Are the residents of a city expected to dissociate themselves from their personal connection with a city and its name?
“Ayodhya is a symbol of our aan, baan aur shaan,” said Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mr. Adityanath recently when he announced the decision to rename Faizabad to Ayodhya. You’ve got to start with the basics – whose aan baan and shaan, Yogiji? The nation wants to know.
Mughalsarai train station is now Pt. Deen Dayal Upadhyay station. Allahabad is Prayagraj. In 1998, he went on a renaming spree in his constituency of Gorakhpur. The former head of the Gorakhnath Temple took his naamkaran duties more diligently than the duties he was elected to perform – Ali Nagar became Arya Nagar, Humayun Nagar was made to take a leap of faith to Hanuman Nagar, Islampur was christened Ishwarpur, and Urdu Bazaar went from left to right as Hindi Bazar.
Recently, the branding maestro proclaimed that if required he would not hesitate to change Taj Mahal to Ram Mahal. (One is certain he meant Ram Mandir, but one is getting ahead of oneself.) Mr Adityanath has even gone where Ambedkar has been – a first for the man, we are certain – the Constitution of India! He has proposed that Article 1 of the Constitution be amended to replace the word India with ‘Hindustan’.
‘Thugs of Hindustan,’ out and about, wanting to guide you along and drop a pin on every map there is of the country. (We mean the film, naturally. Have you seen it yet?)
Raam Raam! (Which by the way is what Adityanath wants to call the airport in Ayodhya – smooth landings ahead for the Pushpak Vimaan. Naturally, Air Traffic Control will have to relax their No Birds rule – where will Garuda land?! Duh.)
Move over Vilas Shekharpur (that’s Yogi for William Shakespeare), there’s a lot in a name. And that’s we will get into on this edition of Digging Deeper. My name is Rakesh (Adityanath approves, I have a feeling), and you are listening to Moneycontrol.
“It ain't what they call you, it's what you answer to,” said American actor William Claude Dukenfield. Name-calling often has to do with bullying and an attempt to appropriate or harm the self-image and agency of another person. (Crooked Hillary, anyone? Lyin’ Ted, anyone? Although we must report that he has now gone to Beautiful Ted.)
But when cities change their names, is it because they want to answer to a new self-image or identity? Or is it because a new identity is imposed upon them?
Scoopwhoop reported in 2014 that more than 100 cities and towns in India have been renamed after independence.
Trichinapoly became Tiruchirapalli.
Baroda became Vadodara.
Trivandrum became Thiruvananthapuram.
Bombay is now Mumbai.
Madras is Chennai.
Cochin is Kochi.
Calcutta is Kolkata.
Pondicherry answers to Puducherry.
Bangalore to Bengaluru, and so on...
There is a lot in a city's name, it seems. There is the past, and the present and the future that it wants to walk towards. So when we change the name of a city, do we erase its past, tamper with how it views itself in the present, and coerce future generations to acknowledge just one of its identities instead of many?
But first let us explore the impulses behind why we do it. Okay, not we... but the powers that be. And what is achieved or not by doing so.
A futile exercise?
Many cities in the past have been renamed in an attempt to sever them from their colonial past. Rajkamal Rao wrote in The Hindu, in May this year, to ask just what the gains of changing the names of cities are. He wrote, "Has it improved investments, living standards?
It has been 23 years since politicians changed the name of the erstwhile city of Madras to Chennai but the venerable Madras High Court has proudly held on to its old name. IIT Madras has also flourished just fine, thank you very much. And years after the Mumbai and Bengaluru name changes went into effect, IIT Bombay and IIM Bangalore retain their colonial names. Meanwhile, the world still transacts with the Bombay Stock Exchange just as it refers to Bollywood (and not Mollywood)."
The writer who is the Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, Texas, knows a thing or two about branding and emphasised that just as the name and logo of a company identify a product, in the case of a city, a name connotes a place like no other. And this unique identity may in the present have little to do with its past.
He cites the example of IBM or International Business Machines Corporation which has held on to its name for 94 years, although its core business has shifted gears, from machines to software and services. General Electric (GE) derives only a small part of its revenue from making electric machines. Identities, he says, don't change because a few product lines have changed.
But then, we are not taking about products, are we? We are talking about cities. And do they benefit from a name change?
The writer seems to think not. "In a global economy, changing names after they have gained universal recognition sows confusion. Many places recognise and respect this fact and have maintained dual identities for centuries — one, in the language of their peoples and another, which is directed at a global audience. This is why, we visit Rome although locals call it Roma. Or we do business in Germany although Germans call it Deutschland.
What good did these city name changes accomplish? Do residents of these regions feel any prouder of their localities now than before? Have they been able to shed their colonial past and reclaim their native glory? Have the changes resulted in better investment opportunities, infrastructure or living standards?"
The answer to most of these questions is, obviously not.
Add to this wasteful exercise, the expenditure of rebranding an entire city complete with its highway traffic signs, railway signage and paperwork across the country including government and business stationery and still the question remains.
Can a city change its identity as easily as its name?
When the "French Riviera of the East" dropped its Francophile name, Pondicherry, for Puducherry, did it also shed its deep ties with all things French? Panaji dissociated from its Portuguese name Panjim in the 1960s but can Goa disown its history and its influences on its present? Whether we squabble about Ootacamund or Udhagamandalam, the fact remains that to a vast majority of residents and tourists, Ooty is still, well...just Ooty.
There is also the thing about how the residents of a city view themselves. How are they As Scoopwhoop wrote, “When people we know change their names, it is often difficult to adapt. But when cities change names, they change their peoples' identities.”
But we are not alone in this name altering fetish
Many famous cities around the world have adopted new names for multiple reasons. Ho Chi Minh City was formerly known as Saigon. Istanbul was Constantinople, and the change inspired even a witty song called "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" in 1953. The song was also featured in the Julia Roberts starrer Monalisa Smile and even had a line that went,
"Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way."
Moving on from the song, Oslo was known as Kristiania, Toronto was York, and so on.
In many cases, the changing of the name of a city is an attempt to erase its origins. And erasures can be dangerous things because they make way for convenient appropriation of history and names that have little or no connection with a city's past.
The politics of identity
Take the case of Mughalsarai, a town and a municipal board in the Chandauli district of Uttar Pradesh and an important railway junction in Uttar Pradesh. Yes, the station that was known once as the Mughalsarai Junction and is now known as Pt. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction.
Mughalsarai was located along the Grand Trunk Road, or as Sher Shah Suri called it Sadak-e-Azam. This road was one of the corridors connecting North India with the east during the Mughal period. Google a bit and you will find that in the past, Mughalsarai has been known as Mughalchak, Mangalpur and even Oven Nagar.
The most important point in this story is that the township was named Mughalsarai when Indian railways established a junction here in 1883. The name was an organic, Indian offshoot that connected a place to its past, and Indian railways had a big part in perpetuating it.
But what did Pt. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya have to do with the township or the junction?
Nothing at all.
He was an RSS thinker and co-founder of the political party Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the forerunner of Bharatiya Janata Party, yes, the party in power in Uttar Pradesh right now. Upadhyaya played no role in the history of the city or for that matter in India's independence from its colonial past. He was, and is, emblematic of a political ideology, and to name a historic junction after him sets a dangerous precedent.
Absolutism is dangerous because it excludes
To take a poetic reference, poet Imtiaz Dharkar once wrote a book called ‘The Terrorist At My Table,’ where she wrote about stockpile of prejudices, about the perishability of culture and all its delicate nuances under the hammer of absolutism and terrorism, both State-sponsored and individual. It is about what happens when the dots become more important than the big picture.
She said once in an interview, “We are stronger when we open our doors to different people, cultures, ideas and when we feel confident enough as a nation and a culture to give freedom to different viewpoints.’’
The question is this, when we rename cities, do we demonstrate confidence in our identity or do we adhere to a limited view that excludes key components of our collective identity?
A political ploy?
The Gujarat government said this week that that it was considering renaming Ahmedabad as Karnavati. That this idea has been floated before the Lok Sabha elections may just be a coincidence, but there is no doubt that identity politics play a big part in gaining, controlling, and exercising political power, and changing the name of a city is a big part of it.
This intention of course was proclaimed right after the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh announced renaming of Allahabad and Faizabad as Prayagraj and Ayodhya, respectively. Not to be left behind, Shiv Sena lawmaker Sanjay Raut tweeted: “Yogi Adityanath has renamed Allahabad and Faizabad to Prayagaj and Ayodhya. When will CM Devendra Fadnavis rename Aurangabad to Sambhaji Nagar and Osmanabad to Dharashiv Nagar?”
Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said the name Ahmedabad is a "symbol of slavery" and needs to be changed. The same argument was repeated while renaming Allahabad as Prayagraj.
Paramita Ghosh, in an eloquent Hindustan Times piece, debunks this notion via research and the quote of a young student Avinash Kumar, who cites certain chapters of an old colonial-era gazette of Allahabad to establish that Akbar had made Allahabad into a province around 1575 by joining three subahs, and named it Ilahabas.
In Ilahabas, Akbar maintained social, political and religious status quo. Of the 11 forts he built in and around the province to control the economic largesse from the heartland, seven were controlled by the Brahmins; Rajputs, Kayasths and Muslim landholders controlled the rest of them. Avinash says, “So whom did the Mughals deprive or disempower? The British, in fact, razed villages and built a British town. They hung people from the trees, killed pregnant women….”
Interesting, isn't it, that historical oppression by the British is never raised as an issue before a key election?
Let us explore this notion that some names enslave while others empower
If we just talk about Ahmedabad, historically speaking, according to information available in the public domain, while the area around the city has been inhabited since the 11th century, and Karna, the Chalukya ruler of Anhilwara (modern Patan), established a city called Karnavati on the banks of the Sabarmati, it was Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1411 A.D. who chose a forested area the banks of Sabarmati for a new capital city. It was he who laid the foundation of a new walled city near Karnavati and named it Ahmedabad.
Dynasties came and went but Ahmedabad remained the provincial headquarters of the Mughals until 1753, when they surrendered the city to the Marathas.
In 1818, the city came under the rule of the British East India Company.
When the British left India in 1947, all traces of colonial rule or enslavement went with them but to say that Ahmedabad is a symbol of our slavery, and Karnavati represents our pride, self-respect, culture and autonomy, means that we are disowning once again the origin of a city, and connecting it to an "us vs them" narrative that erodes the inclusive, strong, and quintessentially Indian identity, where the sum includes its parts and does not exclude them at convenience.
Whose cities are these anyway?
Vikas Pandey wrote for the BBC a poignant piece about the sense of loss he experienced when Allahabad was renamed as Prayagraj in order to limit its identity to just a major Hindu pilgrimage centre. In complete disregard of the fact that in India, it is possible for a city to be both a major Hindu pilgrimage centre and to have a Mughal emperor as its founding father and both identities can co-exist without being severed from each other.
He writes, "BJP leaders have taken issue with the fact that the city's 435-year-old name was given by a Muslim ruler. It was an administrative, military and cultural centre for the Mughal Empire, which ruled most of India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries.
This legacy continued during British colonial rule, and after independence in 1947, the city remained a major political and cultural hub in northern India. It still plays a big role in the Hindu faith. It hosts the Kumbh Mela every 12 years near the confluence of two holy rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna. The event, which attracts tens of millions of devotees, is often described as the world's largest religious gathering."
The unsaid point here is that it is the intermingling of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, the confluence of every diverse stream of culture that makes a city, its people and by default a country whole. There is no integration in isolation.
As Vikas says, "Allahabad's history is shared by Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike.
And every corner of the city has its own share of history: from Anand Bhawan, the home of Nehru; to Sangam, the confluence of the two rivers; to the giant fort built by Akbar, which prevented flooding and helped attract people to settle in the city."
The premise that history can be somehow rephrased and "corrected" is toxic because nothing can change what happened, though we may rewrite a version that is politically convenient and profitable. The attempt to appropriate Taj Mahal as Tejo Mahalya was another example of the urge to delete the identity of a world-famous monument named after a beloved Mughal queen.
The claim that it was Akbar who changed Prayagraj's name to Illahabad in 1583 too is questionable according to historians. Vikas quotes Professor NR Farooqui, former vice-chancellor of Allahabad University, who says that several historical documents and books prove that Prayagraj was a well-known pilgrimage destination but was never a city.
It was Akbar who laid the foundation of a new city in 1574 and named it Ilahabas. He built a massive fort and used it as an administrative and military centre to rule northern India, says the Professor and adds that the next generation of Mughal rulers started calling it Illahabad, and finally, the British started calling it "Allahabad" for ease of pronunciation.
From a Mughal power centre, it became a buzzing hub during India's freedom movement due to the presence of Jawahar Lal Nehru's house, Anand Bhavan. Subsequently, many prominent Hindi writers, politicians, actors, scientists and civil servants from the city went on to become legends in their fields. And called themselves proud Allahbadis, including Amitabh Bachchan. And poet Akbar Allahabadi.
As an academician posted in the piece says, "It's amazing that such a small city gave so many legends to the country. It didn't matter whether an achiever from the city was Hindu or Muslim - it celebrated everybody."
There are more anguished voices. Skand Shukla, a state government officer, says in the Hindustan Times piece, “Prayagraj evokes only one aspect of the city’s spirit that is mythical and religious. Allahabad brings forth a picture of the area’s political, historical, legal, literary and religious vastness.”
Paramita indicates that beyond its religious or historical identities, Allahabad is the quintessential city of Nehruvian liberal modernity but it has also yielded space to Lohiaiite socialism and then its offshoots, Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party. It has also been a centre of RSS politics; Rajendra Singh or Rajju Bhaiyya, the fourth RSS head, and its first north Indian sarsanghchalak, was a professor of physics at Allahabad University.
Allahabad is, and has always been, a vibrant, multi-faceted city with many identities. Conservative, liberal, romantic, realist, progressive and modernist voices alike have debated Hindi and Urdu literature, national politics and a composite selfhood, in the realm that is Allahabad.
The divisions are inorganic, and according to Urdu critic and novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, they were initiated by artificially dividing a language into Hindi and Urdu on the basis of two scripts – Nagari and Perso-Arabic – and two vocabularies, suggesting that one was exclusive to the Hindus and the other to the Muslims.
It is important to note here that Premchand who fathered realism and progressivism in Hindi literature, also settled in Allahabad and made seminal contributions in shaping the modern Hindi literary discourse. But he too had an abiding love for Urdu and saw the two languages as sisters.
For many, as the piece says, the renaming of cities is a kind of symbolic gratification which is in a way futile because real change in the social balance of power will require more than a change of signage. The renaming of places assumes a special significance in a country like ours. Our landscape contains diversity that needs representation, yes, even at a nominal level.The critical issues in Uttar Pradesh it seems are not connected to law and disorder, spiralling infant mortality rates, railway infrastructure post a series of accidents, mob and gender violence or unemployment. They most important preoccupations seems to be finding cities that can be renamed.