Mukul Kesavan: Delhi’s roads tell the story of the republic

Driving down Prithviraj Road, one of New Delhi’s famously leafy avenues, I passed a lane that opened on to it. The street sign said “Aurangzeb Lane”. Aurangzeb Road might have morphed into A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road, but the emperor lives on, if only in a little feeder lane. Of the roads that commemorate Mughal emperors, all but one were named by the colonial State. The raj was keen to present itself as a successor to the Mughal State. Lutyens and Baker chose red and buff sandstone for the facades of their capitol buildings to allude to the signature red sandstone of the city’s great Mughal period monuments: Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Safdarjung’s Tomb, to name the most obvious candidates.

The emperors aren’t even-handedly remembered though. Babur, the founder, has a tiny road to himself, best known for two mithai shops. Humayun Road is a connecting road mainly used to get to Junior Modern School and Khan Market. Akbar Road is a properly grand avenue. Shah Jahan Road hosts the Union Public Service Commission, but it’s real claim to our attention is the street vendor next to the UPSC who sells the best papdi chaat in India. After Shah Jahan Road passes a Parsi cemetery, it seamlessly transforms itself into Prithviraj Road, which might have been appropriate in the early years of the republic but verges on provocation now.

Jahangir, the emperor sandwiched between Akbar and Shah Jahan, is the only one of the Great Moghuls who doesn’t have a road named after him. A map of Delhi, circa 1959, shows a Nur Jahan Road, just off Minto Road, which might have been a kind of consolation prize. I asked an urban historian about Jahangir’s omission. She hazarded the guess that this might have been down to the fact that Jahangir had never ruled from Delhi, being chiefly based in Lahore. This seems plausible but not, as Americans like to say, dispositive. Babur occupied Delhi after the first Battle of Panipat in 1526 but spent precious little time there, using up most of the next four years conquering his new empire before dying in 1530. The real dilliwallah in this lot was clearly Shah Jahan who took the trouble of building a proper city.

The one Mughal emperor commemorated by the republic was Bahadur Shah Zafar. Newspaper row in Delhi, home to The Indian Express and The Times of India amongst others, was named Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in 1962. Zafar died in Rangoon in 1862 and the centenary of his death was the occasion for the road’s renaming. His sons had been killed near Delhi Gate after the Mutiny, or to use Savarkar’s famous phrase, the ‘first war of Indian independence’, had been violently suppressed. Zafar had become the figurehead of that ferocious rebellion against the East India Company and naming that section of Mathura Road after him was, in the republic’s early years, an act of anti-colonial remembering.

This would be unimaginable now. Amish Tripathi, the bestselling novelist famous for adapting the epics into popular fiction, supplied a succinct contemporary take on the Mughals. “Mughals were foreigners,” he said. “This is not a Hindu vs Muslim issue. This is an Indians versus foreigners issue.” From his point of view, this is a reasonable position. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act made it clear that Muslim migrants from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries would not be granted domicile in India. Tripathi is applying this principle with retrospective effect. As the director of the Nehru Centre in London, he has, appropriately enough, embarked on his own discovery of India….

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