What’s in a name? – Syed Ali Zafar


Why this furious debate on change of name of Lahore’s Nicholson Road to Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan Road? As Shakespeare says “what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

People ask, “is all this name changing and statue destroying much to do about nothing. Does it fix past injustice or get over our colonial past?”

But the fact is that street names do matter and their power on peoples’ psyche cannot be underestimated. Names of places become part not only of the language, culture and ethos of a city but also the nation’s soul. Darran Anderson, author of ‘Imaginary Cities’, says that “Once you decide to name a street after a person or an event, you’ve started something intrinsically political and subjective.”

In history, street names have been used to reinforce colonist narratives or to erase local history by dictators and elected persons alike. The Spanish dictator, Franco, named Madrid’s streets not only after himself but even his slogans (Plaza de Arriba Espana was named after Franco’s salute which meant ‘Onwards Spain’). Till today, the Spanish government is “cleaning up” this legacy. During Communist times, the streets in European countries were renamed after their heroes. Poland has had to deal with revising the names of more than 1500 streets and squares.

One of the most effective ways to indicate to present and future generations that the person is an honourable man and deserving respect is to have a road in his name. One proponent of this was Kitchener, a despicable man, who ensured that many streets in London were named after him and even designed the roads of Khartoum, Sudan’s Capital, in a way that it represented the British flag, with its central road called the Victoria Avenue.

Serbia is a classic example. Originally, streets were in the names of Ottoman Sultans or the Habsburg Monarchy, then as the influence of the two waned, then after its Royal family and again, when Lenin decided to re-write history, all these roads were renamed after Communist revolutionaries. The US and countries in Africa and Asia have also time and again changed street names to suit their aims.

Interestingly, sometimes changing street names is done for political reasons and to make a point or send a message to enemies. Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric, which caused great outcry amongst the Iranian population. Iran in retaliation decided to change the name of the road on which the Saudi Embassy was located to Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr Street.

Iran had made a similar point when it renamed Churchill Street in Tehran, where the British embassy was housed, as ‘Bobby Saint Street’; Bobby Saint was the hero of the IRA but seen as a criminal by the English. The idea was to embarrass as any correspondence with the embassy would carry the name of Bobby Saint. (The UK Embassy got over this by opening a new entrance in the back street named after Persian poet Ferdausi!)

Iran of course is not alone in such politically motivated change of place names. In the US, a street where the Soviet embassy was located was renamed after Andrei Sakharov, a jailed Soviet dissident, while the road housing the Chinese embassy was named the ‘Liu Xiaobo Plaza’ after the Nobel Prize winner who was imprisoned in China.

Streets are named and monuments put up to commemorate the achievements of famous heroes; the purpose is to keep them alive in memory. However, if the person after whom the street is named is responsible for killing or dehumanizing others, this defeats the very purpose and I therefore believe that it is perfectly acceptable to remove such a person’s name or statute. Since Nicholson was recognized in history as a bully and racist, unforgiving of local people, the change of the name of Nicholson Street is necessary.

However, the criticism that by renaming places one is erasing history is a powerful one.

Darran Anderson while talking about change of street names says that “When we fail to look at what existed previously and why, we rob ourselves of context and roots.” Stressing the importance of not burying or denying the past, he says that “Any psychologist will tell you this is a very unwise proposition, and that works for nations as well as individuals. Change is welcome by all means but an understanding of why it is necessary and what came before is also essential. Our lives and lives of our cities operate in time and space and it is important to acknowledge that. We are who we are because, and in spite, of where we’ve come from.”

Is there a balance in which we do not commemorate criminals but yet preserve history?

I think the best compromise in such cases is to rename the street, but also give details of what the street was formerly called. For example in Amsterdam one can find, beneath a new street name, a sign giving the street’s former name as well. This ensures that while the historical fact remains intact, it is indicated to the future generations that the person after whom the street was originally named, was an offender, and that his name was therefore removed to commemorate a great man instead.

But it seems that one does not always have to change colonial street names. I read somewhere that there was a proposal to change the name of Napier Road in Karachi because it was named after another racist colonist Charles Napier, the first British governor of Sindh, but this was rejected because, as the story goes, it was felt that the name of Napier Road should stay as it is – owing to its affinity with the Karachi’s red-light area, which should not be associated with great Pakistanis.

In the end may I say that Pakistan is full of cities, towns and even villages named after people, famous and infamous, heroes, lovers and concubines. Lahore and other cultural cities are not ordered from above and cannot be purely ‘Pakistani’ because there is no original point as such in the life of a nation. When we go about deleting places’ names, we should always keep the balance between history and change.

The writer is a Supreme Court advocate, former federal minister for law and former president of the SCBA.