NEW DELHI: The attitude of rulers and regimes toward Delhi’s heritage have varied, depending upon political and cultural contexts, from irrational destruction, utter neglect and deliberate erasure of popular historical memory to pragmatic appropriation and generous patronage. Conquerors and empire-builders as well as rulers have either comfortably settled down with some modifications in palaces, forts, and cities available to them, or demolished existing infrastructure to build afresh, or have moved away to build new cities of their own.

Stopping at a stone’s throw from the residence of the Prime Minister at Race Course Road in New Delhi, Aurangzeb Road is an important connector between the Old and the New Delhis. And is in the news because with one stroke of the pen and an executive decision, Aurangzeb has given way to APJ Abdul Kalam. Strangely enough, not to a Shivaji.

For some people, Aurangzeb was a bigot, for others he was an ideal Muslim ruler, and for yet others a bit of an embarrassment; all perceptions and not necessarily a matter of historical truth. If those in power really wanted a head-on collision with their detractors, the Maratha hero Shivaji could have been easily rewarded with such a key stretch of the city, which could have also helped send some message to a constituency in Western India. And if the perception of Aurangzeb as a bigot, as propagated by other bigots of different hue, is correct Abdul Kalam is a legitimate beneficiary. A former President of India with the wisdom of an enlightened modern leader – the son of an impoverished Imam of a small town mosque – winning over the alleged abuse of Islam by an ambitious medieval ruler.

Though not understood by the municipal corporators perhaps, there is some rationality in the above move as the road taking off from Aurangzeb Road, and facing the wall of the Prime Minister’s residence is named after Mustafa Kemal Pasha, an early twentieth-century champion of Western modernity, who had systematically suppressed traditional Muslim practices in Turkey. That are now of course returning with a vengeance.

Race Course Road is also hemmed in by roads named after Tughlaq, Akbar and Safdarjang. If those in power continue to reinforce their image as irrational, Tughlaq Road should be the next big casualty. Of the three powerful Tughlaq Sultans of Delhi in the fourteenth century – Ghiyasuddin, Muhammad and Firuz-Shah – the visionary Muhammad was the most dynamic; there were specific rationalities to almost all of his misunderstood actions, and not for nothing that he presided over for 25 long years an empire covering the whole of the Subcontinent. And, unlike Aurangzeb, even perceptions could decry Muhammad Tughlaq’s policies and actions as communal in the modern sense. However, if the spree of name-changing continues, his name can be effaced and the adjoining road, named after Prithviraj (an early medieval Rajput hero), be given an L-shaped trajectory!

Further, the large stretch of the road from the tomb of Safdarjang, described as the last flicker of the Mughal empire, all the way to the gates of 7 Race Course, can be easily renamed, or sanitized and closed for traffic, except for the privileged occupants of the Lutyens Bungalows, high profile Club people, and some visitors to the memorial of Indira Gandhi, which perhaps cannot be easily removed, even if her dynasty may eventually disappear. One or two more electoral drubbings to the Congress would mean it would have to shut its office at Akbar Road, the renaming of which after Rana Sanga or Maharana Pratap would truly herald a more disturbing phase in contemporary history. Akbar along with Ashoka are the two main political icons of India’s glorious national history, but the rightist argument will be that just as Aurangzeb’s policies led to the birth of a Shivaji, Akbar’s aggression in Rajputana led to the rise of Maharana Pratap, and it is time for revenge now.

All said and done, the time has not come yet for the renaming of the adjacent Tees January Marg to Nathuram Godse Marg; the name of Mahatma Gandhi can be easily invoked for all the good things that people in power propose to do, but the fact of his brutal assassination cannot be easily removed from popular memory. It would be a wise move to let that road be, and instead turn attention to the stretch connecting Aurangzeb Road with India Gate, named after his father Shah Jahan, known for leaving behind some of the finest and important buildings, and, indeed, a whole city of Shahjahanabad, now known as Old Delhi. Shah Jahan Road can easily undergo a name-change, but only an insane new emperor can refuse to oblige the nation with his words of wisdom, an annual ritual, from the ramparts of Red Fort, built by the Mughal king. A worst case scenario should be to superficially paint the fort in saffron, which would be as ugly as to turn it green.

Besides Shahjahan, several Muslim rulers had built office-blocks, palaces, camps, and indeed whole self-sufficient cities within the national capital region of Delhi, apart from appropriating a number of existing sites and changing their names. Indeed, rulers in modern times can follow suit. The existing Delhi with its crumbling infrastructure can be both renamed as Indraprastha of Mahabharata fame (to the little satisfaction of some people) and left to rot, and a new smart and capital city of Dwarka (reminiscent of a resurgent mini Gujarat) can be planned and built off the Airport and the Expressway as far as one can see; the land-holders would only demand some good compensation; smaller ones just for survival, but bigger landed elites would also look for some avenues for a lavish life in the new city and SUVs.

Municipal councilors are not expected to show any grand vision for the nation, but the mandates of both 2014 general elections and 2015 Delhi elections were not for symbolic shadow-boxing and lip-service to sections of society caught up with skewed historical memories. A wiser thing to do is to make some efforts for public weal, addressing problems relating to healthcare, education, joblessness, and poverty – all of which are central to the question of social justice. The dreams of the likes of Abdul Kalam will remain dreams if these issues were not sincerely addressed, whereas token symbolism of the kind being witnessed will remain empty gestures and a flawed political strategy of limited value.

If name-changing really helps, Race Course Road, located in Chanakyapuri, can be easily renamed after Chandragupta Maurya, a national hero emerging from Bihar where elections are coming soon. The invocation to the historical memories of Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya can be a game-changer as they say in the war-rooms of the politicians of our time.

(Raziuddin Aquil teaches history in Delhi University)