Can Indian Govt Decide, Once and For All, How It Wants to Deal with History?

The recent Central Vista project rekindled our selective engagement with history, colonial and beyond, yet again.

4 min read

We saw the beginning of our grand or rather, extravagant celebrations this week. A lot more will surely follow in the coming two years. Most of us have gotten quite familiar with such events that happened at regular intervals, distracting us from the miseries of our daily lives. I will not go into the debate whether such an investment during these economically depressing times was at all necessary. That question is no more relevant now though academically, we may continue to discuss it forever.


State Mourning for Queen Elizabeth II in the Times of Renaming

I find this selective obsession with the past a bit irritating. Even though, we got rid of colonialism in 1947 after decades of anti-imperial struggle, most remnants of the colonial era were dispensed with, and rightly so.

But, I must say that in the context of Queen Elizabeth’s passing we officially declared 11 September as the day of mourning, we left behind our obsession for a change. However, we also know that she always remained indifferent to the demands of apology on colonial atrocities. We do hear voices of discomfort from several African countries, they still do not want to overlook the repression of the colonial past.

However, the recent Central Vista project rekindled our selective engagement, yet again. One of the key roads that began from the Rashtrapati Bhavan- Rajpath was known as Kingsway during the colonial times whereas the Queensway got later renamed as Janpath. Here, the word 'Raj' was used for governance as the road began from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, flanked by the North and South Blocks of the Secretariat Building and not really to indicate the British Raj.

However, we saw loud and misplaced claims that renaming it as 'Kartavya Path' is a break from the colonial past. Actually, we should have begun the project with an alternative for Central Vista itself, maybe from Sanskrit or from any other Indian language.

Central Vista Or An Enshrined Power Corridor?

The renaming of the roads after Independence as 'Rajpath' and 'Janpath' symbolised, as rightly reminded by our Former Health Secretary Ms K Sujatha Rao in her tweet, is a social contract between the state and people who govern them. Kartavya path now puts the entire burden on the people with no institutional accountability. And such observations are coming from people who believe in engaging with the past meaningfully, and, not merely to derive political capital.

Does this renaming spree make any sense when so much else demands our attention?

For example, 'Gurgaon' got rechristened to 'Gurugram' in 2016 but the millennium city is still far away from so many basic necessities of a world- class township. This renaming can take us back to the eternal village dedicated to the 'Guru' but it won’t rid us of the perennial developmental problems that need immediate attention of the policy makers.


In any case, no renaming of the roads, buildings or cities can possibly delink us from our past, particularly the recent past of three hundred years. There is so much that will stay with us—from language, cuisine, couture to governing practices and much more.

We laid the foundations of an independent, democratic and pluralist India, made most of the essential disconnects with the colonial past soon after 15 August 1947. Yet all those who fought for freedom and got engaged in building a new India never obsessed over the past against whom they had bitterly fought for decades.


'Bose Believed in an Anti-Communal India'

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had been a hero for all of us. So, his statue in the canopy is most welcome. However, the claim that the statue brought recognition to Netaji, who so far went unrevered, is again historically and otherwise, misplaced. He had always been a revolutionary nationalist who had been held in high esteem across political affiliations.

For me, his contributions do not begin with the Indian National Army (INA)—his last, brave anti-imperial struggle but much before that, during the 1920s and 30s. He stood for a vision of India that was socialist, pluralist and anti-communal, explained in detail in his Haripura Congress Presidential address in 1938.


We can also review one of the questions raised quite often in our political circles that Mahatma Gandhi wanted the Congress to be wound up after independence. Not many of us are aware of Netaji’s views on this issue.

I will use Netaji's words to explain his position on this issue from the Haripura address in which he also made it clear who all cannot shoulder the responsibility of building a new India after freedom.

He said: “I know that there are friends who think that after freedom is won, the Congress party, having achieved the objective, should wither away. Such a conception is entirely erroneous. The party that wins freedom for India should be also the party that will put into effect the entire programme of post-War reconstruction. Only those who have won power can handle it properly. If other people are pitch-forked into seats of power which they were not responsible for capturing, they will lack that strength, confidence and idealism which is indispensable for revolutionary reconstruction.”

These few lines very explicitly answer the question raised frequently.


Independent India and Its Heroes

Another all-time favourite debate is about Netaji’s relations with the Mahatma and is often used to remind us of an imaginary bitterness in their relationship. They certainly disagreed on many issues, as should be the case with two thinking individuals, but there was not even an iota of hatred towards each other.

This gets clear again from this address where Netaji concluded his address by saying that "India fervently hopes and prays that Mahatma Gandhi may be spared to our nation for many, many years to come. India cannot afford to lose him and certainly not at this hour…We need him to keep our struggle free from bitterness and hatred…What is more-we need for the cause of humanity.”

I will end this short intervention with an appeal that History should not be used to settle scores. Our past is more nuanced and layered than some of us fail to understand. We should venerate our heroes but also engage with their ideas and vision they left behind for us.

(S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and modern political history. Till recently, he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. He tweets @irfhabib. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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