Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi, and the current dispensation changing many of these to honour its ideological icons, renaming Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, and changing the prime minister’s official residential address from 7 Race Course Road – not a colonial or Mughal hangover even – to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, all indicate a shift in political power.

The newly renamed Lok Kalyan Marg in Delhi. Photo credit: PTI

This is not a new phenomenon. Newly independent India threw off the British yoke in visible ways. The public arena has been a potent area of and for propaganda. The Communist regimes in Europe set about transforming urban landscapes in the 1940s to reflect their politics. And as the regimes collapsed in the late 1980s, their commemorative landscapes became targets of protest and were eventually cleansed or altered to reflect new realities. In Hungary, for example, the Budapest city authority decided to not demolish but relocate more than 40 Communist-era statues and monuments to an open-air park at the city’s edge called Statue Park, but relocate it did.

The erasing, demolishing, relocating and renaming are all elements of the dramatic visible proclamations of the changing political order that countries and cities undergo from time to time. Of them, renaming streets, buildings and landmarks is possibly the least dramatic but no less potent in symbolism. The intent is always the same: De-associate the place from the past and attempt to change its historiography to reflect current political ideologies. The Portuguese Bom Bahia became the British Bombay, which was then reintroduced by the Shiv Sena in 1995-1996 as Mumbai.

But does this distort and/or obliterate the past, the process of urban creation and its creators, and urban histories told through its geographies? Yes, it does, say urban conservationists who say the ideal would be a balance between living with non-traumatic symbols and landmarks of the past while reflecting new ideologies in other ways. Historians, urban archivists and researchers, and local voices would be collectively better placed to decide on changing names instead of politicians randomly exercising their executive powers to do so.

Even so, urban streets, buildings and landmarks exist simultaneously in two realms – the physical and historical one in which citizens use them, engage with them, mark personal milestones and remember them; and the second in which they exist on maps, in official registers, government documents and the like. It is not always that the two overlap and fuse to become one.

A street, an area, a landmark gets its locally popular nomenclature and reflects that urban geography. The formal name is often an imposition. For example, Oshiwara station. Or Prabhadevi area. It is indeterminate if the original temple to the goddess was at the present site. The original temple in Kotwadi was destroyed by the Portuguese, according to documenter J Gerson da Cunha, writing in The Origin of Bombay in 1900. But local people came to know of the devious plan and hid the idol of the goddess in a step well at another location, where it lay for 200 years before she appeared in the dream of a palm garden owner, a Pathare Prabhu, to reinstall her. This is the present location of the temple.

What does it have to do with Elphinstone Road station, one might wonder. This was named after John Elphinstone, governor of Bombay between 1853 and 1860. More famous than him and more dedicated to shaping Bombay, and the founder of educational institutions in the city, was his uncle Mountstuart Elphinstone, governor from 1819 to 1827. What will Fadnavis rename the renowned Elphinstone College, named after him?

The chief minister might want to remember that among the pending name changes are Dadar, which means ladder or bridge in local parlance, and Charni Road, which got its name from the vast grazing (charni) fields for cattle there. It is an irrefutable reality that Bombay was a colonial city, one that historian and author Gyan Prakash describes in Mumbai Fables as an urban project that “epitomised and represented the colonial conditions” represented by industrialisation built on the backs of cheap labour, Gothic buildings, architectural styles and sculptural designs fashioned from the European past, and so on. This colonisation, he and other urban historians have argued, involved the repression of prevailing cultural significances that local people had with places.

This can help us understand, if not appreciate, why Bombay was renamed Mumbai. But it does not explain why Elphinstone Road should be renamed Prabhadevi, or Oshiwara be turned into Ram Mandir. The current toponymic changes will be recorded in official files and maps, no doubt, but it is hard for them to be absorbed in the realms of public imagination and language. After all, how many call Mumbai’s majestic Marine Drive Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road, decades after it was renamed?

Marine Drive, long after it was renamed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road, remains Marine Drive.