India's renaming game spells end of line for Raj

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The Independent Online
TIM MCGIRK

New Delhi

Stone by stone, nameplate by nameplate, India is obliterating its memories of the British empire. The latest casualty is the grand Victoria Terminus railway station in Bombay - or Mumbai as the city's right-wing Hindu masters now call it.

The largest edifice built during British rule in India, the Victoria Terminus looks like St Pancras station done up for a fancy dress party, with turban-like Mughal domes and spires. The late James Cameron, the noted journalist, drew a big breath and described the Victoria Terminus as "Victorian-Gothic-Saracenic-Italianate- Oriental-St Pancras-Baroque".

Ever since the first locomotive hissed up to the platform in 1887, the station has been known by travellers - who are now 2 million a day, filling nearly 1,000 trains - as the "VT". But no longer.

The VT on 15 January was officially given a new name that is nearly as complex as Cameron's description - the Chchatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus. Shivaji was a famous local warrior, a favourite of the Hindu alliance which now rules Mumbai.

VT is so embedded in the minds of Mumbai's inhabitants that several generations of surly taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers may come and go before they respond to Chchatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus with anything but gaping stares.

It is not just the right-wing Hindus who are sweeping away the last remains of the British empire in the hope of electoral gains. The ruling Congress party, too, is playing the game. In the capital, New Delhi, the commercial hub of Connaught Place is now called Rajiv and Indira Chowk. It was an unpopular move. Jeering Delhi- wallahs reminded the Congress party sycophants that Connaught Place is a circus and that chowk in Hindi means a square. Khuswant Singh, a well- known Delhi author and historian, dismissed the change, made last August, as "childish gimmickry".

The Delhi Lt Governor, Jagmohan, said: "Renaming a shopping centre after Indira Gandhi and Rajiv is a stupidity. It shows our increasing shallowness. The Duke of Conn aught, after whom the place is named, was - unlike the other British - very sympathetic towards India." The Gandhis already have their name plastered over 100 memorials, airports, buildings, and streets. As Ram esh Batra, one outraged defender of the old Connaught Place name, said: "What are we going to tell our children? That the British never ruled here? Then how did the English language come here - from the Russians?"

A historian, KM Shrimali, remarked in the Sunday Times of India that this effacing of India's colonial past was "a perverted attempt to distort history". He added: "It's no different from the rewriting of history by communal and obscurantist forces. By renaming Connaught Place, you cannot obliterate the fact that the British ruled us."

After independence from Britain in 1947, all the blatant symbols of the British Raj were removed. In New Delhi, the statue of King George V was uprooted from India Gate, and boulevards with such as Kings way and Queensway became Rajpath and Janpath. All the other statues of British somebodies were carted away to a kind of graveyard outside Delhi: the spot where in 1903 Lord Curzon held a magnificent ceremony with "562 bejewelled Maharajahs and their retinues, elephants and 300,000 cheering people" to commemorate the crowning of Edward VII.

Today it is a barren plot of thorns, flooded and pestilential during the monsoon, with statues crumbling off their pedestals. Thieves stole the marble crown and hands off Queen Victoria; the remaining bits were saved by art students.

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