From Aurangzeb to Kalam: Is Delhi rewriting its history?

September 21, 2015

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—Photos courtesy of the Indian Express/Prem Nath Pandey
—Photos courtesy of the Indian Express/Prem Nath Pandey

In India, history textbooks tell us that in the long line of Mughal rulers, Aurangzeb was possibly the most tyrannical. He destroyed, looted like no other and didn’t even spare his own family. Yet, the British immortalised him by naming a key street in Delhi after him.

When I went there, I found it a most fancy address; ornate architecture that took me back to my recent vacation in Europe, two majestic lions adorning the façade, doors that brought out the poet in me and an area that would make even the Ambanis rethink their luxurious glass building.

This was the famed Aurangzeb Road, Delhi’s answer to, well, Delhiites. And I was here to party.

The road has now, centuries later, been renamed from Aurangzeb Road to Kalam Road, and a debate has ignited. Normally, in a country that changes the names of cities and states quicker than it wins cricket matches, this wouldn't get more than a passing glance.

Those in favour of the decision say this was long overdue, that they did not need a legacy of bigotry and plunder. On the other hand, a group of scholars, historians and others insist that the renaming is a case of history being altered.

But does replacing a name change the course of history? Is it history re-written or history addressed?


Away from the wealth of Aurangzeb Road, the political buzz on Akbar Road and outside of those text books, my association with the Mughals goes way back. My parents were married at ‘Babar Road’ in central Delhi and it was my home for 10 years, where I basked in the literal aura of freshly made samosas rather than any history.

Babar Road, next to the famous Bengali market – ironically with more Punjabi residents even today – is known more for its street food than for the first Mughal emperor that it was named after.

My grandmother, who lived there for most of her life, didn’t quite like the name, and we heard that often enough. But she was no politician, and as her luck would have it, even a politician in the neighbourhood went by the name Babar. And that name stays, as do countless others named by the British.

So, I try and decipher how, when Bangalore became a very non-silicon city-sounding Bengaluru, or Bombay changed to Mumbai, that was not history being re-written?

Instead, it is the one street that is said to be named after a despot, which has become a flashpoint.

Abdul Kalam (who died in July this year) was a people’s man, the most loved president this country has had. And yet, ironically, our politicians didn’t think he was good enough for a second term. Now, as a much-liked Muslim icon, his name was replacing someone our history books have called an oppressor.

So, unless those history books are changed (and never underestimate the Indian politician and the way the wind blows), it may be time for the residents of Aurangzeb Road to accept that they are now living on Kalam Road. Which is about right, because world over, memorials are built and streets named after those you respect.

Having partied on Aurangzeb Road for the first and the last time, I am now back to reminiscing: will things be as magical on Kalam road? Imagine hosting a 'page 3' get-together on Kalam Road. In my mind, a packed room of beautiful ladies and dapper men was already being replaced by a group of children sitting and reading.

I guess we'll know what the future holds for this part of the city, once its residents recover.