What’s in a name ?

Photo : dnaindia.com

A political war has erupted within the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Agadhi in Maharashtra over changing the name of Aurangabad to Sambhaji Maharaj Nagar. Shiv Sena is in support of the name change and its ally in the government, the Congress party and the NCP referring to their secular roots are opposed to the move. 

If we look at changing the name of the place as a practise then it has been followed for over 1000 years. For instance, if we just refer to the history of Tamil Nadu in the last 2000 years, the numbers of temples, cities and roads which have their names changed are innumerable… even from the Chola period. This is an old tradition where the king renames the temple in his name, the ministers rename the temple in the Kings’ name and roads are renamed after the person who funded it. 

And it is not just an Indian phenomenon. The practise is followed world over.  In South Africa, the port city of Durban, is now also known by its Zulu name eThekwini and Pretoria, also known as Tshwane. Czech Republic is renaming itself Czechia.

Interestingly, the United States has traditionally displayed relatively little zeal about renaming everything in sight. New England, New Hampshire, New York and Boston, for instance, retain the names originally bestowed by the English colonisers. Some little time after the American Revolution, Charles Town in South Carolina was simply shortened to Charleston. The big change was the renaming of Kings’ College, founded by royal charter of King George II of England. It became Columbia University, a name that was supposed to embody the patriotic fervour that had inspired the battle for liberty. But the developing world’s mania for erasing colonial-era names is noticeably absent in North America.

The question that arises is what is it that drives name changes ? Stanford professor Donald Emmerson, who has written extensively on the creation from nothing of a label for a whole region – South East Asia – says that “names are rooted neither in reality nor in custom but express instead the power of the namer”.

Indeed, place names can be an invaluable guide to who’s in charge and how they want a place to see itself and be seen. They reflect the city’s many political, economic, demographic, and cultural transitions and served the purpose of constructing and reconstructing political, ethnic, religious and cultural identity.

But only if the change can be made to stick and is perceived as more than a cosmetic distraction does the exercise become fruitful. In the long term, changing a well-known place name may prove to be a purely symbolic gesture. 

Consider India’s infotech city Bangalore. It was rechristened Bengaluru in 2014 but the change has barely registered in popular discourse. Further back in time, there was the 1996 change of the metropolitan melting pot Bombay to Mumbai, but both names remain in popular use.

The world still uses the old names for Durban and Pretoria – to sell flights, hotels and jobs. Those names remain the dateline for news stories filed by the international media. The rechristening seems an irrelevance even though it arguably speaks to South Africa’s altered political reality. For, Durban was originally called “d’Urban” after the British governor of the Cape Colony, and Pretoria was named after a Boer leader. Their names were ideological tools of colonial possession and it is not outrageous for postcolonial societies to seek to scrub them clean. In post independence India, we followed this exercise for decades. 

But every name change signifies a social, cultural or political struggle for control and is freighted accordingly. Pretoria’s white population has always believed that it is a denial of their history to change the city’s name to that of an 18th century Zulu leader who founded a tribal settlement in the area. Indians who don’t subscribe to the governing Hindu nationalist BJP’s worldview see Gurgaon-to-Gurugram as an atavistic and unnecessary development.

Another aspect to be looked at is who all is involved in this process and how does it work ? The request is sent the home ministry which considers such proposals according to the existing guidelines in consultations with agencies concerned. The home ministry gives its consent to the change of name of any place after taking no-objections from the Ministry of Railways, Department of Posts and Survey of India. 

These organisations have to confirm that there is no such town or village in their records with a name similar to the proposed one. The renaming of a state requires amendment to the constitution but other changes are done by an executive order only. 

So if the government of the day has the requisite strength in the lower house then it can change the names of the places as it pleases. The name change denotes the underlying philosophy and thinking of the ruling dispensation. 

In india, since the coming of the Modi government, what has been visible is that changing of the muslim names and cities to hindu names. This thought finds its premise in the hindutva ideological belief that india has been a slave for the last 1200 years, including the 800 years of Mughal rule. It sees the golden age of the country as before the Mughals who came and robbed india of its glorious past along with the British to follow. 

It runs against the Nehruvian thought of amalgamation where culture is a layered construct of time. Culture evolves over years, absorbing from various social communities that occupy that space, without loosing essence of the layer beneath. It creates a society fabric where the ancient traditions find resonance in modern times across the groups.  

Renaming of a city is not something new. It has happened so many times in India, and right through the ages. Having said that, it is unfortunate that even 70 years after independence, our mind still remains colonised by the white man and we still view our history as distinctly Hindu or Muslim eras, which it was not.

Unless we start earnestly re-looking at our history, without the biases introduced by our colonial masters, these are bound to happen, whether we like it or not.

Whenever a specific political ideology will gain control, it will try to imprint its thought on a space. There is nothing wrong in this. Changes should happen and should be reflective of the times. But when the whole exercise finds little traction amongst the people then it is of little use. 

For example, what does the change from Gurgaon to Gurugram say about 21st-century India? That the Hindu nationalist BJP is in power. Fundamentally though, it alters nothing. Certainly not, as Indian cricketer Gautam Gambhir had written, the reality of “today’s Gurgaon”. Mr Gambhir says that “the place needs local transport, regular water and power supply, affordable housing, waste management and a safe environs for women more than a name change”. 

Giving a place a new name can seem a cheap and easy substitute for real change. Just by changing the name of the place nothing changes, it happened for 2000 years and will happen in the future as well. Instead of just focusing on changing the names, changing the economy, status, productivity to higher side is required at this moment.

It is a lesson from history which all the political parties, across all the states, union territories and the Central government should learn. 


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