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Nehru in Pakistan: No, Not Jawaharlal, it’s Kamala Who Lives on

In Pakistan, Kamala Nehru’s legacy has outlived that of her husband’s.  

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(This article was first published on 6 March 2018. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Kamala Nehru’s death anniversary.)

There is a street in Karachi that bears the name of Kamala Nehru. And guess what? The street is right next to the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The Cosmopolitan Society, one of the country’s posher neighbourhoods, also boasts streets named after other legendary Indian women – one street is called Sarojini Naidu (or simply, Naidu) road, while yet another of the colony’s roads is named after Annie Besant.

In Pakistan, Kamala Nehru’s legacy has outlived that of her husband’s.  
The Cosmopolitan Society in Karachi has streets named after Kamala Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant – though there’s no signage announcing the same.
(Picture Courtesy: Mohammad Fazil)

While the area is one of Pakistan’s most happening public spaces, the construction of a new bus line here recently has taken a toll on the buildings and residential areas nearby.

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What’s In A Name?

Pakistan seems to be obsessed with naming its streets and monuments after Muslim men – be it be Jinnah, Iqbal, Sir Syed or Agha Khan. Occasionally, one hears of roads named after Benazir Bhutto and Fatima Jinnah; But that’s about it.

It calls for celebration, then, that the streets are named after Naidu, Nehru and Besant – all women who hail from non-Muslim communities. Let’s hope that some passersby, and maybe children, hear these names and wonder how these women are linked to modern-day, Islamic Pakistan.

All these brave and heroic women have been deeply involved with the sub-continent and its history. Take Kamala Nehru, who died in 1937, while fighting for Independence. She was at the forefront of the Non-Cooperation movement. In 1921, when her husband was arrested on charges of sedition, she read his speech instead and was, in turn, arrested by the British.

In Pakistan, Kamala Nehru’s legacy has outlived that of her husband’s.  
Kamala Nehru
(Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
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The tales of Nehru’s close companion, Sarojini Naidu, are legendary. Besides being a fierce freedom fighter, she was also the first woman president of the Indian National Congress as well as the Governor of the United Provinces (now UP).

The third of this trio, Annie Besant, was a champion of women’s emancipation and the Indian freedom movement. She was a dedicated advocate of secularism who campaigned for Indian Independence and theosophy – a combination of mystical and occult philosophies that seeks answers to every mystery in nature and life.

Revisionism Zindabad!

Pakistan has a long history of tweaking the official and textbook narrative surrounding Partition, India, and non-Muslims. This also involves naming public spaces, monuments, and memorials exclusively after Muslims. Some of them happen to be foreigners and invaders. The authorities are reluctant to let any non-Muslim hero into the public discourse.

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A recent example is the attempt of activists in Lahore to name the Shadman Chowk, where Bhagat Singh was hanged, after the freedom fighter. This movement began in the late 2000s and continued for years before the Jamaat-e-Islami started a counter-protest and forced the authorities to back off from any reforms.

The Curious Case of Cosmopolitan Society

The Cosmopolitan Club, a club for the residents of the previously vibrant but now ageing residential area, was established in 1925. Though the area is in the heart of Karachi, this old part of town has been spared the heartache of getting the names of the streets changed after losing its multi-lingual and multi-ethnic population to the fiasco in 1947.

In Pakistan, Kamala Nehru’s legacy has outlived that of her husband’s.  
Cosmopolitan Society, Karachi.
(Picture Courtesy: Mohammad Fazil)

Iqbal Alavi is a social activist and secretary of the Tareekh Foundation trust. He visited the Cosmopolitan Club in the society, where he was informed by the elderly club secretary, Inaam Masood, that the streets still exist today.

“I visited the Cosmopolitan Club today,” says Alavi. “The residents of the colony confirm that the streets named after our pre-partition heroes like Kamala Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, and Annie Besant exist despite the trend to rename streets and monuments after Muslim heroes.”
In Pakistan, Kamala Nehru’s legacy has outlived that of her husband’s.  
Kamala Nehru Street in Karachi
(Picture Courtesy: Mohammad Fazil)

While the locals still refer to these thoroughfares with their original name, they are the last remnants of the society that once stood here. Most of the old bungalows and houses in the area have been replaced by new-age palatial houses, and only a few remain intact.

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(Don’t) Call Me By Your Name?

Ironically, the main road that connects the Cosmopolitan Society and the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah was initially called the Motilal Nehru Road – the father-in-law of Kamala Nehru and the father of Jawaharlal Nehru. However, the name of this road has been changed to Jigar Muradabadi – after the Urdu poet who never lived in Pakistan.

“We have named roads after people like Hasrat Mohani and Jiger Muradabadi,” says Akhtar Baloch, a columnist based in Karachi. “They visited Pakistan a few times from India but never lived here. They didn’t die here either. So why, then, are roads named after them? Why not after those non-Muslims who actually belonged to this part of the world?”

Baloch is an avid opponent of such amendments. He laments that previously there was a lengthy legal process to change the name of the street or landmark. First, the city council had to sit down together to decide, then an advertisement had to be published in the newspaper. Then they would wait for someone to oppose the name change, and only when no one did could they proceed to act. But now the due process is foregone and the changes are swift, he says.

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One of the most prominent roads in Karachi is the Bander road. This street, now renamed MA Jinnah Road, once bore Hindu names, architectural designs and monuments – but all before Partition.

But the best part is that even though the official names are changed, no one seems to notice the boards or registrations. People eventually stick to the older name. Don’t believe me? Just go to the Bander road in Karachi and ask for the MA Jinnah road.

Or go to Lahore’s Davis Road and ask for the Agha Khan Three road. You’ll either get blank stares, or you’ll be erroneously directed to the other side of town.

Hopefully, Pakistan’s authorities will realise how futile and fickle this practice is; and will finally give it up for good. Meanwhile, young women like me can revel in the glory of the streets that are named after the iconic women who helped us get the freedom we have today.

(The writer is based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her work can be found on www.ammaraahmad.com)

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