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Backs to the Future

The Supreme Court bench of Justice KM Joseph and Justice BV Nagarathna dismissed a plea seeking the setting up of a Renaming Commission of India. Can’t let the past weigh down the present and the future, noted the judges.
03:41 PM Mar 03, 2023 IST | India Legal

By Vikram Kilpady


The Supreme Court recently dismissed a petition of advocate Ashwini Upadhyay to direct the government to set up a Renaming Commission to rename all cities, structures and roads that bear names associated with the country’s history in the days of Muslim and British rule. While dismissing the petition, the bench of Justice KM Joseph and Justice BV Nagarathna had some scathing observations to make, even when Upadhyay offered to withdraw the petition and submit a representation to the Union home ministry. The bench said it won’t allow such a course to be adopted. But the representation had already reached the PMO and the Home Ministry on February 23.

The Court asked whether the petitioner would want to keep the country on the boil and asserted that such an attempt would besmirch the greatness of Hinduism. Justice Nagarathna noted the petition was attempting to bring back the divide-and-rule policy of the British, which had driven a cleft in Hindu-Muslim relations, to suit the needs of the Empire. The judge observed that India has assimilated everybody, be they invaders or whoever else, and credited Hinduism as a way of life for such open-mindedness as to allow citizens to live together despite being a diverse country. Justice Joseph said the petition pointed fingers at a particular community to run it down. The judge reminded the petitioner that the Supreme Court is a secular forum in a secular state.


Upadhyay had sought the formation of a Renaming Commission of India, with the Archaeological Survey of India being directed to publish the ancient names of historical, cultural and religious places renamed by “barbaric foreign invaders” after due research. Among the many arguments in Upadhyay’s petition is the claim that many historical places which find mention in the Vedas and the Puranas were named for “foreign looters”. The petition notes that roads have been named after the Lodhis (sic), the Ghaznis and the Ghoris but, ‘there is no single road named after the Pandavas, though Indraprastha was constructed by Yudhishtir”.

Recounting the Mahabharata, the petition said: “For the sake of peace and to avert a disastrous war, Lord Krishna proposed that if Kauravas give only five villages viz Indraprastha (Delhi), Swarnprastha (Sonipat), Panprastha (Panipat), Vyaghrprastha (Baghpat) and Tilprastha (Faridabad), the Pandavas won’t demand more. Tilprastha was named after the brutal invader Sheikh Farid and now called Faridabad. The petitioner submits that Jahangir in his autobiography Jahangir Nama had described about how the brutal Sheikh Farid destroyed temples and converted thousands of Hindus, but government did nothing to change the name of Faridabad.”


“The historical city Bhragnapur was named after the barbarous Sheikh Burhanud-din and called Burhanpur. The religious city Narmada Puram was named after another brutal, Hoshang Shah, and called Hoshangabad. It is necessary to state that Hoshang Shah attacked the city with hundreds of horsemen, elephant riders and a massive army and after the battle, thousands of Hindu women gave their lives to avoid rapes.”

“Shajapur is named after the barbaric Shahjahan. Ahmednagar takes its name from Ahmad Nizam Shah, who changed Ambikapur after winning the battle against Bahamani forces. Devgiri came under the control of Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlaq in 1327 and he renamed it Daulatabad. It is necessary to state that brutal Tughlaq believed “that the Hindus will never be submissive and obedient to the Islam unless reduced to abject poverty” and the trauma of his rule is remembered till date “as his generals destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples,” the petition said. 


The petition then listed many cities and towns and villages across the length and breadth of the country that have been historically renamed after invasions. The petition said the government is competent to correct the historical wrong which he tied to an assault on the right to dignity, a part of the right to life and personal liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution and other articles. The petition queried what ties do Aurangzeb, Lodhi, Ghazni have with India that they will be remembered for perpetuity.

In response to this part of the petition, Justice Joseph noted Akbar had aimed to foster communal amity, and wondered why religious worship was being linked to roads.


Getting to the nub of the matter, Justice Nagarathna said: “It’s a historical fact. Can you wish away invasions from history? We have been invaded several times. Have we not got other problems in our country…What is the point in digging into the past? Can’t we move forward and deal with the problems at hand?” 

“Historical aberrations can’t haunt present and future generations of the nation to a point that succeeding generations become prisoners of the past. What is of the greatest importance for the country is the Preamble of the Constitution, which professes secularism and maintenance of harmony and fraternity between different sections,” the bench said.

The judge said: “Hinduism is a way of life, and it is free from bigotry. Do not belittle it.” She asked the petitioner to not break society with such pleas and have the country in mind and not any religion. 

“The history of any nation cannot haunt the present and future generations to the point that succeeding generations become prisoners of the past. The golden principle of fraternity, again enshrined in Preamble, is of greatest importance,” the bench said, highlighting that harmony alone can bring the country together.

Justice Joseph observed that Hinduism’s great metaphysical tradition should not be belittled by such targeted petitions. “The heights which Hinduism has (scaled) in the Upanishads, Vedas, Bhagavad Gita have not been equalled. We should be proud of that. Please don’t belittle it. We have to understand our own greatness. Our greatness should lead us to be magnanimous. I am a Christian. But I am equally fond of Hinduism. I am trying to study it. You read the works of Dr S Radhakrishnan on Hindu philosophy,” Justice Joseph said.

Justice Joseph noted that in Kerala, some Hindu rajas once donated land for churches. “That is the history of India. Please understand that,” he said. Upadhyay argued that as a result of such largesse, Hindus have been wiped off from many historical places and therefore they are in a minority in many states and districts. 

The bench dismissed the petition with observations underlining the secular nature of the country and the idea of fraternity enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution. “India that is Bharat is a secular country. A country cannot remain a prisoner of the past. India is wedded to the rule of law, secularism, constitutionalism of which Article 14 stands out as the grand guarantee of both equality and fairness in State action. The Founding Fathers contemplated India to be a Republic which is not merely confined to having an elected President which is the conventional understanding but also involves all sections of people; it is a democracy. It is important that the country must move forward. It’s indispensable for achieving the triple goals enshrined in the chapter of Directive Principles of State Policy bearing in mind the Fundamental Rights also.” The bench also noted: “Actions must be taken which infuse all sections of the society together.”

The re-naming trend resurfaced early this January when soon after Republic Day, the Mughal Gardens of Rashtrapati Bhavan were rechristened Amrit Udyan. If one forgets the record setting temperatures and sets out to explore the gardens, all one can see will be flowers, as one gets about the garden laid out in the charbagh pattern of the famed gardens of Persia. It is another matter that the Mughal Gardens have no links with the dynasty that ruled India from 1526 to 1857 and is the subject of so much scorn and hatred in the recent past. These gardens were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the very man whom many despise though he had died long before Lutyens Delhi and its media became troll magnets.

Some Mughal emperors are more hated than others, Aurangzeb the most for his temple destruction and for imposing the jiziya on non-Muslims. The first of the roads to be renamed in Delhi was the Aurangzeb Road, now Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road, named after the former president. There are others on the list too, with Akbar Road and Babar Road being the most prominent.

Competing histories have been emerging from the closet along with the valorization of leaders long forgotten. Our history and their history have been contested from the times of the first NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee when attempts to recast history began. The victory of the Congress-led UPA saw Arjun Singh try to undo some of that damage, but those times are today a distant memory. Now, students across the board have to study history from the perspective of one religion’s acute point of view. The fact that no one has challenged that acute point of view apart from historians tarred with the leftist-Congress-sickular brush speaks of the conscious ignoring of the Right to Speech guaranteed by the Constitution along with reasonable restrictions.

The truth, or what was true for earlier generations, is left for Supreme Court judges to point to while dismissing petitions that seek to make merry in the midst of the dark night which passes for the everyday. But, as the judges noted, all this leaves youngsters, India’s next demographic dividend, chained to the past. 

—The writer is Editor, and

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Amrit UdyanDr APJ Abdul Kalam RoadJustice BV NagarathnaJustice KM JosephRenaming CommissionVikram Kilpady
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