One can ride a train on Calcutta’s metro railway and not know where exactly one is going. The names of the railway stations are not what the places in the city are called. It is not easy for all to remember at all times that Tollygunge sits above the station named Mahanayak Uttam Kumar or that Kavi Nazrul is where one gets down in order to come up at Garia. If that sounds pretty confusing, it is part of Mamata Banerjee’s legacy as railway minister. The new names of metro railway stations were the first hint of how she wanted to change things in West Bengal. The old, familiar place names apparently did not do enough for her political purposes. Renaming them after great men from the past or modern-day celebrities was the stuff of her populist politics. True, she was not the first to change place or street names in Calcutta. Neither would she be the last. The leftist regime had revelled in the name-changing game for years. Changing names is often a marker of changing times. If independent India changed plenty of place and street names bearing associations of colonial rule, it was part of the country’s new history. It was perfectly understandable if the new names were after national heroes and other symbols. However, what Ms Banerjee did with the names of metro railway stations was entirely different. It had nothing to do with history, geography or even common sense; it was a brazen political stunt.
Adhir Chowdhury, the new minister of state for railways, has his chance of cleaning up the mess. No great harm would be done to Bengal’s cultural heritage if the names of the great men are dropped and old place names are restored to the metro stations. Place names such as Tollygunge and Kalighat have historical associations that any city would like to preserve. Mr Chowdhury seemed to have got it right when he retained the place name for a new metro station. His views on retaining place names make eminent sense. But he is apparently unsure if he should be bold enough to drop the names of famous men with which Ms Banerjee sought to gain political mileage. Mr Chowdhury’s half-hearted move is both inadequate and unnecessary. There are many other ways in which Bengal can remember its poets, political icons and other heroes. Retaining place names is a sensible way of preserving history.