MumbaiNaama: The Renaming Rush – What Does It Mean, Whom Does It Benefit?

MumbaiNaama: The Renaming Rush – What Does It Mean, Whom Does It Benefit?

Slice it any which way, renaming cities or localities or institutions is about reconstructing the place identity that flows from a confluence of history, mythology, ethnic culture, even religion, with politics as the central impulse

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Thursday, March 14, 2024, 10:37 PM IST
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The past is a complicated place, it has been said. Only the brave, the impartial academic or the ideologically committed dare to venture into it. In what category do we put good men such as chief minister Eknath Shinde, leading the triple engine sarkar in Maharashtra, whose cabinet has approved changing the names of eight railway stations on Mumbai’s arterial suburban railways? Perhaps, the ideologically committed type but then Shinde’s ideological commitment saw a dramatic shift two years ago when he ditched the ideology he had followed for nearly three decades.

Shinde is not alone in this endeavour. His Shiv Sena colleague, Rahul Shewale who is also a member of Parliament, had demanded that the names of suburban stations be changed. The cabinet decision awaits a nod from the centre, as per procedure, but there is hardly any reason for the central government or the Parliament to decline. This, after all, is a government which changed names with glee to make a political point. That’s the rub — changes in names of countries, cities, areas and institutions are about a power game being made visible for people, a public assertion of the ideology of those in power.

According to the cabinet decision, Currey Road will be called Lalbaug, Sandhurst Road will be Dongri, Cotton Green will be Kalachowki, Dockyard Road will be Mazgaon, Marine Lines will be Mumbadevi, Charni Road will be Girgaon, and Kings Circle will be Tirthankar Parshivnath. The last one, a tongue twister, will be a sight to watch at ticket windows as commuters and ticket personnel struggle with it.

This is not the first such change and it is unlikely to be the last in the city. Elphinstone Road has been Prabhadevi for a few years but the old name continues in casual conversations. Oshiwara, at least the railways station in the old suburb, became Ram Mandir. Both are understood in the popular discourse. The proposal to rename Churchgate as Chintamanrao Deshmukh station is hanging fire. Deshmukh was the first Indian governor of the Reserve Bank of India, besides holding important offices, but resigned in protest against the central government’s move to bifurcate Bombay state into Maharashtra and Gujarat while turning the city into a union territory.

Churchgate was christened thus because it lay to the west of the walls of St. Thomas Cathedral, among the oldest buildings constructed by the colonial British when they put high walls to keep out the natives. Chintamanrao Deshmukh station will take some getting used to though, as has happened in the past, people will continue to use the old name in conversations and popular literature while the official new name will hold in formal discourse. The argument to set right the colonial framework, make it local and native, can be extended for many of the eight stations and the use of both names — old and new — might well prevail but what of Charni Road and Marine Lines? They are as native as they can be.

Let every colonial name that is given to structures and institutions be changed to a native one. What after that? Will the St. Thomas Cathedral be demolished because it is a colonial monument or, for that, matter, the buildings of the erstwhile Fort and Ballard Estate including the iconic Townhall and Asiatic Library with its grandiose steps which are amongst the most accessible of public places with stature and history? Or will the cathedral too carry an Indianised or Mumbai-specific name and allowed to stand? Will renaming Churchgate make it Indian or Mumbai enough even as the colonial-era buildings, including the majestic heritage structure housing the Western Railway headquarters, continue to live in their glory?

Of course, the structures will not be pulled down and turned into the modernist glass-concrete façade buildings. Many of them are heritage structures recognised by international conservation agencies. In fact, they lend the character to large parts of downtown Mumbai that is acclaimed the world over and immortalised in novels, stories and countless films. Calling it Prabhadevi did not make the facilities at the erstwhile Elphinstone Road station any better; the bridges are rickety, the platforms filthy and lacking space as ever, ticket windows scattered at a distance. What purpose did the renaming serve?

You might say that it is dumb question because the answer is evident. Not only in Bombay-Mumbai but in Faizabad being called Ayodhya or Illahabas-turned-Allahabad renamed as Prayagraj or Madras rechristened as Chennai and Bangalore as Bengaluru (which hardly anyone says), the purpose is almost always political. The name change reflects the political ideology of those in power, reversing something of the past that they hold to be inimical or problematic. Governments led by the BJP have taken a wide hammer to Mughal or Muslim names, of course.

Elsewhere in the world too, in Belgrade or Pretoria or Durban, or institutions in Canada, or statues in the United States and former eastern Europe, changing names signifies the authority and power of the parties or forces currently at the helm erasing lingering vestiges of power of the past, especially when it was troubled as in apartheid South Africa. Renaming, then, is a way to set right historical wrongs even if only symbolically, a salve for past wrongs. Related to this is the need of those in power to give icons their due place. The renaming of the Marathwada University after Dr BR Ambedkar was one such instance.

Slice it any which way, renaming cities or localities or institutions is about reconstructing the place identity that flows from a confluence of history, mythology, ethnic culture, even religion, with politics as the central impulse. Every such reconstruction also means an erasure of the past, the bad and the good in it. Who decides what can be erased? Politicians in power, of course.

Thane, then Thana, saw four periods of power, according to the state gazette: an early Hindu period partly mythic and partly historic, to about AD 1300; a Musalman period lasting from 1300 to about 1660; a Maratha period from 1660 to 1800; and a British period since 1800. Then, the post-independence and post-liberalisation periods which saw it boom like there’s no tomorrow with Italian and Greek named gated complexes. What can be erased? Why should it be?

However, the fascinating aspect of name changes is that, except when it erases torturous and discriminated past that people do not want to hold in collective memory like slave owner’s name, for the most part people live, work, talk and play with the old and new names coasting alongside each other. Mazgaon will have to co-exist – unofficially – with Dockyard Road and Kalachowki with Cotton Green. In Chennai, the Marmalong Bridge connecting the northern and southern ends of Adyar river, renamed to Maraimalai Adigal Bridge, is popularly called Saidapet Bridge. When was the last time you said Netaji Subhaschandra Bose Road for Marine Drive?

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

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