Op-Ed: Indian Voters Must See Through The Politics of ‘Name Change’

A few days ago, I was puzzled to see the city I have always known as Ahmedabad spelt as Amdavad somewhere. “It must have been a printing mistake,” I told myself. When I saw the same ‘printing error’ a second time – and then a third – a few days later, doubt set in. A little search on the internet revealed that not only has the city set up by Ahmed Shah already been renamed Amdavad by the Amdavad Municipal Corporation, but Ahmed Shah has also been divested of credit as the founder of the city. And now one hears that Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has announced that the city would be rechristened named as Karnavati – as the city set up by King Karan Dev 1 in the 11th century! Quick to take the cue, the Shiv Sena revived its old demand for renaming Aurangabad and Osmanabad in neighbouring Maharashtra as Shambhaji Nagar and Dharashiv Nagar respectively.

It all began with the renaming of Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi as Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Road in September, 2015, barely weeks after the death of the ‘People’s President’. Since then, Mughalsarai railway station, one of the major junctions in the country, has been renamed Padit Deendayal Upadhyay junction; Allahabad as Prayagraj. Next in line are Faizabad as Ayodhya and Agra as Agravan. As the 2019 elections near, the renaming exercise appears to have reached fever pitch.

Renaming of roads, cities and states is not exactly unknown in India. It happens all the time and in the rule of all parties. The Congress, which ruled the country (and most states) for a number of years since independence, naturally has to its credit the maximum name changes – a majority of them named after a member of the Gandhi dynasty. Bombay was renamed as Mumbai, Madras as Chennai, Calcutta as Kolkata and so on. Closer home, Orissa was renamed Odisha at the initiative of the Naveen Patnaik government in 2011. In most cases, it was either an attempt to correct anomalies brought in during the long British rule or an exercise in reasserting regional pride – except, of course, the changes that brought in the Nehru/Gandhi name.

“So, what’s new”, one may ask. What stands out in the flurry of name changes initiated under the BJP regime at the Centre and in various states is that they are motivated by a desire to remove the last vestiges of Muslim rule in the names of places from people’s mind. Justifying his demand for the renaming of what used to be Aurangzeb Road earlier as Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, BJP MP from East Delhi Mahesh Giri had said Aurangzeb was a despot. But then so were numerous Hindu kings, weren’t ehty? So why not erase their names from the pages of history as well, like some characters in George Orwell’s timeless classic 1984 were? One may also point to the fact that one Muslim name was replaced with another and ask why should it be seen as an exercise in obliterating Muslim names from our landmarks? The truth is the ‘people’s president’ was chosen by the BJP government for this honour for the same reason that prompted his nomination to the highest office in the country. Kalam, after all, was not a ‘practising’, Muslim, had learnt Sanskrit, read the Bhagvad Gita, played the veena, believed in a syncretic culture and thus had all the attributes that a ‘virtuous’ Hindu supposedly possesses!

It’s not the name change as such, but the motivation behind the change that is problematic. During their long rule, the Britishers, unfamiliar with Indian names, changed the names of many places as per their convenience. Thus, Kolkata became Calcutta, Mumbai ‘Bombay’, Kanpur ‘Cawnpore’ and so on. In our very own Odisha, Odisha was spelt as Orissa till recently, Katak as ‘Cuttack’, Brahmapur as Berhampur and Ali as Aul. These anomalies needed to be corrected simply because they made a mockery of the original names of places. But when change is motivated by religious bigotry, one must see red. It is preposterous to find that those who lionize Nathuram Godse, the killer of the Father of the Nation, and have even built a temple in his honour, cannot countenance a Muslim ruler’s name allegedly because he was a Hindu baiter.

In its determination to resurrect the alleged Indian identity, the saffron brigade is unwittingly killing everything that distinguishes that identity; a respect for all religions and views, tolerance for all views, an inclusive worldview (‘Vasudhaiba Kutumbakam’) and a desire to assimilate the best of ‘phoren’ culture.

One doesn’t have to be quantum physicist to understand why the ‘name change game’ is gathering momentum now. In the absence of much to show in its report card over the last four and half years, the Modi government has clearly embarked on whipping up religious frenzy, regional pride and other intangibles. Having seen the promise of ‘development, development, development’ fall flat on its face during this period, the Indian voter must see through this cynical political design.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)