by Amit Roy
THERE is a lot in a name – especially when it is Havelock.
With a general election due in India in early summer, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has sought to remove traces of colonial history by renaming three islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago.
One of them, Havelock Island, is now Swaraj Dweep.
The island was named after Major- General Sir Henry Havelock, who is considered a hero in Britain and a villain in India for ruthlessly putting down the 1857 sepoy uprising
Modi might find it ironic that Europe’s biggest gurdwara, the Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Southall in west London, stands on Havelock Road, named after the same gent.
When I asked Himmat Singh Sohi, a former president of the gurdwara, whether he would like to follow Modi’s example, he seemed relaxed about the name Havelock. “Most of
our people don’t know too much about Havelock,” he said. “If we want to change the name, we would have to talk to the council.”
I also consulted Virendra Sharma, the Labour MP for Ealing Southall, who said he considered Havelock’s record in India as “obscene”. Sharma revealed that he did once try to have the name changed – perhaps to that of a local worthy – when he was an Ealing borough councillor.
“That was 16 years ago, but I got nowhere,” he recalled.
Havelock would have approved of the robust strategy the gurdwara adopted back in 2011 when Britain was burning and looters were ransacking high-value shops in London and other cities. Sikhs, equipped with sticks, baseball bats and ceremonial swords, stood guard in the gurdwara, ready to deploy if the looters ventured into Southall – which, very wisely, they didn’t.
I remember rushing to Southall at the time, to be told by a quietly confident Sohi: “Even if there had been 200 of them, we had 1,000.”
Havelock lives on, by the way, through statues – one of which is in Trafalgar Square – and lots of pubs and public spaces named after him in the UK and other countries.
Unlike India, Britain does not go in much for renaming reminders of the past. This is mainly because the past is full of military men who ensured the sun did not set on the British empire. The Brexiteers want a return to the sunlit landscape of “Empire 2.0”.