'Game-changers' to name-changers

The right wing wants the nation to believe that the name-changing spree is a matter of identity and national pride

When you cannot change the game, get into changing the name, change the goal-post. So seems the recent spate of several city names being changed in Hindi heartland, more particularly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, some six months ahead of the next general elections.

BJP's recent name changing tactics have not only stirred a debate but also have raised questions about the motive behind the process. Some say it is an attempt to rewrite history to extend the party's cultural influence, others say it is a diversion or distraction tactics when there is not much 'achhe din' or good days to show on the economy front. But, what does history show about the cosmetic process of renaming towns and cities which has been attempted by erstwhile Congress and some regional party governments also in the past?

The BJP painted the state of UP with the name-changing brush for quite a few months now. Mugalsarai has become the long tongue-twister Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay Railway station. Allahabad has become Prayagraj. Faizabad district has been renamed as Sri Ayodhya, whereas Ayodhya town exists as a twin town of Faizabad within the district. And there are talks to change names of Aurangabad (to Sambhajinagar), Ahmedabad (to Karnavati), Hyderabad (to Harinagar), Osmanabad (to Dharashiv), et al.

The BJP's name-changing spree's next pit-stop could be the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Striking while the iron is hot, freedom icon Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's nephew Chandra Kumar Bose, who is also the BJP Vice President of West Bengal, has written to the Prime Minister asking for the name of Andaman and Nicobar to be changed to Shaheed and Swaraj islands. This, however, has a rationale, being proposed by Netaji himself and the cellular jail being in Andaman, the British rulers used the islands to punish or banish freedom fighters. Netaji had hoisted the national flag at Andaman and Nicobar capital Port Blair on December 30, 1943, thus laying the foundation stone of the Azad Hind government.

Ironically, while there is no East Bengal existing today as during the partition of India, and that land mass is now known as Bangladesh, West Bengal still exists and Chandra Bose supports its continuation, whereas the people here and the elected government of Mamata Banerjee have proposed the name Bangla for this province, long back, the decision being kept in limbo by the Modi government.

The spate of the current name changes is obviously targeted towards Muslim sounding names largely, making it a communally coloured administrative measure, in a haphazard manner, with no policy made and neither any institutional structure created for the same.

It must be noted that such name changes were affected by Congress and the regional party led governments earlier too, and mention can be made to Bangalore being Bengaluru, Pondicherry being Puducherry, Calcutta being Kolkata, Bombay being Mumbai, Benaras being Varanasi, Madras being Chennai, and many more.

So while this renaming of places is not new and successive governments have done this for popular reasons and electoral gains, their rationale, more often than not, has been to reflect the true history and culture of these towns and cities. The earlier names were given by the British colonial rulers, to suit their accent, being tough for Indians to pronounce and not reflecting the mood and culture of these places. So, as an anti-colonial measure, these names were changed, though we can debate on this too.

But has Calcutta's identity changed after being called Kolkata? Or is Mumbai different from Bombay? And will Andaman and Nicobar islands be any different with the new name Shaheed & Swaraj islands? However, these are the colonial remnants of the past and no large mass of people really identify with these names emotionally.

The justification of the name changes by BJP is that the proposed names are closer to the history of India, and to eradicate the oppressive Mughal rulers and Muslim invaders. This is a question of identity and national pride, the right wing wants the nation to believe.

Some questions hence. If it is about identity only, which one shall we use to replace Patna: Patna Sahib or Pataliputra or Bankipura, all of whom are about some identity or the other? Why is then, West Bengal (a British name and at a historical context) not being changed to Bangla? Why are such names being taken up which sound like Muslim names? Are these not anti-assimilation, non-secular, and diversionary in nature when the national focus needs to be firmly on progress in economy and diversity in culture?

India has been a multicultural multi-linguistic nation. It is also home to the second largest Muslim population of the world, numbering more than 250 million, larger than total Muslim populations of most Muslim nations. Can we deny the Muslims their right to be recognised and assimilated in their nation of birth? Shall we change names of all that is a Muslim heritage from Taj Mahal to Red Fort, from Biryani to Kathak, names of several ragas in music to dresses like Sherwani?

And is the Aryan identity being sought the only aboriginal identity of the land-mass that makes India today? It was largely land of Dravidians and tribal populations, and Aryans came from Central Asia. Many names, cultures, practices, cuisine and dress habits have been altered and evolved after Aryan settlements.

And in the same vein, the advent of the Muslims has brought in new cultural traits and heritage in every sphere of medieval Indian life. Just as Hindu rulers and religious leaders demolished Buddhist Stupas (Shankaracharya significantly), many Muslim rulers damaged earlier Hindu heritage. But Muslim rulers erected monuments like Qutub Minar and roads like GT Road, while Muslim societies evolved music, attire, cuisine, dances, art, and literature all of which have enriched the India of today - of which names of places is one such heritage.

Changing names indiscriminately six months before the elections with prices rising, rupee value falling, jobs missing, and promises of development vanishing, can only mean that the ruling party wants to shift the goal-posts from 'game-changing' measures like demonetisation, every altering GST regime, digital and stand-up India, all of which have no great news to show with the growth-rate falling from 2012-13 rates, to emotive issues like communal name-changing, Ayodhya intervention by the ordinance or the legislative act route, negation of adhering to Supreme Court verdict in Sabarimala case, etc.

Once upon a time, Aryan supremacy-intoxicated Nazi Germany under Hitler demonised the Jews, demolished all their contributions to the German society, changed all symbols and names attributed to Jewish legacy, and led first, to a cultural genocide and later, a holocaust. Do we walk that path today replacing Jews with Muslims? Does it unite the nation and lead it to economic development which needs social cohesion, or is it damaging our social fabric, the Ganga-Jamuna synthetic multi-cultural multi-linguistic nature of India?

And, then, in an age of science and rationality, we are eulogising myths through the name changes. Haryanvi sounding rustic ethnic Gurgaon has been changed for a chaste mythological Gurugram on the pretext that this was the village of Guru Dronacharya whose best-known contribution was to protect Kshatriya student Arjun and force Dalit disciple Eklavya, a better archer than Arjun, to cut off his thumb as guru-dakshina. Hindi poet Bodhisattva has written that there is no historical evidence of Prayagraj name, and Prayag and Sangam names have been always there along with Allahabad as additional spaces. Allahabad has been in existence for more than four centuries with synthetic culture and a revered city hosting the Kumbh Mela, the revered festival of the Hindu community. What is then the need to change its name and drive a wedge between the communities?

Has the government even thought of the costs of renaming and rebranding so many cities in one go? Is the cheerless monochromatic culture of majoritarianism reflected in such a policy of any worth in the 21st century of global citizenship, secular polity, economic and technology development, and scientific temper?

And this politics of polarisation finally will reach to change the name of the Indian capital, Delhi to Indraprasth, and to change India, that is Bharat, to Hindudesh, which was suggested by Jay Dubashi in RSS mouthpiece, The Organiser. That shall be the end of India and the spirit of the Indian Constitution as we know them to be.

(The author is a media academic, currently Dean, School of Media, Pearl Academy. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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