History or Politics, What’s the Real Reason for Changing City Names?


History or Politics, What’s the Real Reason for Changing City Names?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

If Shakespeare thought like the Indian government, he’d have never written the immortal words “what’s in a name?” For the BJP, names of cities and monuments are of utmost importance, almost as vital to our nation’s welfare as making sure cows are better protected than humans. Allahabad has had its name changed to Prayagraj, Faizabad has become Ayodhya, and Ahmedabad might soon be known as Karnavati. We’ve all heard the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but the Centre and state governments seem to be going a step further and following a policy of “if it’s broken, just call it something else.”

Apologies to the residents of the three cities for suggesting that their hometowns are “broken”. They might be wonderful, warm, and welcoming places to live, but to those who think the Taj Mahal should be renamed Tejo Mahalaya, there is a fundamental flaw in their nomenclature. The problem is that the cities’ names didn’t sound Hindu enough, or rather, sounded too Islamic. Never mind that thousands of Indian Muslims reside in each of those cities, or that those Muslims’ roots to the region can be traced back centuries, having names that point to India’s real history is an embarrassment to those who wish to rewrite the past.

The fact that Muslims have been living in India since as far back as 692 AD at least is an inconvenient truth for the Hindutva agenda, an agenda that the BJP tacitly leans on when their tall talk of development and vikas fails to yield tangible results. They can’t change the fact that some of the greatest monarchs in India’s history were Muslim by faith, so they turn to calling rulers like Akbar and Shah Jahan invaders and foreigners in an attempt to erase their contributions to Indian culture. Their dream of a Hindu Rashtra has no room for towns named after Islamic kings, so the names have to go.

However, to pin the blame for the name changes solely on an anti-Muslim bias would be to miss the woods for the trees.

The name changes we are seeing across the country are not just an act of erasure of history, but also an attempt at replacement.

Different regimes leave behind differing legacies. Nehru’s was the Five Year Plans, Indira’s was the Emergency; the current government will be remembered in the future by the new names it gave our cities and the new notes it put in our wallets. Which reminds me, our ministers are all too happy to crow about what a great achievement renaming a city is, but nobody wants to mention demonetisation, two years after it was supposed to end the scourge of black money in this country. Another supposed miracle fix to our still-developing economy was the introduction of GST, but even that didn’t prove to be the crowd-pleaser the government thought it would be. Even its new method of calculating GDP, introduced three years ago, through which the BJP government claimed positive growth, became a thorn in their side. On Monday, a press conference to share details about previous years’ GDP using this methodology was cancelled, perhaps because the figures also showed the previous UPA regime doing better than the current government.  

Running out of time before next year’s election, renaming cities and building extravagant statues feels like a relatively low-risk, high-reward approach to leaving a lasting impact. Remember the policy “If it’s broken, just call it something else”?

Given how much media coverage the name changes have attracted already, expect this to become a viable political strategy going forward into 2019. Sambit Patra has already threatened an AIMIM spokesperson on television with renaming mosques after Hindu gods, so clearly this idea has already taken root in the minds of those in the establishment. In the future, we might see Hyderabad renamed as Andhrapur, Aurangabad referred to as Santranagar, and witness biryani suffer the indignity of being called non-veg pulao.

The name changes we are seeing across the country are not just an act of erasure of history, but also an attempt at replacement.

When Bombay’s name was changed to Mumbai in 1995, citizens took their time to adjust. While there will always be those who remember the city as Bombay, but younger people, especially those born after the name change, think nothing of saying they’re from Mumbai. Similarly, though there might be a hue and cry over the current round of name changes, with enough time Prayagraj, Ayodhya, Karnavati, and whatever else our politicians can come up with will sink into the public consciousness, and these new names will become a lasting legacy of this government.

The Bard wrote Romeo and Juliet, with the famous line – “what’s in a name?” – in 1597, a year when Akbar was sitting on the throne in Delhi. Clearly, in the centuries since then, that line has lost its weight. Because today, names matter much more than history.