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Renaming cities and public spaces is often an attempt to have the last word on history. The decision to rename Rajpath as Kartavya Path, as part of the Central Vista’s makeover at the heart of Delhi, has been pitched by the government as a move to shed colonial baggage and a reminder that public service is about “duties and not the right to rule". As intentions go, this is unexceptionable. But the history of the iconic street between Raisina Hill and India Gate might throw a different light. Built by the British as an avenue to its seat of imperial power in ‘New Delhi’, which came up in the 1920s, it was first called Kingsway in honour of the crown that had enslaved India. In 1947, after we won freedom, that name was dropped in favour of Rajpath. Another thoroughfare that intersected with it, Queensway, was renamed Janpath, or the people’s way. Both were assertions of Indian sovereignty. The renaming of Rajpath is also a symbolic exercise, one that is powered by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideologically informed project of fashioning a ‘new India’. A redo of the capital’s landscape is part of this deal, from the Central Vista to the roaring lions of the Ashokan emblem atop a new Parliament building. Critics have read into the message of ‘kartavya’ a worrying attempt to flip the social contract of our republic, by underlining the citizen’s duty to the state, rather than the state’s duty to uphold the rights of our people.

Of course, this is not the first such act of renaming public spaces in post-1947 India. Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata and Bangalore to Bengaluru are just a few examples of name switches. Many of these were driven by a need to assert a linguistic identity. In the case of the maximum city, the renaming signalled a deeper change, from a multilingual space to one dominated by Marathi speakers. More recently, the renaming of Allahabad and Aurangabad, among others, were moves from a similar playbook, though the erasure attempted was of a Muslim rather than British legacy of nomenclature. While such changes might be endorsed by much of the electorate, on balance, their benefits remain unclear. All of it costs public money, from revisions in signage to official documents. In a digital world, it also impairs assorted data sets. Worse, when inflected with ideology, it could end up dividing people too. Battles over history, after all, are always about who controls the present.

The cost-benefit ratio of such name changes is usually dismal. Especially in urban landscapes that are crying out for substantive improvement. This should be obvious even without cues from the frequent urban floods that disrupt urban life and other revealers of creaky civic systems and poor planning. Easing lives should be the focus of our urban efforts. For a free country, national pride can’t only be about settling scores with the past or erasing parts of our heritage. We need the accommodative confidence worthy of a 75-year-old nation. Finally, the persistence of memory makes many of these changes irrelevant. Take Delhi’s Connaught Place, which was sought to be called Rajiv Chowk but is referred to as such only officially. The original names of places have long been enmeshed in our poetry, music and culture, and they continue to roll off our tongues with ease. Official fiats might scrub them off signboards, but are unlikely to stamp them out from the language and lived reality of people. It’s best, then, to be pragmatic.

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