Recently, the District Panchayat of Aligarh has passed a resolution to rename Aligarh as Harigarh, calling it a ‘long-pending demand’. The move has come in continuation of many such successful attempts of renaming of places in the State including renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj, of Faizabad to Ayodhya, among others.

Using names as a tool of political validation is not new to India. Names have been changed in the past, in the ancient, medieval as well as colonial times. In the post-colonial times, renaming had been done with various reasons like in order to rename a place in local language: eg. From Trichinopoly to Tiruchirapalli, from Baroda to Vadodara, from Calcutta to Kolkata etc; or renaming places on the name of Indian leaders: eg. from Curzon Road to Kasturba Gandhi Marg, from Connaught Place to Rajiv Chowk etc.

But of late, the trend is rejuvenated with an intention of silencing a particular period or aspect of history. The recent renaming, especially in Uttar Pradesh, is more of an assertion of old, cultural and traditional identities than mere a change in name. Most of the changes are done on the premise of historical legacy and cultural heritage. During his tenure in Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath, the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh changed the names of several places like that from Urdu Bazar to Hindi Bazar, Mian Bazar to Maya Bazar, Humayun Nagar to Hanuman Nagar, Ali Nagar to Arya Nagar, Islampur to Ishwarpur.

Even though many may read it as a small part of BJP’s larger project of pushing Hindi at various levels, such changes suggest even more. As can be observed, there is a conspicuous communal overtone in the renaming process with an intent of de-islamization of a cultural past of a particular place. Also, these names represent a change from Urdu language to Hindi language and since both these are variants of Hindustani, the intent behind the change is essentially cultural and ethno-religious rather than just a linguistic one.

“What’s in a name. A rose with another name would smell as sweet,” exclaims William Shakespeare. But Adityanath, when being asked about the renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj, replied, “People said what is there in the name. So, I said why didn`t their parents name them as `Raavan` and `Duryodhan` in that case. In this country, the name holds a lot of significance.” The importance that has been attached to a name and the amount of symbolism it can add to any cultural discourse, is quite evident in his response.

This also brings an unprecedented sense of consciousness to people, which threatens the secular fabric. For example, a person raised in Allahabad or Ahmedabad would never have consciously realised in his whole life that his place has an Islamic name because the name must have been so much imbibed in his/her sub-consciousness that etymology fails to play. But when the etymology of a name is questioned and emphasized time and again, like in the case of what has been of late happening in India, one consciously gets aware of the name and its origins, and thus come into picture polarization and binary. Ahmedabad, for me, had always been the land of Gandhi, until the thought that ‘Ahmedabad’ was derived from ‘Ahmed’ and that it needed to be changed, was deliberately implanted in my mind by the cultural chauvinists. This is how nationalism and communalism come into a dialectical and antonymic relationship, and the outcomes are insecurity, disharmony and divergence in society.

The profound argument given by right-wing factions is that these historically important places were captured and renamed by Mughals who were invaders, so renaming to their old name is tantamount to revisiting our glorious ancient tradition. To quote Sudesh Verma, the national spokesperson for the BJP, “India, which was subjugated twice — first by the Mughals and second by the British — must rediscover its soul. Name change is one way of remembering our past glory. Prayagraj or Ayodhya sounds more cultural than Allahabad or Faizabad respectively,”

However, it’s not just an issue of the change in the name of a particular place, it’s the question of a community’s existence and their history in India. This affects not only India’s Islamic history but also acts as a wedge in the plural society in the name of religion. With a name, there is history associated. When it is changed, the historicity gets tampered. State’s push for silencing a particular aspect of history is quite problematic. According to Ranajit Guha, a subaltern historian, “the common sense of history may be said generally to be guided by a sort of statism which thematizes and evaluates the past for it.” So, the statist perspective is aiming at modification of how people see history.

BJP’s Push to cultural nationalism is not a new phenomenon at all. In fact, cultural nationalism is one of the foundations on which the party is based. It is one of the ideologies which has helped it come to power. But what is significant is that cultural nationalism should not transform into cultural chauvinism. The narrative of ‘revisiting the glorious ancient past’ by the means of de-islamicizing historicity is against the democratic fabric of India and this, in the longer run, may prove to be a divisive step and may end up further instilling insecurity in the minds of the minority community. What we need prior to cultural nationalism is a sense of genuine, constitutional patriotism – respect for all religions, languages, ethnicities, communities and humanity. What is required is a vision of shared prosperity and harmony marked by Nehruvian’s idea of syncretism.

Akanksha Sharma is a Research Scholar in the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi

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